In the Name…
I forget who it was who said that everybody is perfect – on their resumes.
It was toward the end of summer in the year 386 A.D. A 32-yr. old lawyer was pacing back and forth in the garden of a rented villa outside Milan, Italy. His name was Augustine and he was experiencing a deep crisis in his life.
Augustine, himself, was a bright fellow and had a good career, but, his personal life was dominated by wine, women and song. He had fathered a son with one of his girlfriends and, while he doted over the boy, he wouldn’t marry the mother. The crisis with which he struggled that day was that she had finally left him and the boy.
Eventually, he stopped pacing and lay down in the grass by a fig tree. As he lay there, with his eyes closed, along with the sound of the wind in the leaves, he could hear some children’s voices in the distance. “Tolle, lege; Tolle, lege” this one voice said over and over again. “Pick it up and read it.” “Pick it up and read it.”
He felt a sudden impulse to get up and, as he looked around the garden, noticed on a bench a book someone had left there. He went over to it and saw it was a copy of the Letters of Paul, one of the Christian authors.
Augustine knew about Paul because he had been raised by a pagan father and Christian mother, but had rejected both parent’s religions and dabbled in all sorts of cults. In any event, he picked it up and the first words he saw were the passage of Romans that was our second lesson, today. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another...not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Years later, after he had become a theologian, a bishop, and a renowned defender of the Christian Faith, Augustine said this was the moment that changed his life and he described it in the detail we just heard.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” St. Paul had a couple things on his mind, here. First, as strange as this may sound, there was a lot of discussion back then as to whether or not Christians should be borrowing or lending money because it was, historically, one of the chief ways that people became slaves. People who couldn’t pay their debts didn’t get a bad credit report; they lost their freedom to the creditors. For a Christian to be in either situation – debtor or creditor – with another Christian was an ethical issue, and St. Paul is taking the position that Christians should stay out of it altogether.
But, more relevant to our context, this passage is a eulogy to love written by the same person who gave us 1 Corinthians 13. Love; not just love for fellow believers, but for all persons with whom we come in contact. Paul emphasizes this by naming some of the Ten Commandments which, he says, are summed up in this one precept – Love your neighbour as yourself – and we know how Jesus liberated the word “neighbour” from its traditional, narrow interpretation.
A word, though, might be in order about the “as yourself” part of the phrase. It is, of course, to be expected that each of us loves ourselves, but it is also true that we do so knowing full well that ourselves are not perfect. We each have many faults, yet that does not stop us from loving ourselves. In the same way, our neighbours have many faults and none of those should stop us from loving them. We don’t have to like our neighbours. Their faults may grate on us mightily. But, we are called to, as Paul goes on to say, do them more than just no harm, even go so far as to do positive good things for them. As we do for our own imperfect selves.
So, loving our neighbour involves some self-awareness and self-honesty.
But, whereas Jesus laid this down as a general precept, for Paul, there is a sense of specific urgency. He agrees that loving is important in its own right, but adds, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
This is a sentence packed with imagery, all focusing on the return of Christ. The “night”, the present age of darkness, sin and sadness is coming to an end and the “light”, the never-ending day of holiness and joy is dawning.
And, this was the part of the passage that struck Augustine the most because he read it with a personal interpretation. Not merely as a reference to a cosmic Christ coming in the distant future to judge and renew the world at the end of time, but as a reference to the day when he himself, Augustine, when his world, his life, his time, would end and he would find himself standing before that self-same Christ. That was what the “moment” meant to him standing in that garden sixteen hundred years ago.
He realized, in that moment, how little love he had shown in his life; to his family, to other people, and to himself. He had made himself the centre of his universe and had lived for pleasure, power and possessions, all of which he had achieved and none of which had satisfied him.
And so, from that moment, he decided to, as Paul had written, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” After a course of instruction, he was baptized, along with his son, by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. His conversion led to those of many of his friends and included his father. For the rest of his life, Augustine lived by the words he read that late summer’s day: Owe no one anything, except to love one another.
May we follow Augustine’s example and live St. Paul’s words. Have only one thought toward our brothers and sisters - for to love them is to love God. If we can do that, then we will have grounds for confidence on the day we stand before the Lord. True, we are not perfect. And when we die, we will still not be perfect. But, Jesus is. And, when we stand before him, he will be looking at us with eyes of compassion and love, delighted that the life of love found an outlet in us – as imperfect as we were.
In the Name…