IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
ὁμοιότης φιλότης writes Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics which is translated as “like attracts like,” or, more literally, “likeness is friendship,” and about which St. Gregory Palamas comments, saying, “Every love finds fulfillment through unity, and starts from likeness.” Christ has become like us in all things except sin, and we become like Christ through grace and in this dual movement do we understand God’s love for humanity and reflect our own love for God by becoming more like Him.
In the Gospel reading today, dedicated to the Sunday before the Exaltation of the Cross, we hear Christ speaking to the Pharisee, Nicodemus, who came to Him at night and in secrecy, asking Him questions about who He is and about His teaching. Jesus responds by uniting the Old Testament to the present moment – Moses and the serpents, and the teaching about the Messiah. Jesus then equates the Son of Man with the Son of God by saying that God sent His only begotten Son, and also repeats the same point in verse fifteen as He does in sixteen, so the Son of Man must be lifted up and that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The repetition increases the emphasis that the Son of Man is also the Son of God and belief in Him leads to eternal life.
Although there are many salient and significant subjects in these few verses, we will focus on only part of a verse today, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” Moreover, to accompany this topic, what is equally true, is that we can only understand this love that God has for the world in proportion to how much we love God and our neighbor.
I. The Greatness of God’s Love for Mankind
St. John Chrysostom speaking on this passage, says
For by the expression, “so loved,” and that other, “God [and] the world,” [Jesus] shows the great strength of His love. Large and infinite was the interval between [God and the world]. He, the immortal, who is without beginning, the Infinite majesty, they but dust and ashes, full of ten thousand sins, who, ungrateful, have at all times offended Him; and these He “loved.”
God the Father did not have to offer up His Son, writes St. Isaac the Syrian, as though there was no other way to redeem humanity, however, He choose this way so as to demonstrate His “surpassing love” for mankind and in order that His love might be a teacher unto us.
God is not bound by necessity. It is not as though there are rules by which God must abide or a higher authority to which God must concede. No, God is the most free, He is truly free, in every decision He makes and is not under any compulsion to act.
Was God’s love a teacher unto us? We would have to answer in the affirmative if we consider the great Patriarch Moses who said to God, “If now Thou wilt forgive their sin (that is the sin of the rebellious Israelites, then), forgive it; and if not, blot me out of Thy book which Thou hast written” (Ex. 32.32); and also the Apostle Paul who said, “For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren” (Rom. 9.3). So much so did these men love their neighbor that they were willing to suffer the torments of Gehanna because they did not want to have the Kingdom of Heaven without them.
But greater then the love of Moses or that of Paul, is the love of the Lord Himself for all of humanity. There was nothing more precious that the Father could have given to us and therefore, because of Christ’s own love for us, and in obedience to His Father, Christ united Himself to man through His incarnation and trod the path to Calvary, and that “joyfully,” says the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 12.2).
Such is the road to the Kingdom of Heaven, as St. Isaac further writes, for the saints “all attain to this perfection, and by the superabundant outpouring of their love and compassion upon all men they resemble God.”
II. Image and Likeness
The Fathers of the Church teach us that we are made in the “image” of God which constitutes part of our nature as human beings and is unalterable. Obtaining God’s “likeness” signifies an aspect of each individual that is there in “potential” and demands our personal participation in order to be realized. As St. Basil writes, “We possess [the image] through creation, we acquire [likeness] through the will.”
“Likeness is formed through the virtues,” writes Jean-Claude Larchet. “While God possesses by nature the qualities that correspond to the virtues, man is called to possess them by participation.” But this likeness is also obtained by other means that are adjunct to acquiring the virtues, and that is by communing of the Body and Blood of Christ.
It often seems that the love of the married state is superior to other forms of love perhaps due to the unity that results from this love, as the Lord said, “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh” (Matt. 19.5). However, note, writes St. Gregory Palamas, “that a man shall cleave and become one flesh, but not one spirit. We, by contrast, shall not only be joined to Christ’s body but mingled with it through partaking in [Holy Communion], and we shall not just become one body, but also one spirit [with our Lord Jesus Christ].”
III. How God’s Love Is Instructive for Us
Perhaps we think that to love those around us, even in the smallest way, is too much and we justify our lack of love and coldness by affirming that we are not saints. And perhaps we feel quite justified, but this is only by the world’s standards – When I was young, my father this or my mother that; or something unexpected happened to me or someone did this or that to me. Agreed, and without any intention of belittling how traumatic and enormous these hurdles are… with God, all things are possible, as the Apostle Paul write, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If we desire to be saints we must forgive those who wronged us but also love them (and forgiving is an act of love).
Is this possible? Yes, not only because it is Christ who gives us strength but also because Christ makes it possible, as the Apostle John writes in his epistle: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The more we understand the love of God, the more we will love God and love our neighbor in word and deed.
However, the inverse is also true: to the degree that we do not love God or our neighbor, so are we hindered from perceiving the world as God would have us do. As St. Ephraim the Syrian hymns: “Lord, your font is concealed from whoever thirsts not for you. Your treasury is empty to whoever hates you. Love is the keeper of your heavenly treasure.” (Hymn 32, Hymns on Faith)
It is one thing to be spiritually immature and another to be spiritually infirm because of our lack of love.
In both situations, we should seek to remedy the situation by learning to love more or repenting for our lack of love.
St. Gregory Palamas suggests that if we are not able to heal the sick with a miraculous word, we should heal them with a word of encouragement; however if we find ourselves short on words, or teaching, or exhortation, then we can become a teacher by our actions – by doing good and being kind to ourselves and to our neighbor, for through such means we fulfill the commandment of Christ who said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14.15).
St. Peter Damascene goes so far as to say that “every work rightly done is done out of love for God or for one’s neighbor.” (254)
How do we know when this love dwells within us? St. Gregory says that it is through prayer, for when we lift up our minds to God in prayer and nothing earthly attracts it and we forget everything earthly, or as we are commanded in the Liturgy, “let us lay aside all earthly cares,” if we joyfully lay these aside and delight in the remembrance of God, offering prayers to Him, then we will know that we have a share in the love for God. However, he says, these dispositions will not become ours unless we possess the visible works of love also. There is no division.
“The whole of life,” writes St. Theophan the Recluse, “in all its manifestations, must be permeated by prayer. But its secret is love for the Lord.”
Only when we realize the love of God for us and reciprocate that back to Him and our neighbor will we learn and grow in love and in the likeness of the God who is love.
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God (1 John 4.17). Amen.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
 Cf. footnote #1000. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. (Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014)
 Homilies on St. John, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), #XXVII, 95f.
 The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 492.
 Ibid., 493.
 Larchet, Jean-Claude. The Spiritual Unconscious. (Montréal: Alexander Press, 2021) 121-122.
 Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. (Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014), Homily 56.
 Ibid., Homily 44.
 The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and E.M. Palmer (London: Faber&Faber, 1966), 82.