By Paul Koch –
Well happy St. Valentine’s Day, my friends! Today is a day for matters of the heart. It is a day of flowers and chocolates and romance. Whether we like it or not, love is in the air on Valentine’s Day. I remember Valentine’s Day as a child in Elementary School. It was a day of both promise and great terror. The night before, you would fill out Valentine’s Day cards that your mom had bought from the store. Each one had some candy to go with it, and at the appointed time the next day you would go around the classroom and place your Valentines into the others students’ brown paper bags that were tapped to the edge of the desks. But there was always that one special Valentine. That one Valentine for that one girl that you really wanted to be your Valentine. I would not only sign my name a neatly as I could, but I might draw a little smiley face or even a heart. It was a big risk, I know, but love was in the air and matters of the heart are unpredictable even for a fourth grader.
Yet a day to celebrate love isn’t as simple as cards and candy and flowers. Love, it turns out, isn’t a simple thing. We have a difficult time even describing what we mean by love. Hallmark knows this full well, and they’re making a killing off of it. They come to our aid to help us give voice to the matter of our hearts. Sometimes love is funny, sometimes it is serious, it can bring you to tears or inspire you to do great things. When I meet with a couple for premarital counseling one of the first things that we end up speaking about is the nature of love. Love is an action word. Love is not just an emotion that we keep hidden in our hearts. Real love does things. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians,
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Now these matters of the heart are important. If love is more than a mere emotion, then it is not just some transcendent mover and shaker in our lives, but it is a concrete reality that impacts us whether we like it or not. The legend of St. Valentine himself bears this out. Valentine is regarded as a martyred saint of the church. His history is hard to pin down, but the most popular tradition holds that he was imprisoned under the Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius had established a decree that soldiers could not be married, for he believed that they made better soldiers. But Valentine helped Christian couples to wed in secret. Not only that, but he was a faithful proclaimer of the faith seeking to give the love of Christ to the empire. When he tried to convert Claudius himself, he went too far. Claudius commanded him to renounce his faith or be beaten with clubs and beheaded. It turns out, matters of the heart have consequences.
St. Paul knows full well of the trials and joys that are found in our hearts. His heart moves far beyond romantic love, beyond candy and flowers to a deep and heartfelt compassion for his people. This is a brotherly love, a love of family and friends, and his heart breaks as he sees them turn away from the gifts of Christ. In Romans 10 he speaks openly about his heart’s desire that Israel would be saved. The hearts of his people, though, are set on a quest. They are searching out and discovering righteousness before God. They hold on to the law of Moses and hope that by it their hearts might know true righteousness. Their hearts are shaped around deeds. They are betting it all that if they only do the right things, hold to the right rituals, keeps the right commands, offer the right sacrifices, then their hearts will know peace and salvation. For years their hearts have been set on this quest, and now Paul finds himself on the outside of the journey, seeing it for what it truly is: futile.
Faith is not a matter of effort. Faith is not a matter of accomplishments and deeds. Faith is a matter of the heart. Faith is a Word that is proclaimed, it is a Word that then takes root in your hearts and in your mouths. St. Paul preaches a Word that is in direct contrast to the quest of his people. He says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The ancient quest of the Jews to keep the law of Moses will not save them and so even as Paul’s heart breaks for them, he finds joy in a salvation that is sure and unshakable for it is found in the gifts of Christ alone.
But still, these matters of the heart are difficult things. Just as we can’t reduce them to flowers and candy so we can’t seem to separate ourselves from the desire to pick up where Paul’s people left off, to take up the law as our guide for our own quest. We don’t like to leave salvation in the believing heart, we want to see some proper deeds. Perhaps these may be simple outward marks of behavior. If you’re going to talk the talk you better walk the walk. Maybe it will be in the way the faith is articulated, you need to know the right words, say the right prayers, worship the right way, then we can be sure that you are righteous. Or maybe it is though social efforts, taking care of the poor and needed, feeding the homeless, these sorts of things. Perhaps if we do them often enough we can be sure of our salvation. You see, we quite easily make the matters of the heart into a quest of the will.
The desire is to articulate a proper and right path for our love upon which faithfulness is defined. The problem is that we never seem to make it very far down that path. We swerve off to the right or the left. We stumble and fall along the way and the destination is never reached. Like trying to encapsulate all of our love in the words of a Hallmark card, our effort to obtain assurance of salvation by the work of our will is never completed. Oh sure, we may have pretty good hours or days or even weeks. But what about those times that we fall hard, when we are so overcome by the stress and hardship of life that we don’t even try anymore? Where is our hope then?
Our only hope, our only sure and constant foundation, is in a Word that changes our hearts. For as Paul says, “With the heart one believes and is justified.” That Word has come to you. It was washed over you in the waters of your baptism. There, in that water, your heart of stone was drowned. There the desire to set a quest for God’s righteousness by the work of your will is exposed and disregarded. Instead, in that water a new gift of life was given to you. Your heart was filled with the Spirit. Your heart was born anew. Your heart began to believe in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. In that washing of regeneration, you now live in Christ our Lord. And your salvation is secure in the heart that believes.
Salvation is a matter of the heart. For the scriptures say, “everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” Our hope is founded not in our love but in the love with which Christ first loved us and changed our hearts.
St. Valentine placed his hope in this very same Word of love. In the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome you can find in a glass shrine the flower-crowned skull of Valentine. I doubt it is an image you’ll find on many Valentine’s Day cards, but it is worthy of our reflection. For on this day of love, on this day where we focus on matters of the heart, Valentine is not just a reminder of how he married those who were in love. Rather he is one who died believing with his heart and confessing with his mouth that Jesus is Lord.
That skull, if it is in fact his, will live again. For the Word that resides in your heart, the Word that declares you to be the forgiven saints of God is the same Word confessed by the faithful saints who have gone before us. And together we are promised to live in true love for all eternity, even as we are loved right now in the Word and gifts of Christ.