All You Need is Love

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A preacher’s job is to tell it how it is. And to be provocative if necessary, and to court dissension and even to accept invective for speaking the truth. 

So, in this spirit, I am going to put my neck on the line and say, 
‘I think the Beatles are way over-rated.’

Before you judge me, consider the evidence. They stopped performing live in 1966. Most of their lyrics are exceedingly strange.  For all that they went on about love and peace, they had more dysfunctional, vicious feuds than most other bands of the time. John Lennon stayed in bed to promote world peace. You know, I think it would have been more helpful if he’d got up and done something. And don’t even get me started on ‘Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try’. Actually, no, it’s not easy. I think that imagining that there is no heaven is one of the least easy things we could possibly attempt. A world that has no concept of heaven is a world without hope, a world devoid of the notion that there is something more to life than just ourselves.

But, for every rule there is an exception, and I think that in this case the exception is in their song, ‘All You Need Is Love’, which despite my general cynicism about John Lennon, and so on, is remarkably deep, even if he was intending – as some suggest – to try and be deliberately obscure, just to wind people up.

Indeed, the lyrics of ‘All You Need Is Love’ take a certain amount of careful thought to unravel. 

We all know the chorus: ‘All You Need Is Love DA, DA, DA DA, DAH….’, but have you considered some of the other stanzas? They aren’t as straightforward as they might seem. Indeed, they need some textual analysis. So, here are the lines I am most interested in:

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.
There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown.
All you need is love.

What I want to ask you is, ‘what do you think this means’? What does this mean: ‘There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done’? Let’s have some time to think about it, and then, for what it’s worth, I’ll add my thoughts.

What I think John Lennon was trying to say is this: ‘Anything you can do, anyone can do, anything you can sing anyone can sing; anything you make, anyone can make; if you save someone, well, big deal, anyone could save them. And if you know something, well, the very fact that you know it, even if it was a brand new discovery, means that it’s already known. And it’s impossible to see something if it can’t be seen. And, in the face of all of these bland and depressing certainties that make us and our daily lives remarkably unremarkable, there is one thing that marks us out as unique, one thing that allows us to express ourselves with originality and imagination’. Admittedly, John Lennon’s version is more poetic than mine.

Perhaps what ultimately he is trying to say is ‘don’t worry about what you do, or make, or know, because in the final analysis all that really matters is that we love one another’.

One of the most infamous, indeed notorious, of all the Beatles’ comments was that they were ‘bigger than Jesus’. Perhaps another example of calculated hubris. These guys were as smart. But, in point of fact, they were not bigger than Jesus. In fact, Jesus had already said precisely what Lennon was trying to say in ‘All you need is love’, and he said it on the night of the Last Supper; we heard the account of him saying it just now.

 Christ Reasoning with Peter, by Giotto di Bondone

Christ Reasoning with Peter, by Giotto di Bondone

‘I am giving you a new commandment’, says Jesus, ‘that you love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’.

Why did Jesus say that it was a ‘new’ commandment? He was, of course, making reference to the Ten Commandments – that seemingly exhaustive list of ethical guidelines. What we might consider was, and is, the last word in how to behave. But if this is so, why did Jesus feel it necessary to issue a ‘new’ commandment? Here’s the really extraordinary thing about the ten commandments. Nowhere in them does it way that we must love one another. It does say that we should love God, and it does say that we must do specific actions to stay in an harmonious relationship with our neighbor, such as not coveting his or her property. But the ten commandments do not say that we should love one another. Now, elsewhere in the Old Testament, in the Book of Leviticus, it does say that we should ‘love our neighbor as we love ourselves’, but even that is somewhat conditional. Jesus is unambiguous. We must love one another. No conditions. No mitigating circumstances for not having to love another person. And in a perfect world, this new commandment would supersede all laws and regulations.

It’s all very well having laws against crimes like murder, or adultery, or watching anything featuring the Kardashians, but the fact is that these laws would be utterly unnecessary if only we realized that we should love one another. Fundamentally, there is no law, no statute, no rule, that does not boil down to this singularity and that if we were to be so bold as to love all those we come into contact with, that would be the last word.

Clearly, none of us are that bold. We have a go at loving other, even loving our neighbors as ourselves, but we tend not to do a very good job of it, and so we end up needing more and more explicit instructions on how exactly we are meant to do it. And, despite some glaringly obvious exceptions, that’s all that the laws, statutes, regulations and rules throughout the history of humankind have been trying to achieve: to get us to love our fellow human being.
It seems to me that rather than simply thinking of laws and rules objectively, as ends in themselves, it would be good for us to think of them subjectively, basically asking ourselves the question, how does this law or rule help me to love my neighbor? Perhaps it is also a good test of determining the rightness or otherwise of a law. Does it help me love my neighbor? Does it help me to treat others the way I would want to be treated myself?

I think that all of us could do with thinking more consequentially about our actions. Some actions, by themselves, might not seem that big a deal BUT take time to think through the consequences – not just the immediate, obvious ones, but the more removed, unforeseen ones, and something that seems relatively innocuous might not really be so.

Equally, and just as important, I think we sometimes fail to think consequentially about the love that we have to offer, too. Sometimes we underestimate the impact that simply offering a loving action, no matter how small, has on those we gift it to. The thing about love is this – and I know that this is on a hundred, thousand, motivational pictures and so on, but that’s because it’s unerringly true – the thing about love is this: it’s only love if you give it away, share it. Love requires the action of offering. And our offering of it, no matter how small, has huge impacts. I was talking to Lena just recently about the Blythedale Children’s Hospital here in Westchester, where our Youth Group will be volunteering in June. Lena used to work there and she described to me the wonderful outpourings of love that she saw there on a daily basis, caring, gentle people simply sharing loving actions. People respond to love more than anything in the whole world. We warm to love like a flower turning toward the sun, and it makes us flourish. When Jesus said, also in John’s Gospel, that he came to this world in order that we might have life, and to have it in all its fullness, I believe that he was meaning that we experience that fullness of life when we experience love. 

In fact, that seems to be a good way to end a sermon. Simply by saying this: that whatever is kind and loving is of God, and that by our loving actions alone do we tell the world that we follow The Way of Jesus Christ.

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