There are a lot of songs about the power of love. Apparently it’s all you need. We just need to sow the seeds and then let love rule. But does love win? Does love win out over evil in the end? Because when we look at the world around us, it sure doesn’t look like it. It looks like love gets crushed. It looks like love gets a big black boot on the face when it stands up to the forces of tyranny. So why should we love? Why are Jesus and the Bible always talking about the importance of love? Isn’t all this love talk just wishful thinking? Just the sweet words of bleeding hearts, but impractical when it comes to actually dealing with the real world of despotism and oppression. Even the towering 20thcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said as much. He said that trying to follow Jesus’ love ideal in the world would “inevitably lead us to where it led Jesus, to the cross” (1). In other words it’s a nice ideal, but if we practice it in the world we’ll get ourselves killed.
And yet in our passage from John’s gospel we hear Jesus giving some final teachings to his disciples before he enters his time of trial and execution. These are known as his ‘farewell discourses’. It’s the eleventh hour and it’s time to impart some final wisdom to his disciples. And what does he ask them to do? Does he ask them to go and sabotage Roman garrisons? Does he ask them to go out to the desert caves and form an end time cult like the Essenes did? No, he asks them to love one another like he loved them. And like God loved Jesus. Jesus displayed for the disciples what God’s love looks like, and he asks them to love each another in the same way. The cynic is us might say, that’s all well and good Jesus, but despite all this loving going on, the Romans still killed you. And Paul. And Peter. And Stephen. Perhaps this love business is just a bit impractical when it comes to dealing with the ‘real world’ of power and empire.
Let me make a case today that it isn’t so. That in the long run, love can win. We’ll need to start off with a 30,000-foot view, and then we’ll descend down into our lives here in the Comox Valley. But first we need to do a little theology. The author of John’s gospel famously states that, “God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). I’m sure most of us know this phrase. God is not only the source of love, God is love. But the thing is, God’s love isuncontrolling (2). God is the source of creation, and God desires for creation to be transformed in the image of love. But God does not force it to be so. The evolution of the cosmos contains genuine freedom and free will. Through the process of evolution creation is able to continually create itself in an ongoing way, without God directing it or intervening. But God does desire that the cosmos become transformed in Love’s image. So how does God influence this process? How does God guide creation towards love without directly intervening? God does this by alluring creation towards love, like the pungent smell of a rose garden might allure us off a path to get a closer whiff. Like the pillar of fire that leads the Israelites through the desert, God is out on the road ahead of us, alluring toward a more beautiful future. We get messages and omens and signs of this future. We hear whispers, we have intuitions, we get called by God to walk on this path of love. But we must make a choice to do so. God allures us, but does not force us. As Paul says in Corinthians, “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor. 13:5).
Great thinkers have for a long time believed that love is a power that’s somehow operating in the cosmos. The Greek philosopher Empedocles, for instance, thought that reality was made up of four elements, and that they were drawn together and pulled apart by the forces of Love and Strife. Love is the force that brings the elements together into new entities, while Strife is the force that pulls them apart. Sigmund Freud expressed a similar view in the early 20thcentury. He said that love (or eros as he called it) was a force that attracts different elements of the cosmos together to form new entities. Freud said that human civilization itself was under the sway of this binding power. He writes, “Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind” (3). This sounds very much like the visions of Isaiah, where all humans will come together at God’s mountain (Isa. 2:1-4). Or the Book of Revelation, where the author sees a future where all peoples will come together on a transformed earth (Rev. 7:4). But there’s another force trying to stop this expanse of love. The other force Freud called Thanatos, a Greek word that means “death force”. For Freud, like Empedocles, it’s a force that destroys things and tears them apart. So at the heart of the cosmos is an ongoing struggle between these two forces, love, or the force of binding and uniting, and destruction, the force of tearing apart (4).
So let’s begin our descent down from 30,000 ft. We’ve seen that God is love, and that God allures all of creation toward being transformed in the image of that love. But freedom exists in the cosmos and so do forces of destruction that try and pull us apart, forces that try and stop people from coming together in the spirit of love. Paul called these dark forces “the principalities and powers”. In our culture today many forces have pulled us apart from one another. Maybe these are economic forces that make us move to find work, or to somewhere we can afford to live. Maybe these are technological forces, which keep us siloed off from one another through screens and headphones. Maybe it’s cultural forces, which keep us fighting over the latest issue in the endless culture wars. Maybe it’s media forces, which increases its viewership by constantly sowing fear.
Many people today feel isolated and alone as a result of all this. And apparently social media only makes the feeling worse. The social fabric of our societies has been frayed and torn apart. There’s been a long-term decline in volunteerism and civic organizations over the past several decades. Many people don’t know their neighbours like they used to. Kids aren’t allowed to roam alone without parents. There’s a general atmosphere of fear. Somewhere you can just see the devil sitting at the table after a fine meal, picking his teeth with a long bone, smiling at the world laid out before him. The forces of division and strife are currently having a field day.
