St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
Family Life

Matt 22: 35-46
Gal 5:33-6:2

We often return to this, the greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God will your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” for it speaks of our relationship to God and is the most basic definition of the Christian life.  The second commandment of the Lord, to “love your neighbor as yourself” is closely linked to this, for it defines our relationship to the world and those in it.  If we truly fulfill these two commandments then everything else is covered.  This is a very simple but general statement; the question is; how do we work this out in our daily lives?

What does it mean to love God?  Perhaps the most concrete statement of the Lord in answer to this question is, “if you love Me keep My commandments.”  This statement moves the love of God out of the vague and undefined realm of affection, feelings or even affiliation and places it directly in the arena of how we conduct our lives, of what we do.  Do you love God?; then you will keep His commandments and when we stray from those commandments we know just how flawed our love of God is. But the question remains; what are these commandments?

The primary way that God makes His love for us manifest is in how He cares for us, how He provides for us and ultimately in how He sacrificed Himself for us.  His love is manifest is His actions toward us.  If we would make manifest our love for God, then we should imitate His actions and love our neighbor (that is those in the world around us) as God Himself loves us.  And this love begins with those closest to us, for whom we naturally bear a human love – the members of our family (parents, siblings, spouse, children).

This day has been set aside by the Russian Church as a day dedicated to the fostering and nurturing of Christian family life.  The saints, Peter and Fevronia, are held up as an example of the love that should exist within the family.  Therefore let us consider the character of the love that exists within the Christian family as it reflects the love of God.

In the epistle for the saints we heard the admonition of the Apostle Paul: “And they that are Christ's love have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another. Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.  Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”  This passage gives us a good example of how we can make the love of God and neighbor real in our daily lives.  The apostle was writing to a large audience and so by necessity was general in his manner of expression.  In order to make it more personal let us read it in a more specific manner.  Because we are thinking today of family life and the relationship of husband and wife is the core of that life, I will use the spouse as a specific example – but one could just as easily substitute the terms, “mother”, “father”, “sister”, “brother”, “child” or “friend” and achieve the same result:  “And you who are in Christ's love have crucified your own flesh setting aside your own preferences and desires. If you live in the Spirit, then walk in the Spirit. Do not desire your own dominance and righteousness by provoking your spouse or envying them. Brethren, if your spouse exhibit some fault, you which are spiritual, treat him/her with a spirit of meekness and restore your good relationship; be careful for yourself as well, lest you also fall prey to temptation and so offend your spouse, creating division between you.  Bear your spouse’s burdens making their life easier (not more difficult), and so fulfil the law of Christ.” 

How often do we fail at this!  We want what we want and place our preferences above those of our spouse.  We try to demonstrate our superiority by provoking and criticizing them.  Whenever we discover a fault in our spouse, no matter how small or insignificant, we make certain to point it out and blow it up all out of proportion, just to prove that we are better than they are and to justify (or hide) our own faults.  We are so busy criticizing our spouse that we don’t pay attention to our own behavior and so easily (and even unintentionally) offend the other and drive them further from us.  Rather than make the life of our spouse easier, we go out of our way to make it difficult for them.  This is what we do.

Now I know that every one of you, if you are like me, is tempted at this point to think about your spouse (or other close person) and point out how they do all these things.  Don’t give in to this temptation, but rather force yourself to look at your own life and see how these failings manifest themselves in you.  Then rather than try to correct your spouse’s failings, work to correct your own.  Once you can see where you provoke and offend the other person, then you can begin to make a conscious and conscientious effort to cut off the offense and replace it with the loving and healing behavior that speaks of love for one another.

The last phrase of this prescription is perhaps the most important for those working to repair and sanctify their family life.  “Bear ye one another’s burdens”  This is a very important key.  When you see your spouse (or family member) struggling to make things better, do whatever you can to support them.  Don’t load unrealistic expectations of instant perfection on them, but rather encourage where they are to take the small steps that are within their (not your) ability.  Rejoice in the small victories and refrain from criticizing the failures.  Maybe they don’t measure up to your expectations, but keep in mind that you also don’t measure up to theirs – and with that knowledge help one another to improve.  Ask for help and listen carefully to the requests of the other person for help.  In this manner, side by side, hand in hand, you will both draw nearer to the kingdom of heaven.

The greatest commandment that summarizes all the others is to love God.  In order to fulfill that commandment we must set aside our own lives and instead live the life of Christ.  We must learn to love others as He loves them and to reach out with compassion to the world as He Himself does.  Just as He held nothing back and sacrificed Himself for our sake, so we now must hold nothing back and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.  This loving self sacrifice must begin at home, within the family for here it is supported by our natural affection for one another.  Once we have learned within the family how to love one another as God loves us, then we can reach out into the world and love our friends and neighbors; strangers and eventually even our enemies.  In this way we fulfill the Law of God and we open for ourselves and for others the way into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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