In his classic The City of God, St. Augustine speaks of the two human cities – the City of Man and The City of God. The difference between the two cities is the difference between two loves. Those who are united in the City of God are united by the love of God and of one another. Those who belong to the City of Man are indeed not united in any real sense: but it can be said they have one thing in common besides their opposition to God: each one of them is intent on the love of himself above all else: “These two cities were made by two loves: the earthly city by the love of self unto the contempt of God, and the heavenly city by the love of God unto the contempt of self.” (Bk. 14, c. 28) Catholic theologian Thomas Merton explains why only the love of God can serve as the foundation for a happy and peaceful community.
"...But there is a deeper psychological explanation of these two loves and the way they contribute to the formation of two distinct societies. The love which unites the citizens of the heavenly city is disinterested love, or charity. The other city is built on selfish love, or cupidity.
There are two reasons why only one of these loves [charity] can serve as the foundation for a happy and peaceful commonwealth. The first reason is metaphysical: charity is a love that leads the will to the possession of true values because it sees all things in their right order. It sees creatures for what they are, means to the possession of God. It uses them only as means and thus arrives successfully at the end, which is God. But cupidity is doomed from the start to frustration because it is based on a false system of values. It takes created things for ends in themselves, which they are not. The will that seeks rest in creatures for their own sake stops on the way to its true end, terminates in a value which does not exist, and thus frustrates all its deepest capacities for happiness and peace.
The second reason is psychological and moral. Those who love God love a supreme and infinite good that cannot be diminished by being shared. Those who place their hopes on the possession of created and limited goods are doomed to conflict with one another and to everlasting fear of losing whatever they may have gained. Hence the city that is united in charity will be the only one to possess true peace, because it is the only one that conforms to the true order of things, the order established by God.” (Introduction to the City of God, The Modern Library, New York, 1950, xiii.
To elaborate on love as the center of the Christian Church let us ask three questions: What is the source of the church’s love? What is the result of the church’s love? What is the community created by the church’s love.
What is the source of the Church's love?
The simple answer is: God. The Church is not a community that is defined so much by the church’s love for God (for the church’s love for God is always imperfect) but by God’s love for the church. “We love because he first loved us” is the credo, the identity, and the motivation of the Christian Church. That God loves us is the credo of the church: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 4:10)
That God loves us is the identity of the church: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that ought of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14-19)
The Love of God is the motivation of the church: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity n him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (I John 3:16-18)
What is the result of God’s love for the church in Jesus Christ?
There is a twofold result. First, God’s love is creating a whole new human family – one not based on race, ethnicity, blood, socio-economic status, gender, or morality – but one family woven together by the grace of Jesus Christ. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
This family is not created by the blending of all cultural and social differences into one culture, but by the blending of all hearts around the love story of God for his people in Jesus Christ. St. Augustine has left us a famous illustration of the way the citizens of the City of God are united in their common knowledge of the love of God for them in Jesus Christ. Again, I will use Thomas Merton:
At the beginning of his De Doctrina Christiana he [Augustine] calls to mind the audience in a Roman theater. He shows us the spectators, coming together, strangers, from different places, to sit and watch the play. Soon one of the actors begins to arouse the admiration of individuals. They like him and they begin to applaud. Then, finding their own enthusiasm reproduced in others, they ‘begin to love one another for the sake of him that they love.’ A bond is established; they begin to encourage one another in applauding their favorite. Anyone who has been to the opera in a large Italian city will appreciate St. Augustine’s description. The enthusiasm spreads through the crowd, and a ‘society’ is spontaneously generated by this common bond of love for a common object of contemplation. (xiii-xiv)
This phenomena is not restricted to the Roman Theatre or the Italian opera. It is shared by the crowd cheering on their heroes at a sporting event, the surge of common feeling at a concert, and, to a lesser extent, as friends talk excitedly about an excellent movie they just saw. The love of God in Jesus Christ creates then a new human family who have been ignited and then drawn together by that love.