But Jesus’ teaching on love counters all of that. It’s a subtle but powerful antidote to all of the separation and division we see around us. And when Jesus talks about love, he’s not talking about a feeling or a sentiment, something our Hallmark culture has reduced it to. Jesus is talking about an action. He’s talking about being there for one another. Jesus says the greatest love of all is “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. The greatest love is offering my life for others, and having others do the same for me. This is a vision of community, of a healthy and united group of people. This is God’sdream for us. This doesn’t mean that we loseour identities entirely in the service of the collective, like we saw in Communist and other totalitarian societies. That’s an unhealthy version of what we’re talking about. In this coming together people keep their unique identities but come together and offer their gifts in service of the whole. Paul expresses this beautifully with his notion of the body of Christ. Paul says, “For it’s just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many parts” (1 Cor. 12:12-24). Each different and unique part of the body- the hand, the eye, the ear and so on- is important and needs to keep their unique identity and gifts. But they come together as a whole to create something greater then themselves. This is the binding force of love.
The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast defines love this way- he says, “Love is a “Yes” to belonging” (5). I love that. Love is a Yes to belonging. It’s all about coming together, about connection, about community. And despite the dark picture I just painted of a society beset by the forces of disintegration, I see many new forces counteracting those trends too. The local food movement, and the general “locavore” or buying local movement, has been important. Knowing who grows our food, getting to know producers in our region, putting money into our local communities. All of this builds the social fabric again. They say that 80% more conversations happen at a farmers market than a grocery store. It’s a binding force.
I’ve found the same in the craft breweries that have popped up all over BC since 2013. I’ve been tracking the movement since it blew up, not only because I love a good craft brew, but also because these breweries were fast becoming places where social connection was happening in a positive way. Strangers easily talk to one another, chit chatting about the beer they’re drinking first, and then talking in general. This breaks through the trance of separation. It feels good. And the craft beer scene has reintroduced the longtable, those long tables where you have to sit beside strangers. Not strangers! I remember first sitting at those, and it was a bunch of nervous polite Canadians feeling awkward. But people have gotten used to them over time, and I’ve met people from all walks of live who are sitting beside me. And the beer itself speaks to place and the local community too. Instead of “this Buds for you”, which we could buy anywhere in the world, the beer is often made with local ingredients, named after local places and historical characters, and the tasting rooms all have distinct flavours. These businesses and so many more in the local and craft movements are to me signs of the Spirit’s binding work in our time, despite the darkness. I’d love to hear from you about any others places you see a similar spirit at play in our culture today.
Many people are also coming to see through the media narrative of fear that we’re constantly fed. It’s danger after danger. It’s one supposed coming apocalypse after another. It’s all designed to keep us watching and to sell products along the way. It has the effect of activating the fight or flight response in our ancient nervous systems, and swelling our amygdalas. It’s makes us anxious and distrusting of one another. But it’s not working anymore. Many are turning it off, or not falling for the trap. The force of love is getting stronger. There’s a great awakening happening today, I truly believe that. The pendulum is swinging back in the direction of love and connection, and all of us can be leaders in helping that movement in our own little way. All of our actions count. And if we think we don’t matter, let us never forget Jesus’ parables of the leaven and the mustard seed. It only takes a little bit of yeast to make a big loaf of bread. And one little mustard seed can eventually take over the whole garden. That’s how the kingdom of God works. From small things big things come. Anything is possible when we’re sowing the seeds of love. To quote the Eric Clapton song ‘Let It Grow’, “Let it grow, let it grow/ Let it blossom, let it flow/ In the sun, the rain, the snow/ Love is lovely, let it grow/ Plant your love and let it grow’.
And guess what- sowing the seeds of love also brings us joy as we do it! This is what Jesus says in our passage. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy might be in you, and that your joy may be complete”. To love others brings joy to our lives. A world with more love is a world that’s more joyful. Amen to that. But we might be thinking to ourselves, “I’m not worthy of God’s love. I can’t be a planter of love, because I’m too flawed, and God won’t accept me”. But our passage tells a different story. Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you”. We don’t have to go to God and grovel, asking for permission to sow the seeds of love. God has already come to us. We’re already loved. We just need to sit in that love, we need to abide in it as Jesus says. Sit in it and be healed. And as we’re healed, as we come to know we’re loved, we’ll able to love others in return. So we’re all riders on this train. And if we plant our love and let it grow, friends I tell you, this train is bound for glory.
So will love win? I think it will overcome the forces of darkness that beset our world today. But what we do in the world and in our community’s matters to the story. The passage from 1 John we read today has a potent line in it. It says, “Whatever is born of God conquers the world” (1 John 5:14). Whatever is born of God conquers the world. That’s the power of love. It’s stronger than death, and it’s stronger than evil. Those forces couldn’t contain Jesus. The risen Christ walks among us, still alluring us to a future that only love can bring about. 1 John also says this- “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 John 3:2). We shall be like God. Bearing love. Connecting, coming together, uniting with one another, binding. Let’s reveal that future together. May it be so. Amen.
(1) Niebuhr quoted in-Elizabeth Phillips, Political Theology- A Guide for the Perplexed, p.85.
(2) For more on this view see- Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God- An Open and Relational Account of Providence, 2015.
(3) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, p.81-82
(4) This sounds like a simple dualism, but in the work of Freud and others on this subject the two forces often mix and comingle. But that level of complexity is not needed (or appropriate) for the goals of this sermon.
(5)“PRAYER: Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part Three) by Brother David Steindl-Rast”. https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2018/02/26/prayer-love-a-yes-to-belonging-part-three-by-brother-david-steindl-rast/