Easter 5 Year B (Acts 8, 26-40; 1 John 4, 7-21; John 15, 1-8)
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 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 his teaching on the faith. But would that be true?
Certainly agape love is very important in his theology. It forms the main topic of his first Epistle from which we heard this morning. For John, God is love, and those who live in loving relationship with everyone in their community, live in God. For John too, love was the reason that Jesus was sent into the world, and God’s love is the reason why we can be confident we are redeemed, and have no fear on the day of judgement.
The gospel passage, which uses the metaphor of the Vine to describe the relationship Jesus and his followers, continues ( in the passage set for next Sunday) to talk about love – the sort of love that leads a person to lay down their lives for others – as what should be the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples.
And how do we learn about this sort of love? Most modern psychologists would say that we learn from our families, and they are right. In an ideal family ( an ideal that few of us achieve, because we are human and fallible!) small 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 John’s writings, however, is that we learn 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 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 John is 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, he is trying to prepare them for life without his physical presence. He is 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, he 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 if we connected to everyone else in his fellowship of love. John’s image of the Vine is a parallel to Paul’s image of the Body, with its emphasis on the necessity of everyone remaining connected to everyone else, and honouring and loving everyone else. 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 speaks of the Word as cleansing us. And our reading from Acts also emphasises the importance of the scriptures in keeping us connected to God and to Christ. In traditional Judaism, the Ethiopian Eunuch could have no place in the covenant community – he was foreign and castration rendered him damaged and imperfect. But the scriptures of traditional Judaism also contained hope for him – in the prophecies of Isaiah, which in chapter 56 verses 3-5, speaks of the time when the foreigner and the eunuch would also be incorporated into God’s people. The Ethiopian needed more than love to bring him to the point where he was ready to ask for baptism. He needed the exposition of God’s Word which Philip was able to bring to him. That Word is one element in the nourishment in the faith which we receive through the Vine.
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 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 emphasises that it is the Spirit who enables Christians to testify to the Truth; and in Acts we hear how the Spirit led Philip to speak to the Ethiopian; and 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, John reminds us that in viticulture, fruitfulness is ensured by the cutting away of branches that have ceased to bear fruit. Though it may be painful, loss and renewal are a necessity if we are to continue to do God’s work. Loving does not always mean preserving what we love. Sometime, we need to let it go, even let it die, if we are to experience renewed life and fruitfulness. Repentance and confession should not be something which Christians fear – as John’s Epistle reminds us, perfect love casts out fear – because through the life and death of Christ we should have confidence that when we abide in God, we will be forgiven and 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.
So, can we say as Christians “All you need is love?”
No – and Yes!