Years ago when I was in seminary, I served a small mission in Chicago. The priest was something of a mentor for me during that time. There was a young girl in the congregation, between two and three years-old. She was convinced that the priest was Jesus. (Well, he was wearing a white robe and he did have a beard.) One Sunday, during his sermon (delivered from the nave rather than the pulpit), she got loose from her parents and went bounding up the aisle. She stopped in front of him and said, “Jesus!” He stopped his sermon, picked her up, and continued while holding her in his arms. When the sermon was completed he took her back to her parents. After the service, he said to me, “Do you know what happened today?” He explained, “She will grow up and have no memory of me. But she will never forget that one day, Jesus picked her up in his sermon.”
I’ve never forgotten the lesson. In my own years in parishes, I’ve had more than a few children make the same connection. Every time, I remember that day, and I remember that it matters ever so much what I do. If I’m not Him, then, at least, I’d better be like Him.
A young couple was inquiring into the Church. They attended a class on the Church’s moral teaching. Their question startled me, “What concern should the church have with our moral life?” My answer startled them. “It’s quite simple. You’re raising my children.” There is no moral free-ride for adults. Whether you want it or not, children are watching you and making choices and decisions. Stanley Hauerwas, the noted theologian and ethicist, has said that the good news/bad news about children is that, no matter what you do, your children are most likely to turn out to be like you. And, of course, they will be really like you, not as you imagine yourself to be.
Among the more striking verses in Scripture is St. John’s declaration:
Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 Jn. 3:2)
It is a very sweet promise. It is also a revelation. If you are not like Him now, chances are you do not see Him clearly, or know Him well. I think of this often when I am encountering other Christians. It is easy to have a facility with doctrine and Christian thought. However, that same facility can be deeply misleading. It is possible to mistake such knowledge for saving knowledge. At the same time, it is not uncommon to disregard such things as kindness, generosity, and gentleness as nothing more than “morality.” The Christian life cannot be divided in such a manner. Saving knowledge is manifest as the character of Christ within us. Without this knowledge (which is synonymous with “character”) everything we take to be “knowledge,” such as doctrine and Scripture, will be woefully misunderstood, even to the point where it is working death within us.
In the Divine Liturgy, we are told, “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity One in essence and undivided.’” The Creed is utterly opaque to a heart that is not at peace, or that is at enmity. The words, “I believe” in such a case, mean nothing (or worse).
The vast majority of Christians through the ages probably knew less “theology” than today’s catechumenal converts. The Church has not thrived or survived through its mastery of such things. It is, instead, the character of Christ, acquired through the sacraments and the patient keeping of the Commandments that has preserved the faith. Such a foundation can fathom mysteries.
Only the character of Christ can understand the mysteries of the faith. The words of books, often the works of saints, will not yield themselves to a heart that has alienated itself from love.
St. John has another small passage worth noting:
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (1 Jn. 4:7-8)
One way that I have understood this can be expressed in this manner: We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. When we see hatred and anger, the lack of kindness and generosity, we may rest assured that we are not being confronted by God. It is a place for patience and generosity, but not a place of imitation.
Are we like Him? If you truly want to know God, there is no other path.