The shortest scriptural definition of God is found in 1 John 4, "God is love." Later in the same epistle we are told that God loved us before we loved him and that if we say that we love God and hate our brother we are a liar, "for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:20).
The scriptures teach us that our love for the Lord is intimately connected with the neighbor, which we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When a Samaritan traveler notices that there is a hurt man on the side of the road he puts the man on his own beast, brings him to a local inn, and pays for the room and whatever else the hurt man needs. In other words, the Samaritan used his own time, energy, effort, and money, in order to help a fellow person in need. Now this is truly love!
However, the ultimate example of love is Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus' death shows us that laying down of ones life for another person is the most perfect act of love that can be made. This crucified love is seen throughout Jesus' earthly life as he healed and restored people to physical health and well-being, as he healed people from demonic possession, and as he fed and nourished people with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
During his life, Jesus welcomed the stranger, the poor, the naked, and the outcast. Finally, before his death, Jesus stooped down and washed the feet of his disciples telling them that if they want to be a part of him that they should go and wash one another's feet. Thus, if we truly want to love Jesus and be a part of him we will go and serve our neighbor, washing their feet as well.
We need to be reminded that loving other people isn't optional; it's a command from Jesus himself! One of the most sobering gospel lessons in the New Testament is read on the Sunday of the Last Judgment which is the Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent. The gospel lesson is taken from Matthew 25 which is commonly called the "Sheep and the Goats."
Jesus teaches his disciples about the final judgment and tells them that when the Son of Man returns again all nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. He will ask them whether they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and suffering, and welcomed the stranger. Those who did not serve and love the poor, will be sent to eternal punishment but the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25:31-46). Thus, at the final judgment, we will be judged on one thing only: did we love the neighbor? Hopefully the answer will be a resounding yes!
This teaching about the last judgment pertains not only to individuals but to our missions and parishes as well. It is in the local worshipping community where we share our common Orthodox Faith and life and where we also have many opportunities to show love for the neighbor in very concrete and tangible ways.
Our missions and parishes have a mandate to engage in outreach projects for the poor, orphan, hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Engaging in outreach projects not only helps other people but it can also transform a parish community, especially as parishioners learn how to work together towards a common goal and sharing their times, talents, and treasures with other people in need. If we all look at the strengths and talents within our various parish communities I am sure that we can find countless ways to love and serve our neighbor, and in doing so, learning to love and serve the Lord.
A few years ago our small parish agreed to get involved in local charities. Over a series of several weeks I invited numerous representatives from local charities such as Habitat for Humanity and the local Loaves and Fishes food-bank, to come and speak to our parishioners during the Sunday coffee hour about the work of their charity.
After a few weeks of listening to these representatives, parishioners were excited about the "world around them" and decided to adopt the Charlotte Men's Rescue mission. On the second Saturday of every month parishioners purchased food, traveled down to center city Charlotte and cooked a hot meal for the men. Parishioners were excited about helping with the mission, not only did they want to go back again, they wanted to adopt other charities as well!
Now, five years later, our parish sponsors and supports approximately ten local and national Orthodox and non-Orthodox charities and philanthropic organizations. Our most recent charity is the national Project Linus Children's Blanket drive where parishioners quilt and crochet blankets that are donated to children in need, especially children who have extended hospital visitations.
Every month our parishioners are engaged in several outreach programs; donating canned food through our Loaves and Fishes food bin, assisting at the local Men's Rescue Mission, or donating money for the Holy Cross Orthodox Mission in Greensboro, NC. Furthermore, as our parish community grows in numbers, so too will our outreach programs.
Over the past few years we have slowly added more outreach programs on our Church calendar and hopefully this will continue in the years to come. However, we are only following the example of Jesus who teaches us that we love God through serving and loving our neighbor!
Fr. William C. Mills, Ph.D., is the rector of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC, as well as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He is married to Taisia Mills and has two daugthers, Hannah and Emma.
Latest book by Fr. Mills:
A Light to the Gentiles is a collection of pastoral reflections on the Scripture readings from the gospel of Luke that are read in the Orthodox Church from mid-September until the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. The gospel of Luke is also read during the preparatory Sundays before Great Lent as well as at the feast of the Ascension and at the commemoration of various saints. The gospel also contains many familiar parables and teachings: the Good Samaritan, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Rich Man and Lazarus, and Zachaeus. Luke reminds us that the gospel is to be proclaimed to the entire world in order to bring the gospel to all peoples and nations. Thus, the gospel of Luke serves as a beacon of light that shines brightly in the world. A Light to the Gentiles is an invitation for everyone to read, accept, and obey the Word of God in their lives. This book is a resource for personal and group Bible study, adult education classes, and sermon preparation.
Earlier books by Fr. Mills:
Visit the Fr. William C. Mills website.