that Overcomes the Powers
A sermon on 1 John 5: 1-6 and John 15: 9-17 by Nathan Nettleton, 17 May 2009
Love can be a lot more controversial than we usually think. We are accustomed to thinking of it as something everyone is in favour of and everyone is looking for. “Looking for love.” “All you need is love.” “Love makes the world go round.” Everyone believes in love don’t they?
So why does Jesus say think that he has to command us to love? How can love be an order, or a law? Wouldn’t that just kill it? And what is the Apostle John talking about in the bit we heard tonight from one of his letters when he start suggesting that love is fundamental to conquering the world. And the words he uses sound more like the victory of a military struggle, not a marketing campaign. There is powerful and violent opposition to be faced, and yet it is love and faith that he says will win the day. What are they talking about?
I want to approach the question a little bit backwards. I’m going to start by exploring what John means by “the world” when he says that those who love and have faith will overcome or overthrow the world. Throughout the New Testament, the term “the world” is used in two different ways. We similarly use it in two different ways, but they don’t line up entirely. Sometimes “the world” means “the Earth”, the physical planet and all that is on it: mountains, rivers, oceans, animals, people. When used this way, it is usually a positive. “God so loved the world that he gave . . .” But sometimes we sue the term another way, perhaps even in contrast. If we’ve had a week’s holiday in a beautiful unspoilt part of the world, we might then talk of having to go back to “the real world”, to something less attractive and less loved and altogether more oppressive and burdensome. When the New Testament speaks of “the world” in this second sense, it is even stronger and more negative. You can see the same contrast in the way the Bible speaks of “flesh”. “Flesh” is both a good thing that God created and “the flesh” that wars against he spirit and lures us into sin.
“The world”, in this negative sense, is a complex web of powers and systems that stand in opposition to the ways of God. There are political powers, cultural powers, commercial powers, religious powers, values systems, and social structures. Although never in perfect harmony with one another, for the most part they cooperate to define and control the lives of the majority of people. Although there are certain privileged elites who benefit most from “the world” or “the system” as it is, it is not simply constructed by and for them. Often those who are the losers in the system will defend it just as fiercely. You can see in the recent global financial crisis that despite the fact that the whole thing is collapsing, the overwhelming majority of effort is going in to propping up the system and reinvigorating the system, rather than into questioning, challenging and exploring alternatives to the system. And the world, or the system, maintains this support for itself primarily through fear. We are constantly sold the line that, even if the system is not perfect and has a few too many losers, the alternatives are too awful to contemplate. Chaos, anarchy, crime, social disintegration, disease epidemics, terrorism, war. Only the system can hold these at bay, we are told, so don’t rock the boat. Even if things are not good for you now, they’d be a whole lot worse if the system broke down, so do your bit to defend it and maintain it and advance it.
Put your nose to the grindstone. Work those extra hours. Buy those consumer items that never really satisfy but which keep the economy growing. Protect the borders. Maintain law and order. Trust that the government knows best. Drown out the questions about whether it is really worth it and the voices that say this is all killing us. Run harder on that treadmill. Because the one thing that is worse than this is the terrifying chaos that will come flooding in if we let our guard down and “the world” collapses. And so just in case, we had better silence anyone who might undermine loyalty to the present world order.
Jesus was executed because he had to be silenced by the system. When people listened to Jesus, they started to imagine an alternative to the system, to the world as they knew it. Jesus proclaimed a new world, an alternative system, a kingdom of love. He did not simply urge people to be nice and loving while continuing to comply with the constraints of the old world, the present system. If he had, he’d have been no threat to anyone. The world, the present system, does not reject love outright. It values love as a commodity in a system of exchange. Love becomes the reward for compliant support of the system. The advertisers tell us this all the time. It is those who succeed in the system, those who profit and spend and keep up with the fashions and accessorise themselves with the in-products and lever themselves themselves to the desirable positions on the ladder who will find love. They will be rewarded with love. And those who fail to find love, well clearly it is their own fault, says the world. Strive harder for the system, and the world will reward you with love.
But the new world that Jesus proclaims decimates this system in the most surprising way. It rejects the commodification of love, and makes love, instead, the basic fuel of the new order. Instead of love being a scarce commodity that must be earned, love is the super-abundant unlimited force that powers the whole new world. Instead of striving to be loveable, we begin with the knowledge and experience of being loved, overwhelmingly, unconditionally and limitlessly loved. Such a super-abundance of love is a threat to the old system because, as the Apostle John says, it enables people to conquer the world, to break free of the clutches of the system. When we know ourselves securely loved, in a love that is not dependant on our ongoing earning of it by subservience to the system, then we can freely opt out, walk away, and begin to live out the alternative culture of the kingdom of God, the culture of love.
So I think Jesus is slightly tongue-in-cheek when he speaks of love as a commandment or a law. Because what he is doing is contrasting it to the old system which is governed by laws for everything, a bewildering and often crushing mountain of law and regulation to keep everyone in their place and the system functioning. Just listen to how much of the talk about getting out of the financial crisis is about regulation. So Jesus is calling us to abandon the old system with its laws for everything, and to embrace the new world which has just one law: love.
And yet, I think there is a very serious side to his command to love too. Because the kind of love that Jesus calls us to does not come easily, especially when we continue to live as aliens in the midst of the old world. The moments when people really turned nasty on Jesus were the moments he made it clear just how subversive his call was by indicating that the call to love included loving the people the system required us to despise. The system needs us to fear and despise the outsiders, the losers, the ones who have rejected the place that the system assigned to them. So we must despise asylum seekers as voracious queue-jumpers who threaten all we hold dear. And we must demonise every angry insurgent as a terrorist who is seeking to undermine the necessary dominance of our democracy. And we must dismiss and ignore the beggars on our streets as lazy free-loading bludgers who could work if they wanted to. So to suggest that we love and serve such people is subversive and to make such love an order and a law is absolute treason.
Even here, among ourselves, such love does not come easily or naturally. With our values and expectations so long shaped by the old world, our default setting is to show most love to those who have earned it by valuing and supporting what we value and support. Loving those whose desires or behaviours seem to threaten the way we want things to be is much more of an effort. So how can the Apostle say “God’s commandments are not burdensome”? Well, again we are dealing with a contrast. Compared to the oppressive mountain of regulation and control of the old system, God’s command to love is as free and light as a feather. And yet the old oppressions felt familiar and secure, so the change does not come easily. Better the devil you know . . .
That’s why the regular ritual action of our worship life here is so important to us. It rehearses us in the change and begins to rewrite our operating scripts. In a moment we will stand and recite the creed of a subversive new world faith. Then we will pray that the kingdom might come, and that God’s will would be done, which is to pray that the old world might pass away and that the system’s will might be subverted. And then we will gather around a simple table to be nourished with the broken bread and wine of love. For, as the Apostle says, those who encounter the broken, crucified, loving, forgiving Jesus and believe that such a one is the son of God; they are the ones who overcome the world.
The new world is here, and this is our commandment, our law: “Love one another as Jesus has loved us.”