A Sermon preached on May 10th, Easter VI, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
There's nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
There’s a lot of love in that Beatle’s song, and you also won’t find so much love packed into so few lines anywhere else in the Bible than in today’s Gospel reading from John. "Love" is mentioned nine times in just eight verses. Jesus loves the Father, the Father loves Jesus, Jesus loves us, we are to abide in Jesus’ love, and we are to love one another as he loved us. So is love really all we need? If loving one another is the core Christian message, and as we heard a divine command, then it would seem to be one that we’ve been consistently ignoring.
War is of course the supreme example of how we ignore the command to love one another. Just 2 days ago, on May 8th, we commemorated the end of World War II, in Europe. A war ignited by aggression and by hate, by the hatred of ethnic and cultural minorities. And over the last two months I was personally confronted with the memory of the two world wars. First when I was invited to preach at a service in the city of Hanau commemorating the 70th anniversary of that city’s complete – and from what I’ve read wholly unnecessary - destruction in a British bombing attack. Then just a month ago when I joined a group of parishioners led by Jim White on a visit to the battlefields of the Somme. However peaceful and bucolic that area may now look, 100 years after the bloody battles of the First World War, you only have to go into the woods to see the remains of trenches and the holes made by the thousands of shells that exploded and killed and maimed the young men fighting on all sides. And I had the feeling that there was a neat and tidy and well-kept war graves cemetery around every corner!
Verse 13 of today’s gospel reading was sorely abused and misused in that conflict. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends,” Jesus says. As the theologian Tom Wright has noted this was taken out of its original context and used in ways that would have horrified the original writer. It was used “again and again, in sermons and lectures, set to music and sung by great choirs with one single meaning: therefore you, young man must go off to the front line, do what you’re told and if necessary die for your country and your comrades.” This was and is a complete perversion of what Jesus wanted to say in a passage that is all about love and not about war and certainly not about power. We’re in the middle of the so-called final discourse between the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest and execution. Jesus wants his disciples to understand that his crucifixion and cruel death will not be a sign of defeat, but of victory. It will not be a sign of death, but of life, and certainly not a sign of hate, but of love: Jesus’ love for his friends and his love for the whole world. That’s the message of this verse – his death is the highest example of his love.
This love is not an easy option. Whereas fighting often is. I’m not a pacifist, I believe there are cases where armed intervention can be just and necessary. But war is still never the best way of settling a dispute, and might is never right. As the writer of the first letter of John puts it, the only victory that counts, the only victory that will eventually conquer the world, is our faith (1 John 4) – in a God of love as seen in the life, teaching, and acts of God’s Son, Jesus. Love saves us, but war destroys us, both physically and spiritually. As Christians we are called to recognize the value of all lives, of every human being as a child of God. War on the other hand dehumanizes and turns people – both soldiers and civilians – into expandable resources, an enemy, or just a target on a screen.
For Christians love is not an option. It is a divine command and a pretty clear one at that: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:13) Of course the love that Jesus commands us to show and to share is not easy, nor is just some soft emotion. Love is a call to action, to concrete acts of love. Jesus already showed his love for his disciples and friends by acting as their servant and washing their feet just before he started his final speech. Jesus will show his love for us all in his death on cross. Jesus comes to us not just in the water of Baptism but also in the blood of his death (1 John 5:5). Love is not something theoretical, and it’s certainly not something that Jesus just recommends for others.
God in Jesus does everything that love can do and creates the context in which we are free to love in return. The “reward” for obeying this commandment is the joy we will experience by pleasing the one who is all love and goodness. Obedience to God is not just a matter of adhering to rules. It is also an intimate relationship, what the passage calls abiding in God’s love, with the one who made and loves us. That brings real joy.
Jesus has chosen the disciples and chosen us who are his followers. We have been chosen and appointed to go and manifest the life of God, to bear fruit that will last. In the context of this passage that fruit can only mean signs and acts of love. I’m not asking you to go out and stop wars, though I won’t stop you if you do! But I am asking you to put the other first, to will the good of the other and to act for the good of the other. The fruit that lasts can be all sorts of things that result from that frame of mind. It might just be a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loves us. It can be a single decision to greet a stranger, a single gift of time or attention, a single action through which the world becomes a better place, even if just for a moment, even if just for one person. All of these are the fruits of love and they will last for all eternity. The more we put Jesus love into action, the closer we will get to him and the more we will abide in his love.
The author GK Chesterton, known among other things for his Father Brown detective stories, once said: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” That also applies to the command to love one another – in whatever form it is given. Love too has been found difficult and not tried, at least not enough.
I started with a song by the pop group, the Beatles, and so I will finish with part of a prayer by a spiritual pop star, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. I can only assume that he had been reading the same Bible passages as we heard today when he wrote this prayer in 1968, not long before his untimely death:
Oh God, we are one with You. You have made us one with You. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, You dwell in us. … Fill us then with your love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes You present in the world, and which makes You witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious.