TEXT: 1 John 4:7-21
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
If you are of my generation—or even if you’re not—you probably recognize those lyrics.
“All You Need Is Love” is, of course, a song written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon-McCartney. It was originally performed by the Beatles on the world’s first-ever live global television link. Called Our World—and broadcast via satellite on June 25th, 1967—the program was watched by over 400 million people in 25 countries. The BBC had commissioned the Beatles to write a song for the United Kingdom’s contribution to the telecast, asking them to come up with something that could be understood by everyone. So that’s what they did. And it certainly would be hard to misinterpret their message: love is everything.
“Love is all you need.”
As a slogan, it is simple and straight to the point. And, according to Jade Wright—who is a journalist in the Fab Four’s hometown of Liverpool—it is exactly what you would expect from John Lennon, who “was fascinated by the power of slogans to unite people and never afraid to create art out of propaganda. When asked in 1971 whether songs like Give Peace a Chance and Power to the People were propaganda songs, he answered: ‘Sure. So was All You Need Is Love. I’m a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change’.” 1
Apparently, John Lennon thought love was a revolutionary idea. That other John—the one who’s credited with writing two of the “general” (or “catholic”) epistles—might very well have agreed with him. When he wrote words like “love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7)—the apostle would have known that this was a radical message.
Yes. Radical. “God is love.” Through the millennia, we Christians have grown accustomed to this phrase—and most of us are blissfully unaware of how it would have sounded to those who heard it first.
“God is love.” To ancient people—especially those raised as pagans—such an idea would have appeared ridiculous. That is why the apostle Paul described the Good News of Jesus Christ as “folly” or as “foolishness” to the Greeks, whose pantheon was filled with capricious and unpredictable gods (see 1 Cor. 1:23).
Truth be told, the notion of a loving God sounds equally ridiculous to many people today—perhaps even to most people today! Think about how the vast majority of human beings live their lives: in the midst of poverty, infant mortality, recurring famine, fatal epidemic, armed conflict and natural disaster (not to mention devastating accidents, senseless violence and terrorist attacks). In the face of so much tragedy, the claim that “God is love” seems …
Well, it seems like folly, doesn’t it?
Even so, we Christians persist in spreading that message. We even dare to sing: “Love has won, death has lost!” 2
We assert that God’s love both transcends and pervades common human experience. However, perhaps we sometimes proclaim this too glibly. Perhaps we tend to sentimentalize this love. And perhaps—when our own lives are peaceful and prosperous—we forget that this is not the case for everyone. To the starving multitudes, God’s love is not obvious. And to those who are oppressed or enslaved in the name of religion … Well, to them the “love of God” must sound like a cruel joke. The idea that “God is love” seems counter-intuitive to many. In fact, it sounds like escapist fantasy of the highest order.
To say we believe that God is love is to commit ourselves to a counter-cultural—yes, even to a radical—confession of faith. Yet that is the way of the Gospel. We are bearers of the message that God is for you, God is with you, God cares about you—and, yes, God loves you. To pagans—both ancient and modern—that sounds too good to be true. It is a message so good … that it borders on foolishness.
Without Jesus Christ, this Gospel of ours would be foolishness. In Christ, God brought divine love into our midst. In Christ, God came among us as one of us—not to judge us or to condemn us—but to join us, to be in solidarity with us—to live our real human life, fully and completely. In the name of love, Jesus came to live, to suffer, to die … and then to rise again as a testimony to love’s indestructibility. Nothing can extinguish God’s love for us—not even death!
John’s letter makes this point crystal clear: God is the source and the definition of love. God is love. Love expresses who God is. This is not some abstract concept. It is passion expressed through action. In Jesus of Nazareth, the love of God became flesh and blood. To this very day, God demonstrates his love through Jesus’ continuing presence.
By the way, all of these truths are symbolized in the Sacrament of the Table—what Christians variously refer to as Holy Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. As we share bread and cup, we proclaim Christ’s life, and his death, and his rising—even as we discover his “real presence” is embodied in us! Jesus is truly and physically present in his people who come to the table.
And here is good news, my friends: this love does not depend upon our initiative or upon our worthiness. We do not have to reach out to God—or even believe in God—in order to be loved. We do not have to clean up our act before God can love us. We do not have to measure up to some high standard in order to be lovable. No. God showers love upon us even though he knows we do not deserve it. That does sound too good to be true, and yet …
The First Epistle of John is unequivocal on this point: the more fully and completely we know God, the more the immense reality of God’s love dawns upon us: “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
When we open our hearts to the warmth and light of God’s presence, we find that even our deepest, darkest secrets—even the ugliest parts of ourselves—are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing in us is so broken or so filthy that God is unwilling or unable to touch it.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment …” (1 John 4:18)
God embraces us as we are, loves us as we are, and works in us to make us clean and whole and new. Embraced by such great love, why should we be afraid?
This news is too wonderful to keep to ourselves! To be filled with God’s love is to become an overflowing cup. Realizing the depth of God’s love for us causes us to view our sisters and brothers as God’s loved ones, also. As we behold the love of God, we see for ourselves that it is unearned and undeserved—a freely-offered gift. All we have to do is accept it.
But here’s the thing: even though God’s love is without conditions, it is not without responsibility! God commands us to love one another as he has loved us. In case we have not understood the firmness of this command, First John expresses it in a way that leaves no room for doubt: “as [God] is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17b).
This does not mean that Christians are all-knowing, or all-powerful or morally pure. No. John tells us that—because God lives in us—we embody God’s love for the world. We are not ourselves gods … but God’s love is incarnate in us.
The first-century churches to which John wrote found themselves caught up in conflict—internal conflict. Christians were having bitter disagreements about many things, such as: correct theology; false teaching; authority; morality; privilege, property, and prestige. They were hurling insults—and perhaps even stones—at one another.
In this context, First John focuses on love for fellow believers—for others who belong to the community of faith. But does this mean that we are called only to love those who belong to our group? To care only for those who believe as we do?
Of course not. The whole foundation of John’s argument leads us to a different conclusion. If we truly love our neighbours the way God has loved us, there can be no boundaries. God’s love—made visible and present in Jesus—is the fountainhead of the love we are called to share with others.
Remember, Jesus ignored the limits that religious orthodoxy would impose. He ate and spoke and ministered with people whom the religious authorities had rejected as heretics. He embraced those whom polite society regarded as sinful—even as filthy and despicable. He touched people who were considered untouchable. He welcomed the outcasts.
If Jesus shows us what God’s love is like, then there can be no doubt how far our love for others must extend: it must reach every single human being. Now, that does not mean we should tolerate abusive behaviour, or allow ourselves or others to be threatened or harmed. But we are challenged to respond in the most loving way possible … even to those who appear to us most unlovable!
I know. It’s a tall order, isn’t it?
But look, this kind of love can never originate with us. It is not our own love—weak and limited—that we share with God’s children. No. We are called to open ourselves up to God’s love, so that God can love others through us. When we love one another, we re-present God to the world. We make divine love real and visible by sharing it.
God invites us to let Jesus live in us. Why? So that—through us—Jesus can continue to welcome outcasts and touch untouchables and heal the broken. When God’s unimaginable, boundless love comes alive in us, we become as Christ for those around us. We embody the love of God, here and now.
Like I said, it’s a tall order. But it is within our reach, because of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us. As it also says in the fourth chapter of First John: “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Thanks be to God.