[INCARNATIONAL SERIES part 12]
His own experience and his study of Scripture convinced Augustine that no one could come to God except through love. Therefore he placed an inestimable “primacy” on charity.1 Augustine established congregations defined by their acts of charity. Love for loves sake, however, was not adequate. True community, he suggested, occurred only when the love, or charity, of Christ is practiced.2 And so Augustine teaches us that charity, in its end, requires us as followers of Jesus to love our neighbor by endeavoring to help them love God. From this concept Dallas Willard has suggested that Augustine “understood this to apply to our family, our household, and ‘all within our reach.’ And he is right. To a great extent, what matters in our approach to people is not what we do, but how we do it, and when. And we can count on it that a superior attitude or condemnation will never help us help them.”3
The incarnational demonstration of the church community as expressed in the love of Christ towards others has the effect of pointing people to God. Augustine deeply appreciated the witness of the Church and he admired those who served well in the mission. In the community of the Church, in Augustine’s teachings, was the dwelling of God. “His tabernacle on earth is his church” Augustine wrote, and “the faithful are God’s tabernacle on earth.” Augustine believed the incarnational witness of the Church as Christ’s Body in this world was purposed to reveal the Head.4 His own experience with believers prior to his conversion showed him that the persistent witness of a community of believers is the purpose of the Church. In his Sermon on Psalm 41, Augustine vividly describes how the introductory witness of the lives of believers can lead someone to search for God:
“Ascending to the tabernacle, he came unto the house of God. It was thus that while admiring the members of the tabernacle, he was led unto the house of God- by following a certain delight, an inward mysterious and hidden pleasure, as if some instrument sounded sweetly from the house of God. While he was walking in the tabernacle, he heard this inward sound; he was led on by its sweetness, and following the guidance of the sound and withdrawing himself from all noise of flesh and blood, he made his way even to the house of God. For he tells us of his progress and of his guidance to it, as if we had been saying, ‘You are admiring the tabernacle here on earth; how did you come to the sanctuary of the house of God?’ He says, ‘In the voice of joy and praise, the sound of keeping holiday’.”5
1 Augustine, Against Faustus, 32.18. See also Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, 44.
2 Augustine, Homilies on Ps. 132.12. Ibid., 44.
3 Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997, 230; quoting Augustine, the City of God, 19.14.
4 “I admire in them the obedience even of their bodily members, for ‘sin does not reign in them so that they should obey its bodily lusts, nor do they yield their members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but unto the living God in good works’ (Rom 6:12-13)… I also gaze upon the soul obeying God, putting its works in order, restraining its desires, casting out ignorance, stretching itself out to bear all that is harsh and difficult, and exercising justice and love toward others.” (Augustine, “Sermon on Psalm 41 (Vulgate)”, McGinn, 23-24.
5 (Psalm 41:5) (McGinn, 24).