(a sermon for May 6, 2018, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:9-17)
It was by far my least favorite part of elementary school, and it always happened just about this time of year.
Twice a week, you see, beginning in the 4th grade, there was “Gym Class;” and every spring, once the northern Maine snow had finally melted and the weather was warmer, our teacher would take us outdoors to a park across the street from school so we could play some kind of game, usually kickball as I recall. Now that in and of itself wasn’t bad, nor was getting to go outside on a sunny day during school hours (!); but you see, this inevitably began with a schoolyard ritual that was the worst possible affront to my self-esteem: it always had to start by “choosing up” teams!
Now, I’m sure you all did this in school, so you know the rules: two people were chosen as team captains (in our case, assigned the role by our gym teacher), and each captain would in turn choose from the rest of the kids in the class who they wanted on their team. And if you were strong and athletic, popular and/or friends with one of the captains you got chosen right away; but… if, like me, you were awkward and slow, most decidedly non-athletic or, to quote the late Jean Shepherd, one of the “nameless, faceless rabble of victims” in the elementary school jungle (!) then you ended up one of the last to be chosen; and even then, chosen reluctantly! This was the scenario for me pretty much all through school, and though I hated it I pretty much accepted that my fate, as in the words of that Peter, Paul and Mary song, was usually to take up “my place in right field, watching the dandelions grow!”
Looking back, however, I realize it wasn’t always that way. Sometimes our gym teacher would purposely choose one of the non-athletes in the class to be a captain, and then it became a matter of principle that the rest of us would be chosen swiftly for that team (it made for a rather one-sided kickball game, but it was all good!). And then there were times when I suspect the captain in question was at least a good sport about it and made sure that the “least” weren’t picked “last.” But I especially remember how once our gym teacher chose someone as a captain who was in fact a kid I hung out with; and so, even though that kid knew firsthand how awful I was at kickball he still picked me first! But whatever the reason was, you see, I didn’t care; I was happy just to be chosen, but even more than this, it was just so good to have a friend who would choose me!
Well, our gospel reading for this morning continues what is often referred to in scripture as Jesus’ “farewell discourses,” those things that our Savior said to those closest to him in the final moments just before all the events of betrayal and desertion that led up to the cross began to unfold. And Jesus’ words are familiar to our ears, to be sure; just as in the imagery of vines and branches we heard about last week, there’s this on-going theme of connectedness and “abiding:” that “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love;” that keeping his commandments is the strong connection that keeps us abiding in his love; and that the central and most important commandment of them all is, Jesus says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” In fact, Jesus goes on to say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And – here’s where things get really interesting – in the midst of all of this, Jesus says, “You are my friends… I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends… You did not choose me but I chose you.”
It’s an amazing distinction; especially when you consider who it was to whom Jesus was talking! Robert R. Kruschwitz, the director for the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, writes that “Jesus’ first and closest disciples were on their best days easily distracted from their love of God, care for one another, and concern for their neighbors. Some, like Judas, even grew to be wayward, rebellious and mean.” In other words, whatever else one might have to say about the disciples, I think that we can agree that they weren’t exactly “first pick” material (!); they were, in fact, pretty much a ragtag group of local fishermen, tax collectors and a thief or two! And yet, Kruschwitz goes on to say, “turning to all these would-be followers, Jesus explained his and the Father’s deep, sacrificial love for them” in telling them that he chose them, not the other way around; and that while the nature of their relationship might have suggested otherwise, Jesus was not calling them servants any longer but he has called them friends.
Understand that whatever the disciples did not understand about what Jesus was telling them or about what was about to happen as Maundy Thursday evening became Good Friday morning, they did know that the very idea that Jesus was now referring to them as friends was… unprecedented and, as I said before, amazing! To begin with, in Jesus’ time, friendship was a serious matter. To be considered a friend was to be in a position of honor; it meant being treated as one would treat a loved one. Likewise, to be a friend meant looking out for the welfare of the other and to put the other’s needs on an equal footing with one’s own.
All of this is borne out in the language that Jesus uses here, which is very specific: as John’s gospel records it, there are actually two words used here for love: agape, which is the Greek word for full, self-giving and sacrificial love, and philos, which is usually translated in English as “friend,” but is probably more accurately rendered as “loved one.” So, you see, what Jesus is saying is that “I love you (agape) with everything that I have to give, because you are my (philos) loved one!” That’s the context, you see, by which Jesus proclaims that “no one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and that is the criteria by which he calls us friend.
For the good news is that just as was true for the disciples before us, we too have been “friended” by Jesus. You and I have been chosen by Jesus himself to have a relationship, deep and intimate, with the divine; in Jesus we come to know everything we need to know about God, and through Jesus, who is our friend, each one of us is appointed to “go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
And that’s important; because remember, the kind of friendship we’re talking about here is by its very nature reciprocal. In other words, as Jesus calls us friend, we are called to be a friend of Jesus.
This is actually the place where we often stumble on this particular passage; after all, as you may have noticed, there are a few “if’s” in these verses that come into play: “IF you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love… You are my friends IF you do what I command you.” At first read, it kind of suggests that this friendship with Jesus is conditional in nature; that if we don’t behave ourselves Jesus will withhold that friendship, or even worse stop loving us! And if that’s the case; truly, as Scott Hoezee writes in an essay on this passage, “if the soundness and consistency of my love is the key to being in good with God and with Jesus, then I [would have] good reason to be afraid of my eternal destiny.” Thanks be to God, then, that this is not the nature of our friendship with Jesus, nor its requirement; it is, in fact, our response! “These injunctions to love,” writes Hoezee, “… are for those already in the love of God!”
Not that our response to having been friended is any less important: I actually love the analogy that Hoezee makes for this; he describes our need to respond to Jesus’ friendship as to what happens – or what should happen (!) – in marriage! He writes that “being married – and being genuinely in love within that marriage – does not absolve one of the need to be faithful, to do loving acts, to tend and nurture the marriage relationship in very active ways. The solid marriage and the carrying out of vital marriage tasks are not at odds with each other. Only a fool would say, ‘Because my marriage is sound, I don’t have to do a blessed thing to nourish and nurture the relationship.’” In other words, you respond to the love you’re given by giving love in kind; and even though we are commanded by Jesus to love one another as Jesus has loved us, it’s nothing that can be forced. However, “it’s the kind of thing that those who truly love Jesus are only too glad to do,” and it only begins to make sense when you are connected – when you abide – in Jesus.
You know, all these years later I still think back on those days when I’d actually be chosen – and not chosen last (!) – to play on my friend’s kickball team; and how good that felt. Granted, I was still not, to say the very least, a strong player; in fact, I somehow always managed to be the one who always dropped the ball or who perennially was the one who made the third out! But in retrospect, I realize that my inability to properly play the game was far less important than the fact that I was welcomed into the game; and that I’d been encouraged to be a part of it through someone who truly knew me and cared about me. It also encouraged me to try and offer up the kind of friendship that had been given to me; which seems to me, at least in sixth grade parlance, to creating an atmosphere of philos, if not agape!
Well, this is who Jesus is, beloved; the one who binds our hearts to his; the one who loves and forgives us our weaknesses and shortcomings; the one who tells us, again and again, that we should try our best to live and abide in love, and then trust him with everything else; the one who encourages us to draw upon his strength, his hope, his love, and his Spirit to empower and sustain us.
For he – Jesus Christ – is the one who sought us out, and who chose us to be with him. He is the one who calls us “friend,” and who calls us to the same kind of friendship.
Beloved, let us come now to the table of the Lord to truly know our friend in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup…
…and may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry