Sunday, May 13, 2012

Commanded to love

Texts: 1 John 4 7-21 (God is Love); John 15 9-17 (commanded to love)

"Love, love, love. All you need is love." So sang the Beatles in June 1967 in the world's first live satellite TV broadcast. Their song came to my mind as I thought about today's Gospel reading in which Jesus commands his friends to love each other and our reading from First John that reminds us that God is Love.

I remember that 1967 satellite broadcast -- I was 10 at the time -- the novelty of it, and the excitement we felt to be part of it. 400 million people watched around the world, which meant it was the biggest TV audience to that time. I also remember being disappointed in this Beatles song, despite its popularity and its message. By 1967, the Beatles were at the peak of their popularity and they were revolutionizing popular culture. But "All you need is love" was one of their simpler songs both in its music and its words -- too simple, I thought.

Given that the Beatles had just released "Sgt. Pepper's," which is arguably the most influential pop album of all time, I can understand my disappointment. Of course, none of us would disagree with the message "All you need is love." But in its simplicity, the song does not hint at the difficulties many of us have in finding love, giving love, and living a life that reflects God's love.
The music of the Beatles was central to the latest episode of "Mad Men," which was broadcast this past Sunday night. The year is 1966, and the executives of an advertising agency in New York City are trying to find a Beatles-like song for one of their clients. The lead character, Don Draper, at age 40, feels out of touch with the youth culture of his time. So he turns to his 26-year old wife, Megan, for help. At the end of the episode, she hands him the latest Beatles album, "Revolver," which happens to be my personal favourite, and she directs him to the final cut. This song, "Tomorrow Never Knows" plays over the end credits of the episode. 

In "Tomorrow Never Knows," John Lennon again makes a simple statement about love, singing "Love is all and love is everyone." But the music, which uses Indian rhythms and sitars, and the rest of its psychedelic lyrics are more complex and evocative than "All is You Need is Love." Here are those lyrics: 

"Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream. It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thought, surrender to the void. Is it shining? Is it shining? That you may see the meaning of within. It is being, it is being. Love is all and love is everyone. Is it knowing? Is it knowing? That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead. It is believing, it is believing. But listen to the colour of your dreams. Is it not living, is it not living. Or play the game "Existence" to the end. Of the beginning, of the beginning."

It could be true that all we need is love, for God is love, and Jesus commands us to love one another. But in the puzzling poetry of "Tomorrow Never Knows," Lennon in 1966 hints at the complexities of life and love in a way than his 1967 song does not.

This morning, nine young people in our communities commit their lives to the God who is Love and pledge to follow in the way of Jesus on his path of faith, hope and love. This commitment does not mean that they now know all there is to know about love. None of us could ever make that claim. What it does do is officially admit them to the church's longstanding and never-ending conversation about love. 

Love is our most sacred value. Despite its difficulties and complexities, we believe that love is our source, our calling and our destiny. We carry on a never-ending conversation about love in the church because the topic is too important, too difficult and too interesting to ever stop. In this conversation, we stand on the traditions of centuries and use the inexhaustible source of the books of the Bible to inspire and guide us.

Today's sermon is just a small part of that ongoing conversation. By discussing two of our Scripture readings from today, I try to point to this centuries-old, sometimes frustrating, and always important conversation about the God who is Love and about the way of Love shown to us by Jesus.

Given the importance of love in our lives, why does Jesus command his friends and us to love one another in today's reading from the Gospel of John? Can we not just love each other without prompting? Is love really that difficult?

Jesus is speaking to his friends at their Last Supper on the night before his death. In this passage, he does not repeat his earlier commandment to love one's neighbour as oneself, nor his difficult commandment from the Sermon on the Mount to love one's enemies. At the Last Supper, his command to this small band of dedicated students is simply that they love each other. This chosen family of friends will later will become the kernel of the early church.

I can understand why it can be difficult to love one's neighbours as oneself; and how very difficult it can be to love one's enemies. But surely in a family of chosen friends, we don't need to be reminded to love one another. Or do we?

