All you need is Love?
May 13, 2012
Easter 6 Year B (Acts 10,44-48; 1 John 5,1-6; John 15,9-17)
Some of the older ones among you may remember the Beatles song “All you need is Love’. It was first performed on June 25th 1967 as the UK contribution to the first live global TV broadcast, made possible by a new satellite link. John Lennon, who wrote it, said he thought it had a message which everyone around the world could understand.
It was a very ’60’s’ sort of song! In the church, the same sort of attitude that inspired the song led to the advocacy of something called ‘situation ethics’. This said that when you face a moral decision, you don’t need set rules – all you need to do is decide what course of action would be the most loving thing to do. Paul Tillich, the theologian wrote “Love is the best law” and one of my great heroes in the faith, John Robinson, the radical Bishop of Woolwich, also supported situation ethics at first, saying this was the only sort of ethics appropriate to ‘man come of age’ – though he later withdrew his support, saying that the use of situation ethics would lead to a descent into moral chaos.
The sort of love which this theory was talking about was ‘agape’ – absolute, unchanging, unconditional love for all people, regardless. This is precisely the sort of love we see demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus.
When you read the writings of the community of John the Evangelist in the New Testament – the Gospel and the three Epistles – you might think that “All you need is Love” was a summary of their teaching on the faith. But would that be true?
Certainly agape love is very important in their theology. It forms the main topic of the first Epistle which is the third reading for today. For John’s community, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God. It is only when we love God that we can love the children of God; and we show our love for God by obeying his commandments, which when carried out in love, are not burdensome.
The gospel passage, which continues from last Sunday’s reading, and continues to use the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers, also talks about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others. This is what should be the distinguishing characteristic of Jesus’s disciples.
And how do we learn about this sort of love? Most modern psychologists would say that we learn first from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family (an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) children are given from birth that absolute, unchanging, unconditional love, which enables them to grow into whole, confident adults, able to love everyone else with the love they were once given. But that sort of love is ‘family love’ and only a few people learn to extend it to those outside their families.
We also learn to love from our communities, especially, we would hope, our church communities. But church communities are made up of fallible humans too, and it is not surprising that they tend have exactly the same quarrels, disagreements and rifts that secular communities suffer from. But, at their best, churches can be schools of love.
The message of the Johannine writings, however, is that we learn best about this sort of love from God – and in particular from his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sent into the world to live out a life that was all love.
Because agape love comes from God, John’s community indicates that we do need more than just ‘love’ if we are to be faithful members of Christ’s body on earth – and in that they are supported by other New Testament writers.
The Gospel passage we heard came from the part of John’s Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to be betrayed and crucified – and in this last address to his disciples, John’s community portrays him as trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence – trying to prepare them for a situation in which they will be his body on earth – a body dedicated to loving action and service.
So, first of all, Jesus emphasises the importance of community. He speaks of himself as the Vine. Not just as the trunk, or the stump, you notice, but the whole Vine – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit and all. His followers, he says are the branches – so they are intimately a part of him – and it is these branches which will bear fruit to feed the world. Christ will bear fruit through us, the metaphor says – but only if we remain connected to him, and through him to God, and only if we stay connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love. It is a major challenge to the individualism that is so prevalent today.
A second important element ensuring that we remain in Jesus is his Word. The Gospel passage we heard and the Epistle we didn’t hear say that if we love God we will obey God’s commandments. These are not a burden, like the Law of the Old Testament. Rather, they are a series of guidelines which set out the way of love which Jesus lived, and therefore the way we should live.
Prayer is another important element emphasised by John. In prayer we listen to God’s word, and in prayer we are able to share our concerns with God. We are not meant to be Christians on our own – we need to be in communication with God and with each other if we are to bear fruit. Keeping in touch with Christ and with God our Father and our fellow Christians through prayer is another channel through which we are nourished in the faith.
Our human, imperfect love is fed through the gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s Epistles and Gospel emphasise that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Peter to Cornelius. Then we hear how the gift of the Spirit to Cornelius and his household, even before their baptism, persuaded him that these Gentiles should be admitted to the Christian community. In other passages in the New Testament we hear how the Spirit inspires us to speak and act with courage and with love. Through remaining in the Vine, we are fed by the Spirit and our faith and love are strengthened. The Spirit gives us constant assurance as we act and as we serve that we do so ‘abiding in God’s love’.
Finally, as well as love, we need the discipline of confession, repentance and renewal. Through the metaphor of the Vine, the Johannine writers remind us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit, or are growing in the wrong direction. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. We all of us – individuals and communities – go wrong sometimes, take courses of action which turn out to have unforeseen destructive consequences, or lead to different results which were not what we hoped for. We sometimes have to accept this, allow ourselves to be cut off from course of action which is no longer fruitful, and start again.
Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometimes, we need to let go, even face situations that feel like death, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession, reflection and renewal should not be things which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be renewed.
The agape love which John’s writing speaks of, and which Jesus practised, is not a wishy-washy, ‘anything goes sort of love’. It is ‘tough love’ – which makes demands and requires sacrifice and discipline of those who undertake to practise it. It is divine love in action; too difficult for ordinary humans to achieve unless they are as closely and completely open to God as Jesus was; unless they live in God, and God lives in them.
It is love which goes beyond what ordinary human love is capable of, the sort of love that Jesus demonstrated in his life and death. John’s Gospel says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Many of us think we might be able to do that, and we remember with honour those in our community who have done so. John’s Gospel defined ‘friends’ as those who are like us, those who believe the same things as us, those who belong with us. But the Jesus we hear teaching in the Synoptic Gospels redefined who ‘friends’ are. He taught us that our friends and neighbours are people very different from ourselves, people with different views, even people who regard us as enemies He told us we must love and do good to such ‘friends’ and even give them more than we would give to those who are our natural ‘friends’. How many ordinary people are prepared to give their lives for ‘friends’ defined in that radical way?
So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”
But ‘Yes!’ only if it is the love of God, which goes beyond human understanding, to that love which encompasses all creation as God’s children and God’s friends.