Is love all you need? A sermon on Christian ethics
Is love all you need? A sermon on Christian ethics
A sermon preached by Canon Treasurer Kenneth Padley, 29th October 2023
All you need is love. Love is all you need. Or so thought John Lennon. The horrific stories on the news in recent weeks have reminded us that living in a loving way is sometimes intractably complex. Even at the level of individual choices, it is not always obvious what is the most loving course of action. How can I make the greatest impact with my limited time and resources? Or what should I do when confronted by equally unpalatable options?
And where might we get some guidance through the dense ethical jungle? Given that Jesus is more popular than the Beatles now, I suggest we detain Mr Lennon no further and dive instead into today’s gospel. Here we heard Christ summarise his moral code as love of God and love of neighbour.
My first comment on this passage is to say that Jesus is talking about a specific type of love. In English we have only one word for love. But just as the Inuit have many words for ‘snow’, so those amorous Greeks have several words for love.
- They talk about eros, powerful feelings of lust.
- They talk about storgh, an affection which one might show towards a pet.
- They talk about filia, friendship. This is the word from which we get Philadelphia – the city of fraternal love in North America and the rather unlovely soft cheese of the same name – not that others in my household share my disapproval.
- Finally, the Greeks talk about a supreme type of love: agaph. Agaph is a limitless, overflowing love which reflects the perfection and generosity of God.
It should come as no surprise that it is this superior, agaph love which Jesus says should characterise our approach to God and other humans. By its very nature agaph is a love which should be all-consuming. That is why it demands our heart and soul and mind. It is this sort of love which Jesus models throughout his life, especially in his death, not looking to his own interests but self-sacrificially accepting the suffering of the cross.
Next, I would note that Jesus insists our agaph should face in two directions. He summons us to love God and neighbour. Here are relationships on ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ planes. We are to love God ‘above’ and people alongside us. And we must do this in tandem: it’s both/and, not either/or.
Taken together, Jesus considers these two dimensions of love to be an abbreviation of the whole Old Testament, the Jewish Law and prophets. More specifically, love of God and love of neighbour summarise the Ten Commandments; this is because the ten commandments can be split between those laws which govern our approach to God and those which regulate our behaviour towards other humans. The first four commandments are about God, telling us to honour him, avoid idols, not profane his holy name, and make good use of sabbath rest. The back six commandments then are about other people: respecting father and mother, no murdering, hanky panky, thieving, lying, nor coveting our neighbour’s donkey or other assets.
This traditional division of the ten commandments is sometimes shown in art, with Moses carrying the twin tablets of the Law down Mount Sinai. The tablets are not depicted with equal numerations (1 to 5 on one tablet and 6 to 10 on the other). Rather, the first tablet carries numerals 1-4 reflecting the commandments about God; and the second tablet carries numerals 5-10 for the commandments about people. Look closely and you’ll find an example in a window in the Thomas and Edmund chapel to my right. (As a footnote, you’ll sometimes see the two tablets of the Law numerated 1-3 and 4-10; this tells you the artist is a Roman Catholic or Lutheran because these churches divide the ten commandments slightly differently from Jews, Eastern Orthodox and the Reformed, that strand of Protestantism which shaped the Church of England at the Reformation).
Jesus’ exhortation to love God and neighbour is not just a slavish condensation of the ten commandments. It reveals a wider dynamic engagement with his tradition. Like any decent preacher, Jesus wanted to maximise the relevance of Scripture for his own age.
- For example, while the ten commandments in the book Exodus are largely prohibitive (don’t do this, don’t do that), Jesus gives things a positive, permissive spin – do this and do that – do love God, do love neighbour.
- Likewise, Jesus’ ethical guidance complements the central theme of his preaching, that is the idea of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is the first thing Jesus preaches about after his baptism, and the concept which he illustrates in parables and embodies in miracles. When he heals a woman with a haemorrhage and a man with many demons, Jesus is restoring these people to contemporary social acceptability and thus symbolically expanding the bounds God’s community. The Kingdom is therefore not just a theory about God’s reign; it takes concrete expression in what Jesus did and – by extension – in the way that Christians behave. The ethical outworking of our love is nothing less than the power to expand God’s rule in human lives.
This integral connection in word and deed between love of God and love of people presents a profound challenge to those who claim confidence in their own moral compass. I’m sure we all know those who argue they ‘live a good life’ without the guide rails of faith. I’m not making the crass claim that Christians are somehow holier or better. What I am saying is that those who are truly committed to working out their ethical behaviour as Christians will find a framework of principles that keep drawing us back to the example of love shown by God in Jesus and which enlists us in the expansion of his reign on earth.
Finally, I cannot emphasise enough that word ‘framework’. Christian ethics expressed as love of God and love of neighbour is a set of values to guide our decision-making. It can never be a blueprint of what to do in every given circumstance. Such a Haynes Manual of moral repair would render every solution obvious, turn us into robots and abdicate us from grown up responsibility for the choices we make.
- Because Christian ethics is a framework, we will not always agree about a right course of action. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams struggled with this when he was leader of the Anglican Communion, trying to hold together radically different views within a single family of churches. Reflecting on these divisions, Archbishop Rowan recalls that Christian living is incarnate not abstract, such that we learn our discipleship in specific contexts and relations. He calls this ‘God with a local accent’. Rowan writes ‘At first sight, when you encounter a different “accent”, it can sound as though the whole of your Christian world is under attack or at least under question, precisely because no one learns their Christianity without a local accent’.
- Secondly, because the command to love is not a blueprint of what to do in every circumstance, each problem, each choice, demands deliberative thought and will. To say ‘we just need to love people’ is trite and meaningless until we come to implementation. What is the most loving thing to do in this or that instance? We will not always get it right. That is why Christian morality is a daily calling, something with which we constantly grapple as we seek and strive for the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.
So stick at it. Keep grappling. And as we do this, let’s pray with sixteenth-century lyricist Edmund Spenser for God’s guiding grace:
So let us love, dear Love, like as we ought;
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
 Cf. the trolley problem in which a runaway train is careering down the tracks and you have the power to switch the points and decide whom the train will run over. I pray none of us will ever be faced with that dilemma, but we may be able to think of smaller everyday equivalents in the moral choices before us.
 CS Lewis famously exposited these in his book called The Four Loves.
 Cf. e.g. Peterhouse Cambridge – north side Moses window from C19th Munich.
 In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics ed. Robin Gill, pp 8-9.