1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
As the Beatles famously put it, “All you need is love”. Or as I believe the original text has it – and as you know, I do love going back to the original text – “all you need is love, doo-doo, doo-do-doo.”
At this point, I could just stop there and you’d get ten minutes of your lives back. But (a) I’m not that kind, and (b) I’d think I was short-changing you, so bad luck!
It really is that simple. And yet we know it isn’t. Why? Because love isn’t what we think it is, or what we’ve been told it is. It’s not an emotion, or at least it’s not just an emotion. I don’t know which of the Beatles actually wrote “All you need is love” (I bet there’s someone here or listening on-line who could tell me!), but John Lennon then went on to get it badly wrong in what is often said to be the best song ever written, “Imagine”. I must say I’d find it very depressing to be human if I thought “Imagine” was the best we could come up with. The perfect world will exclude heaven, faith, anything worth dying for. Plus it’s a multi-millionaire singing about how marvellous it is not to own anything…but its view of life, and what’s important about life, doesn’t get past how these things make us feel.
Love ain’t like that, not as it is understood by the Bible. Love there is a commitment, a covenant, a treaty, a promise, creation, redemption, salvation, sorrow, joy. The whole human condition: in fact, more than that, the whole cosmic condition. This is what Dante is talking about when he says that love is “what moves the sun and all the other stars”. It is the nature of who God is. In that sense it’s true: all you need is Love.
And this is the background against which our readings today go on and on (and on) about Love.
I think it’s easy to skip over the depth of what John is actually saying in his letter. We can do one of two things. We can not take it seriously “yeah, we know. God is love, blah blah blah, and so we all have to be nice to each other. Everyone knows that” or we can make the other mistake, of taking it too seriously: we read “if we love one another, God lives in us” and we think of all the times we haven’t lived up to it, all the things we’ve done wrong….the times we’ve lost our tempers or said something and bitten our tongues….the family fallings-out……or perhaps the times when OK, we were right all along, but we’d just feel so much better if someone acknowledged it and apologised to us. We can be so petty about these things. For example: I will confess here the surge of annoyance I get when I wait in my car for another driver coming the other way and they don’t thank me. I have no idea why it winds me up as much as it does. But it does! Sometimes it’s worse, as I’ll say to my other half, “well, they could at least have said thank you” and he says “he did”….the light on the windscreen means he could see it but I couldn’t. So even my righteous anger is taken away from me.
So we look at the ideal, we see how we have fallen short, and those dark little thoughts start up about how can we be God’s people? Given what we’re like, how can God possibly love us?
Let’s look at it again. “Those who say “I love God”, and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars…..for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” That sounds obvious: but we all know people who give generously to good causes in faraway lands but can’t stand the neighbours!
What are we to do? We are all only human after all.
Fortunately, love is not an emotion, or not just an emotion. It is a decision we make. We’re just getting to the start of wedding season, and of course we all know that the marriage vows say that we’re going to stick with it “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer”. Whatever happens. And that’s a promise that we all make in deepest ignorance, because of course we have no idea of what that’s really going to mean. And because we live in a broken world, in some cases it doesn’t work out that way: but it is a sincere decision, seriously made in good faith, nonetheless.
And God understands that too. In this is love, says John, not that we loved God but that he loved us. Nothing will change that.
What makes this possible? Well, notice a word which keeps cropping up: “abide”. Whole books have been written on it, but don’t worry, we’re not going into that much detail. The meanings in English are very similar to those in the Greek text (told you so): to stay, wait for, expect, remain, to be unchanged, or my favourite, to stand one’s ground. All of these are long-term actions or states of mind….and of course, within that long term, there will be times when we’re downhearted or we may even give up. But we can come back. God’s not going anywhere. It’s about belonging, if you like.
I am the vine, says Jesus, and you are the branches. You belong to me. You are part of me. If you get cut off, then you’ll wither away. And I’m part of you. This I think is one of the great insights of the Society of Friends (or Quakers): they teach about looking for the “inner light” in other people: that which is of God. Or we may be used to icons of the saints in the Orthodox tradition. But that tradition also says that people can be icons in themselves: a walking, talking reflection of the living God.
And what if we do fall short? Well, my first vicar in Birmingham said wisely: “God requires us to love people. But he’s not unreasonable: he doesn’t tell us we have to like them.” That’s very liberating, isn’t it?
Let’s face it: none of us is good enough, but here we are. We believe: we are the Church. And it’s our job to be not good enough out there, where people can see us, trying, failing, loving. It’s our job. It is our duty and our joy, as we say every week. And it’s how we give thanks and praise, because God loved us first.