Life, for all the we adore about it, is often not easy. In all loving families, there are moments of conflict and hurt. In all lives, there are moments of pain and fear. We all have to live within the boundaries of what is possible in our times. Though we may strain against these boundaries, they exist.

When Jesus spoke to his friends, he was well aware of the terrible boundaries that surrounded him. Jesus knew that later that night, one of his friends would betray him and that the next day, the Roman Empire, which had occupied and oppressed his people for a century, would torture and kill him. Despite these terrible conditions, Jesus showed to his friends a way of service, love, compassion and joy. 

Today, most of us don't live in such fearful circumstances. Nevertheless, we still have much to fear. Despite the peace that exists in Canada, our world is filled with violence, war, and terrorism. Despite the prosperity that most Canadians enjoy, many of us struggle, and billions around the world suffer needlessly. Despite all the opportunities that exist for young people like those being confirmed today, there are many forces that restricts us and make finding and giving love more difficult that we wish it were.

These difficulties are some of the reasons why Jesus' words to his friends are still relevant to us today. Talking about them can be an occasion for us to discuss what facilitates love and what continues to make it difficult.

I was glad that another of today's readings is the one from First John. It contains the simple and important statement that God is Love. But it also contains much that I find puzzling and challenging. It talks about perfect love casting out fear, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and the connection between loving brothers and sisters and love of God. I imagine that it contains a whole universe of possible meanings. But like much in the Bible, I do not find it easy to understand.

Christians give authority to the Bible on big questions like Love. In particular, we give authority to the words of Jesus since he is the Holy One who was shown us the path to love most clearly.

But the authority we give to the Bible does not mean that it contains easy answers,  which we can simply read off of it. It has authority because it inspires our worship, our service, our social justice work -- and our conversations.

People of my generation gave the Beatles authority in terms of pop and rock music. This did not mean that all musical truth was found in their music nor that the lyrics of their songs contained all the truth one could ever want to know about love. It means that many of us found a never-ending source of inspiration and interpretation in their music and that this fuelled our own music and our conversations.

Likewise, we come to the Church to discuss readings from the Bible not because they contain all the answers -- that would be too easy and would therefore not be believable. We come to the church and the Bible because we need help with the difficulties of life; and because generations before us have given us the treasure of their ever-changing and growing conversations that centre on the Bible, and on the God of Love in Christ to which the Bible points.

Church is a place where small or large groups worship together to try and clarify our values and remind ourselves of the Way of the Cross. In church, we seek God's grace to make it a place of humble service, for it is in serving one another that we are reminded of the gift of community and are taken out of our small concerns into the large concerns of God's Spirit. We seek God's grace to make church a place to discuss social problems and resist forces that lead to violence, habitat destruction, or the other diseases of our times. 

At church we hope to find companions for the journey. At church, we hope to find others who see in Jesus a reason to trust life despite the many things of which we are afraid. At church we hope to find others who want to serve the community and resist social injustice. And so we give thanks for this community of faith and others like it around the world.

In a few moments, nine of you will officially join the church by reaffirming the vows made on your behalf as infants when you were baptized. In doing so, you take a small but important step forward on God's path of faith, hope and love. Among other things, we hope that it will encourage you to continue to be a part of the puzzling but life-giving conversation in the church on what it means to worship the God who is Love and to give and receive love amid life's fears and difficulties. 

Church is not all that we need to remember that "love is all and love is everyone." But it can play a crucial role at many different moments of joy, pain or heartbreak in our lives, especially when it helps point us to the God who is Love.

Love is all we need, for perfect love casts out fear. For Christians, God's perfect love is shown to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As mortal humans with much to fear, we will not always show perfect love to one another. But the perfect love of God in Christ give us the confidence to respond to God's call to love. It guides us, inspires us and is always available to us when we most need it in this world of wonders and in lives of joy, pain, and grace.

Thanks be to God.


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