“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.
As time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT … IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY – A LOVE SUPREME – .” (Coltrane, Liner Notes to A Love Supreme, 1964)
Those words come from the liner notes to A Love Supreme, one of the most important jazz albums of all time, performed by John Coltrane in 1964. Coltrane had struggled most of his professional life with addiction to alcohol and heroin. In the 1950s he was one of the most acclaimed saxophone players in the world, but he was given to great performances and also great disappointments, due to his addiction. In 1957 he was fired by Miles Davis and hit bottom. It was the beginning of the road that led him, seven years later, to record A Love Supreme, and dedicate it to the peace he had found in God.
Love, love, love… It’s a popular idea in sermons, and certainly the core message in today’s reading from John 15. “This is my commandment:” says Jesus “…love one another just as I have loved you.” It has been my experience that love is often dealt with in church in ways that are oversimplified. Love is all you need. Love is the answer. I believe those things to be true. And yet, it has been my experience, and I wonder if you share it, that love is more complicated than that. As John Coltrane said of his own experience, in our path toward love, often a “period of irresolution” prevails; we have experiences that are “contradictory” to love and lead us “away from the esteemed path.” I suspect we must be honest about the complexities of love, if we are ever to find our way to A Love Supreme.
Love is a complicated idea in the Bible. Here are some examples:
God’s love is unconditional—our theological tradition tells us so. And yet in this passage from John 15, Jesus says “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love…” and that certainly sounds conditional. So which one is it?
Jesus says “love one another” and says, “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends…” And yet elsewhere he says, “Love your enemies…” for “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have…” (Matthew 5:46) So is the greatest love for enemies or friends? Which one is it?
Our faith is grounded in the love of a Savior who loves sacrificially, to the point of death on a Cross to save us. It’s a compelling message. The world needs more selfless love, love given for the sake of another. And yet emulating Christ’s sacrificial love can be a dangerous message. What might it suggest to someone who is in an abusive relationship? Sacrificial love, good or bad? Which one is it?
Here’s a longer example: A popular idea in Christian sermons is to talk about Greek words that are translated into English as “love.” There are at least three Greek words for love. Eros is the love of romantic or lustful desire. Philia is the love of friendship. Agape is the unconditional, self-giving love of God. Plenty of good sermons explore the differences between these terms in order to highlight the distinctiveness of God’s love for us. But too simple an approach to these things can easily lead to even more questions.
Consider this: Preachers talk about the limits of eros and philia, compared to the fulfilling nature of agape, that unconditional love of God. But is unconditional love really what you want? If so, why in this passage about love does Jesus say to his disciples that he now calls them friends? Should we want some of the immediacy of friendship to be part of our relationship with God? And as for desire, does it always need to be portrayed as a bad thing? Many of us expend a tremendous amount of energy hoping to be desirable, or you might say, hoping to be wanted and appreciated. We want our spouses and our children and our parents to be proud of us, to think kindly toward us, to be thankful for the things that we do. Imagine if those people only loved you unconditionally; imagine that your efforts to love them made no particular difference? Wouldn’t that be disappointing? And think about the places in Scripture where it seems to please God when we respond to God’s love by loving others. So it’s a good thing that God’s love is unconditional—that we never need to earn it. But I wonder if desire and friendship can also be holy kinds of love.
It’s hard to know how to make sense of these complex ideas about love in the Bible, but one thing is sure: it’s clear that love is not a simple idea; love is not the same in all circumstances. Love changes and evolves in different places in our lives, just like it’s meaning evolves throughout scripture.
This is why I started with the story about John Coltrane; this is why I started with jazz. Something common to many types of music, but of central importance in jazz is improvisation. Improvisation isn’t just fooling around. In order to improvise and be good at it, you have to know the rules of music, you have to understand the principles of musical composition and performance before you improvise upon them.
There’s a great example of how this works in A Love Supreme. Like many compositions, there’s a musical theme that is presented at the beginning of the piece, and then that theme comes up again and again. Toward the end of the first movement, Coltrane starts playing the theme over and over, and then, while the rest of the quartet stays in the key in which the piece is written, Coltrane improvises and plays the theme on top of what they’re doing. He plays it in every key, all twelve, before he returns to the original key and resolves it. And when he gets back to the original key, he starts to chant along with the theme and the other members of the quartet join him: “A love supreme…a love supreme…a love supreme…”
One music critic I listened to said this: it’s like he’s playing that improvisation and inviting the others into the chant because the Love Supreme is not just his alone; it’s meant to be heard in every key and sung by every voice; “Anywhere you look, you’re going to find this Love Supreme.” (The Story of ‘A Love Supreme,’ NPR, March 7, 2012) The foundation for Coltrane’s life: the foundation that he has found in God: grace! the chance to start again, to rebuild his life, to experience the love supreme and to share it with others—it is for everyone. And when you consider both the musical complexity of what he is doing and the gritty journey he had been on in his fight with addiction, you see it clearly. A Love Supreme is not a simple thing. It is found only by practice, by first understanding the rules, yes, and then, by improvisation. You have to figure out what love means in your life and your relationships, but it only works if you do that remembering the rules, remembering the Love Supreme.
I studied this scripture this past Tuesday when I met with the church’s new men’s Bible study group, they helped me to come up with the examples I used at the beginning of the sermon—the Bible’s complex portrayal of love. In that group, we have also talked about the complexity of love in our own lives: the challenge of love with a spouse, especially in the midst of the challenges and stresses of COVID. The challenge of loving a child who is disobedient or ungrateful or sullen. The challenge of loving an old friend who always seems to be getting in trouble. Love isn’t easy. Love requires flexibility and improvisation, but it also seems to rely upon some rules—rules that we cling to and insist upon, especially in times when love is the hardest.
That Love Supreme—that unifying principle, brings us back to the first half of this Scripture, the verses I preached on two weeks ago. There Jesus calls himself the vine, and he calls us the branches. We are to find our foundation in the Vine—the Love Supreme—the love of God, which ground us and holds us up and gives us strength. This is the love you read about in 1 Corinthians 13. The Love Supreme is patient, kind, not self-seeking or envious or boastful, it keeps no record of wrongs, it rejoices in the truth, it never ends. We attend enough weddings and think those words are how spouses treat one another. But Paul didn’t say these words at a wedding; they’re actually the characteristics of God’s love. This is how the True Vine behaves—and we are the branches who are to grow from that Vine. It’s a vine that recognizes all of the complexities of love and thrives within them.
But we also need to remember about that analogy that we are branches, all of us, and we are meant to exist close together as part of a common vine. We are part of a faith community so that we can share our complicated stories with one another, lament with one another when things are difficult, and encourage one another toward more healthy growth. That’s what the church is for.
So, when it comes to the endlessly complicated subject of love… When it comes to the endlessly complex task of loving one another as God has loved us… When it comes to the endlessly mysterious task of learning to accept the love God has for us… We are told this: to connect ourselves to the vine that is Jesus Christ, and learn how to love from him. We are told to remember our connectedness to one another, and to pray together and seek one another’s help in Christian community as we learn how to love. And we are told to be patient if we don’t learn love overnight, for as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “love never ends.” But you may all give thanks that while love never ends, sermons…do end. Amen.