Commanded to love

Text: John 15:9-17 (commanded to love)

“Love, love, love. All you need is love.” This is what the Beatles sang in June 1967 in the first-ever worldwide live satellite broadcast. Their song came to my mind as I reflected on today’s reading in which Jesus commands his friends to love each other.

I remember that 1967 broadcast. I was 10 at the time and one of 400 million people who watched it around the world. This meant it was the biggest TV audience to that time. I also remember being disappointed. In 1967, the Beatles were at the peak of their popularity. But “All you need is love” was one of their simpler songs both in its music and lyrics — too simple, I thought.

Given that the Beatles had just released “Sgt. Pepper’s,” which was complex and revolutionary, I can understand my disappointment. In its simplicity, “All you need is love” does not hint at the difficulties many of us have in finding and giving love.

A few years ago, the Beatles were central to an episode of my favourite TV series “Mad Men.” 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, is 40 and he feels out of touch with youth culture. 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” and directs him to the final cut. That song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” plays over the end credits.

In “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon again makes a simple statement about love — “Love is all and love is everyone.” But the music, which uses Indian rhythms and sitars, is more complex than “All is You Need is Love,” as are the rest of the lyrics, which were inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead and which go like this:

“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.”

I like “Tomorrow Never Knows” more than “All You Need is Love.” It could be true that all we need is love, for God is love and Jesus commands us to love one another. But in 1966 in the puzzling poetry of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” John Lennon points to the complexities of life and love in a way than his simpler 1967 song does not.

In church, we commit our lives to the God who is Love and pledge to follow in the way of Jesus. Among other things, this means joining the church’s conversation about love.

We carry on a never-ending conversation about love because it is too important, too difficult and too interesting a subject 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.

But given the centrality of love in our lives, why in today’s reading does Jesus command his friends to love one another? 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 most difficult one from the Sermon on the Mount to love one’s enemies. At the Last Supper, his command to this small band of dedicated friends is simply that they love each other.

I can understand how it might be difficult to love one’s neighbours and especially 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 that 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 that night, he was well aware of the terrible boundaries that surrounded him. He 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 his friends a way of service, compassion and joy.

Today, most of us don’t live in such fearful circumstances. Nevertheless, there is still much that we fear. Despite peace here in Canada, the 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 today, there are many forces that restrict 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 might still be 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.

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 has shown us the path to love most clearly.

But the authority we give to the Bible does not mean that it contains easy answers. 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 music. This did not mean that we found all musical truth in their songs nor that the lyrics of their songs contained all the things we could ever want to know about love. It means that we found a never-ending source of inspiration in their music that fuelled 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 because we need help with the difficulties of life; and because generations before us have given us the treasure of their ever-changing conversations about the God of Love to which the Bible points.

Take for instance one line that we heard Jesus say today: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Parenting might provide an illustration. Caring for the needs of children demands selfless devotion with all of the pain, joy and grace that can come in moments of selflessness.

Like the work of charity or the fight for social justice, parenting can help us remember that the small self is an illusion and that the deepest joy and freedom comes from realizing that life is not about us but about eternity and all of life – that love is all and love is everyone, as John Lennon said.

We seek God’s grace to make church a place of humble service and social justice. In serving one another and working for justice, we are lifted out of our small concerns and into the larger concerns of God’s Spirit.

Both church and family can help us to remember in moments of pain or joy that “love is all and love is everyone.”

Love is all we need, but it doesn’t always comes easily. The good news is that in families, churches, and social movements of all kinds, God give us the grace to lay down our lives for our friends and so rise to a new and eternal life of Love.

And so we say again, thanks be to God.


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