The second result of the love of God is that this love is creating a community that seeks to imitate God’s love. I will expand on this topic when we discuss the mission of the church, but for now I simply want to point out that the church, having received the infinite, immeasurable, unconditional, unfailing, and sacrificial love of God is called to imitate this love: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)
We might call this love by which the church imitates her heavenly Father as humble love. Humble because it arises out of the knowledge that one has been loved in spite of oneself – not because one deserved the love of God. The Christian is the one who believes that there was absolutely nothing good in her to cause God to love her or seek her, but out of pure grace God has poured out His love upon her: “It is by grace we have been saved, through faith; and this not from ourselves, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Christian love, or agape, is therefore given, not to those who deserve it but to those who do not deserve it. It is given not to the beautiful, but to create beauty. It is not given on condition, but unconditionally.
What then is the community that is created by the love of God?
It is a community of grace. A community of grace means three things. First, a community of grace is made up of sinners. It is a community of people who are learning to be the sinners they are, not by seeking to sin, but who are seeking to discover their sin so that they can confess it, repent, and then rejoice in the righteousness of Christ.
This is what ought to make the church such a terrifying place to those who are still seeking to cover their moral flaws and assert their own righteousness before God – for in this community of grace, people are not covering up their sins, but confessing them; people are not hiding their flaws but admitting them and seeking the forgiving mercy of Jesus; people are not pretending to be righteous, but acknowledging their hypocrisy and pride.
The church is then, a community of people who dare to be the sinners they are. How is this kind of community of grace possible? It is only possible when a group of people have deeply and functionally learned the truth of grace: that we are all sinners – and that Jesus is a Savior for sinners. For it is only when one knows the benediction of God, that one does not have to seek the benediction of man. It is only when one is accepted by God, that one can dare to face the rejection of man. So this community is not a community of the pious, of the righteous. No. Absolutely not! It is the community of those who have owned their moral flaws, who are broken and contrite of heart, who have stopped trying to win God’s favor through their good deeds and acts of righteousness. It is the community of sinners.
The Church’s Mission
The church is a new society planted in human history amid all the vanity, poverty, weakness, suffering, and sin of humanity – not to retreat or condemn the world – but to emulate the sacrificial life of its Head, the life of Jesus Christ lived for others. Jesus, Bonhoeffer said, was the “man for others.” So to the church is a community created not for itself, but for others. The very essence of the church is its mission: to be a community of people who live and die for others, who spend themselves for others.
The Church “for others”
The Church does not exist for her own sake, but only for the sake of others. She exists "for the world." She proclaims Jesus Christ as God’s way of reconciliation with man. She serves the world by proclaiming the gospel. Her “right” we may say, to exist, lies in her message more than in herself; and the loss of the gospel, as the Reformer’s rightly saw, meant the corruption and fall of the Church and also the forfeiture of the Church’s “right” to exist. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” He did not say, “My Church is the way,” but “I am the way.”
“Go” into the world, preach the gospel, make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. This is the disciple’s calling and commission. And so the ekklesia is formed as men, women, and children are seized out of the clutches of the world and called into the new community by the will of the Father, bound in community by faith in Christ, and working in community for the building up of the Body by the strength and love of the Spirit. But the Church is not to seek to overcome the world. Christ has already overcome the world. The Church is the visible manifestation of his victory. Rather, the Church seeks the “betterment” of the world by freeing it to be what it is, i.e. the secular world; and it seeks the “salvation” of the world by reminding it of and proclaiming to it the gospel of God -- thus it calls the secular world to repentnece and faith.
So, by serving the world, not by ruling the world, the Church exists “for others.” The Church seeks, not to covert the world to itself, but to convert the world to Christ. It hopes, it prays, it preaches -- and yet it does not despair when the faithful seem few and the Church weak, feeble, and impotent, for even in its weakness the Church testifies not to herself but to her Lord.