All you need is love
Here’s a line of a well-known song – can you finish the last word ‘All
you need is… love’. It’s what we’ve just heard from the Gospel
reading. There’s a story told by one of the early church fathers,
Jerome. He described how John the evangelist, author of the gospel,
preached at Ephesus into his nineties. He was so feeble that he had to
be carried into the church on a stretcher. When he could no longer
preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow, and the only
thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would
then carry him back out of the church. This continued for weeks. And
every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love
one another.” Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked,
"Master, why do you always say this?" John responded: "Because it is
the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."
It’s also what Jesus told his disciples… ‘love one another as I have
loved you’ (13.34). This wasn’t a particularly new commandment. At the
heart of the Jewish law is to ‘love you neighbour as yourself (Lev
19.18). And this loving one another is at the very heart of the
gospel. In some ways it’s so simple, yet so difficult to do. C.K.
Chesterton was baptized at St George’s (1874), and has this
challenging phrase: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found
wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."
I wonder, what might a church look like today if its congregation
truly loved one another? [And what exactly does this love mean? We
regularly meet couples who desire to get married in church – and they
are often head over heels about each other. They find it difficult to
let go of each other’s hands. Their eyes glaze over and I feel like
I’m intruding. It’s thoroughly disgusting! But as wonderful as those
intoxicating feelings are, true love is more robust, lasting and
gritty.] This active loving is exactly what the early church did.
Despite poverty and persecution they shared what they had with each
other, opened up their homes, gave to those in need. Tertullian, one
of the early Christian leaders, writes, ‘see how these Christians love
Probing a bit further in to our readings, Acts describes the early
church wrestling with how love was to be worked out. They were
learning that it was radical and costly. It challenged the way they
had thought and done things for centuries. The issue in Acts was over
commensality. (Com–with/ mensa–table) You share the mensa, the table,
with those who are not like yourself. And that is challenging.
In first century Judaism, there was a strict rule against Jews sitting
at table with the uncircumcised, with non-Jews, as well as those who
were ritually unclean. Association with such people would mean
contamination. Jesus completely ignored this. He got into trouble
because of his commensality – his table fellowship with tax
collectors, prostitutes, the unwashed. But still, even though these
sorts of people were viewed as unclean, they were still Jews.
Peter had to come to terms with the extraordinary mercy of God, a
mercy which transcended the boundaries of the Jewish tradition. Had he
been a hymn-writer, he might have expressed it in Faber's words:
"There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea."
Peter discovered that the Holy Spirit was given to people whom he
believed to be beyond the pale. Following his dream, he visits the
house of Gentiles, he steps over the threshold and enters their home.
And the pulsating energy of God’s Holy Spirit is poured out upon the
It’s difficult for us to understand how outrageous this would have
been. The church in Jerusalem was so shocked they convened a special
council to discuss it. They had to work through the implications of
what it meant for God to be working among the Gentiles. Peter's love
and commitment to these unexpected recipients of God's mercy silenced
the Church into wonder. It was through Peter listening to the
promptings of the Spirit that the good news came to be universalised.
It affirmed that God’s love is totally expansive – God was the God not
just of one particular tribe but rather the God of all.
The challenge for the church today, for us, is to sit down to eat with
those who are different from us. This is exactly what we do Sunday by
Sunday – around the Lord’s table – we share bread and wine. It would
be lovely to have a full meal, which is what the early Christians did,
but doing that every Sunday is a bit tricky practically.
Our commensality, our sharing a common meal is to include those who
are marginalised or forgotten about, with those who look different,
sound different, with those who have different customs and habits that
we don’t understand. It’s for young/ old; married/ single/ divorced;
gay/ straight/ bi/ and every other variation; rich/ poor; those in
employment/ those out of work/ those on benefits.
Where else in society today is there such an experience as this? This
meal we shall shortly share, week by week, is radical. It’s expressive
of Jesus’ command to love one another. It follows on from Peter’s
experience of sharing with those who are different. It’s about
breaking down barriers – which is why it’s so offensive when
Christians try to raise boundaries over who might be and might not be
This new kind of love that Jesus holds out requires us to open doors
that we have closed against others, to forgive those who have harmed
us, to respond to appeals that cry out for our help, particular in
this Christian Aid week. And with the help of God, as we love in this
way, ‘everyone will know that you are my disciples’ (Jn 13.35). This
sort of love is challenging, it’s difficult, I’m not particularly good
at it, so I shall finish with a line from a poem/ prayer, Wendell
Berry (Leavings 2012) which gives us a way to start:
"I know that I have life / only insofar as I have love.
I have no love / except it come from Thee.
Help me, please, to carry / this candle against the wind."