Christ Calls Us to Live in His Love
Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.
During his general audience on Nov. 26, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of catecheses on St. Paul. He spoke about the consequences deriving from justification by faith and by the action of the Spirit in the lives of Christians.
The first gift of the Spirit is love. Our sharing in the love of Christ leads us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ. It makes us a new creation and a member of his body, the Church. Faith thus works through love.
Justified by the gift of faith in Christ, we are called as individuals and a community to treasure this gift and to let it bear abundant fruit in the Spirit in our lives.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During last Wednesday’s catechesis, I spoke about how man becomes just in God’s eyes. Following St. Paul’s thought, we saw that man is not capable of becoming “just” through his own actions, but becomes “just” in God’s eyes only because God confers his “justice” upon him by uniting him with Christ, his Son. This union with Christ, man attains through faith.
In this sense, St. Paul tells us that it is not our works but our faith that makes us “just.” This faith, however, is not merely some thought, opinion or idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives us as a free gift, and thus, faith becomes life; it becomes conformity with him.
In other words, faith — if it is real and if it is authentic — becomes love, becomes charity, and is expressed through charity. A faith without charity — that is devoid of this fruit — would not be true faith. It would be a dead faith.
Thus, we discovered two different levels during our last catechesis: Our actions, our works are irrelevant to achieving salvation, and it is “justification” through faith that produces the fruit of the Spirit.
Confusing these two levels has caused, down through the centuries, not a few misunderstandings within Christianity.
Faith and Love
In this context, it is important to note that St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians stresses in a rather radical way that justification is, on the one hand, a gift that is freely given and not the result of our own works.
At the same time, though, he also emphasizes the relationship between faith and charity, between faith and works: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Consequently, there are, on the one hand, “works of the flesh,” such as “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry ...” (Galatians 5:19-21). These are works that are contrary to faith.
On the other hand, there is the work of the Holy Spirit that nourishes the lives of Christians by inspiring within them “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). These are the fruits of the Holy Spirit that blossom forth from faith.
Love — agape — is cited at the beginning of this list of virtues, and self-control is at the end. Truly the Spirit, which is the love of the Father and the Son, pours forth its first gift, agape, into our hearts (see Romans 5:5), and agape (love) requires self-control in order to express itself to the fullest.
I wrote about the love of the Father and the Son, which touches us and deeply transforms our lives, in my first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). Believers know that this love of God and Christ through the Spirit is embodied in a love that is mutual.
Bearing Each Other’s Burden
Let us return to St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Here, St. Paul also tells us that believers fulfill the commandment of love by bearing one another’s burdens (see Galatians 6:2).
Justified by the gift of faith in Christ, we are called to live in Christ’s love for our neighbors because it is on this basis that we will be judged at the end of our lives.
Actually, St. Paul is only repeating what Jesus himself said, which we heard last Sunday during the Gospel in the parable of the Last Judgment.
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this theme at length in his famous eulogy to love — called the hymn to love: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. … Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests …” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 4-5).
Christian love is so demanding because it flows forth from Christ’s complete love for us — the love that beckons us, welcomes us, embraces us and supports us — even to the point of tormenting us — because it impels each person to live no longer for themselves, closed in on their own selfishness, but “for him who for their sake died and was raised” (see 2 Corinthians 5:15).
The love of Christ makes us, in him, new creatures (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) who become part of his mystical body, the Church.
When seen in this perspective, the centrality of justification without works, which is the primary theme of Paul’s preaching, presents no contradiction to faith working through love.
On the contrary, it requires we express our own faith through a life that is lived according to the Spirit.
St. Paul and St. James
Often, people see an opposition — which has no foundation — between St. Paul’s theology and the theology of St. James, who writes in his letter: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Actually, Paul’s primary concern is to show that faith in Christ is necessary and sufficient, while James stresses the consequences of the relationship between faith and works (see James 2:2-4).
Hence, for both Paul and James, faith working through love attests to the fact that justification in Christ in a gift freely given. We need to protect and bear witness to the salvation we have received in Christ, as Paul tells the Christians of Philippi, “with fear and trembling. For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work. Do everything without grumbling or questioning ... as you hold on to the word of life” (see Philippians 2:12-14, 16).
We often fall into the same misunderstandings that characterized the community at Corinth. The Christians there thought that having been gratuitously justified in Christ by faith, “everything was lawful for them.” They also thought — and often it seems that even Christians today think — that it is lawful to create divisions in the Church, the body of Christ, to celebrate the Eucharist without caring for the brothers and sisters in need, to aspire to the more exalted charisms, unaware of the fact that we are all but parts of the body, and so on.
The consequences of faith that is not incarnated in love are disastrous because it is reduced to a subjective arbitrariness that is most harmful to us and to our brothers and sisters.
Instead, following St. Paul’s thought, we need a renewed awareness of the fact that since we have been justified in Christ, we are no longer our own, but have become a temple of the Spirit and are called, therefore, to glorify God in our bodies with our entire life (see 1 Corinthian 6:19).
‘A Living Sacrifice’
We would be underestimating the priceless value of justification if, bought at a high price by the blood of Christ, we did not glorify him with our bodies. Indeed, Paul exhorts us to “offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1) through our worship, a worship that is “reasonable” as well as “spiritual.”
What would liturgy be reduced to if it were addressed only to the Lord without being, at the same time, a service to our brothers and sisters? What would faith be if it were not expressed in charity?
The Apostle often puts forward to his communities the image of the Last Judgment, at which “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10; see also Romans 2:16).
This thought regarding the Last Judgment should illuminate us in our daily life.
If the ethics that Paul proposes to believers does not degenerate into forms of moralism but retains its relevance for us today, it is because it is always rooted in our relationship with Christ as individuals and as a community and is made a reality in lives that are lived according to the Spirit.
This is essential: Christian ethics does not originate from a system of commandments, but is a consequence of our friendship with Christ. This friendship influences our lives. If it is genuine, it is embodied and fulfilled in love for others. That is why any form of ethical decline is not limited to the individual but is, at the same time, a devaluation of the faith of the individual and the community — faith from which it is derived and which it affects in a decisive way.
Thus, let the reconciliation that God has given us in Christ — out of God’s “foolish” love for us — overtake us: Nothing and no one can ever separate us from his love (see Romans 8:39).
In that certainty, we live. It is this certainty that gives us the strength to live in a concrete way a faith that works through love.
- December 7-13, 2008