“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
– Matthew 22:37–40
We all know and quote these words of our Lord; we compose sermons based on these words. We know that there should be no difference between our behavior toward God and toward others. In reality, loving others is more important in gauging the strength of our faith, since there is no way to prove how sincerely we love God because we cannot deal with Him visibly and directly.
If our communion with God is real, then the fruit of that communion will be our love for our brothers and sisters. This is where Jesus’s words about the similarity of loving God and loving others come from. We cannot love God and not love others. That is impossible. I will go ahead and say something that some Christians may question, and that is that if someone is a nonbeliever but loves others, if he acts as a caring human being toward others, then that person also loves God even though he thinks there is no God. In this case, God is in his soul, and the nonbeliever simply doesn’t recognize him. Such a person indeed acts and lives like a Christian, although he may not confess that. I’ve gotten to know such people.
Not all of us Christians grasp this basic truth of our religion, that faith in God is the same as loving others. Indeed, we sometimes separate God from man. We act like we are believers, but we pay little attention to our relations with our brothers and sisters. Going to church and following the rules with no real, sincere motivation doesn’t show any proof of our faith. Worse, it may become shameful hypocrisy. Many may disagree with me, but I am not talking about what we say or even what we think. I am talking about how our behavior ends up impacting the lives of other people.
In Psalm 82, we hear: “I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’” We all carry God’s image and likeness. We are imperfect gods; the other side of this reality is that God is a perfect man. According to the Russian Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, there is a deep humanity in God and a divinity within us. We always have to remember this very deep interrelationship between God and man. By his incarnation, by becoming a human being through Jesus Christ, God opened new things to us that were unapproachable before. He broke the distance between God and man; he established an equal relationship between God and man, between the perfect and imperfect, between purity and sin. We are the only creatures to whom God gave his nature, and that is why he cares so much about us. We are of the same nature as God because we are his children, because we are “gods.”
The history of revelation recorded in (but not limited to) the bible shows that God’s main concern is humanity. The bible is God’s communication with us in order to show us what real happiness is: What do we think of happiness? What is our understanding of eternal life and the kingdom of God? And, finally, how do we understand Jesus’s words that the kingdom of God is in our midst? Jesus’s words are not only valid for the time being. Jesus’s words are eternal, addressed to each one of us.
So what does the “kingdom of God in our midst” mean? We may begin to locate an answer in these well-known words from the First Letter of John: “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” The only way we can prove our love towards God is when we prove it to our brothers and sisters. That requires sacrifice—and sometimes big sacrifices, sacrifices that can seriously hurt us. While it is easy to follow the rules of a religion, it can be hard to make these kinds of sacrifices. That is why being a Christian and a decent human being is difficult. It is about overcoming ourselves, our weaknesses, our cares about what other people think of us in order to follow God’s truth.
I have heard some nonbelievers say: “Why do I have to carry burdens of the others?” Many will say this is wrong, and it is. I have also met other nonbelievers who are caring individuals. But it is shocking to see some Christians acting in the same way as the first group of nonbelievers. Such Christians won’t say this openly, but their acts will have the same implications as the words of the first group of nonbelievers.
I have seen people criticize others and make fun of them because they were trying to help someone in need. That is shocking. Such an attitude comes from an erroneous understanding of faith, of thinking that faith is only about God while it is really about God and man. To be more precise, such an attitude stems from a lack of faith and a lack of vital, continual communion with God—a communion that leaves no other choice but for a person to live out a real love toward others, to help them and to show them mercy.
When someone is knocking our door for help, the minimum response is that we listen carefully, look at the case, and find out whether or not it is legitimate; we can then make a decision to help or not. We cannot send anyone away from the first moment when there is a request for help. That is completely inhuman and unchristian, and any attempt to justify such behavior is unacceptable. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy spoke truthfully when he said, “A drop of kindness is better than a barrel of philosophy.” By saying this, Tolstoy meant endless talk and preaching with no relevant deeds and acts.
What makes Christianity unique is God’s sacrifice for us. God limited himself, his power and glory, and became a human being like each one of us (what an honor!). Most importantly, while he was completely innocent, he was persecuted, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified for us, his children. His death was so painful, humiliating, and extraordinary because, according to Roman law, criminals were punished either by flogging or by death. Both means of punishment were not administered to the same person at the same time. Pilate thought to limit Jesus’s punishment by only flogging him, but it ended up that Jesus was both flogged and crucified. It is amazing to see that even Jesus had a difficult time facing torture and death, as he prayed right before he was taken: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” But that was for a very short moment, and he continued: “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Few of us face the challenge of being tortured and killed as Jesus did. We have seen such things recently in the Middle East where Christians have been martyred for their faith. Here in the United States, we are called upon to make much, much easier sacrifices. I think we need to be shaken up. We are sleeping. Apparently, a comfortable life is hardening our hearts, and we are becoming indifferent to our brothers and sisters.
Sometimes we think that if someone is in trouble, then it is his or her fault and he or she deserves it. That attitude is unchristian. We have to remember what Jesus did when they brought to him the woman taken in adultery. According to the law, she was required to be stoned. Jesus forgave her, but he also said: “Sin no more.” We should not judge someone for his or her mistakes and sins, but show mercy and forgiveness. Punishment in Christianity is the last option, when all other means and methods fail to fix someone, or if that person arrogantly continues in his or her ways and negatively affects others.
There are two kinds of people. First, people who live and are concerned only about themselves. These are the majority. The second kind are in the minority: people who, despite natural instincts to care for themselves, live for others and accordingly make sacrifices in order to help those in need. Anyone who has an understanding that happiness is in helping others and making them happy is blessed, and such an individual is an accomplished, high-value human being.
When somebody comes and knocks on our door, he or she is not only that person; in reality, he or she is Jesus. We meet Jesus in suffering and needy people: that where Jesus is. But that is not the whole story. By helping others, we become Jesus’s instrument, we become Jesus to people in need. In order for this to happen, by our free will we have to make a commitment to help others, despite how difficult that commitment might be.
God is love, unconditional love. The kingdom of God is to live in God’s love, in an environment of eternal tranquility. If we can create moments of similar love by our sacrifices for others while still living in the world, that is how we cleanse ourselves and become of greater value to one another. That is how we can taste real happiness, and, most important, that is how we can accomplish Jesus’s words of the Kingdom of God being in our midst.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician.