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Friended

(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

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It’s What Friends Do

Come-and-see (1)(a sermon for May 10, 2015, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:9-17)

Over the years I have come to believe that among the most beautiful words that Jesus ever spoke to his disciples were these:  “I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends.”

It is said that friendship is an essential part of our very humanity; and yet, I think most of us would agree that true friendship is also rare and precious thing.  There was a survey done a few years ago in which 60% of the men interviewed could not identify a single person they would call a close friend; sixty percent!  The majority of women interviewed, on the other hand, could identify five or six others they could call friends, which is interesting and very telling; but even they confessed that these friendships were often of a “functional” nature; that is, having to do with work, a common activity or merely by proximity, and as such lacked the depth of a real and lasting relationship; in fact, many reported that when that common activity went away, so did the friendship!  What’s also interesting to note is that those reporting having at least one really good friend in their lives most often named someone they’d known since childhood, or someone they’d met at school!

What all this points to is the fact that true friendship takes time, effort, and constant attention; it has to grow out of spirit of goodness, caring and sacrificial love in order for it to deepen amidst all the changes in people’s lives; and that requires hard work! Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he suggested that any person who is going to enter into a friendship should realize that “he enters into a contest far more demanding than the Olympic Games.  He must be ready to endure over long spaces of time.  He must be willing to stand up in the face of tremendous wants, and he must have courage to confront the most awesome dangers.”  In other words, friendship is a relationship that carries with it awesome responsibility and utter devotion that transcends time, distance and experience; and so given all that, it’s no wonder that having that kind of a friend in our lives is such a rare and precious thing…

…and it’s what makes it all the more remarkable that when Jesus is speaking to his disciples in our gospel reading this morning, and by extension to us today, he says, “I do not call you servants… I call you friends.”

Make no mistake, friends; in just about every way possible, that’s big!  What Jesus is saying here is that in him the balance of our relationship with the Divine has shifted; shifted from that of master and servant, in which the servant is subordinate to the master and there are clear boundaries and limitations surrounding the relationship, to that of a mutual, abiding friendship in which there is great and lasting openness, caring and an inherent desire for the best in the other.   Up till now Jesus had been talking about his being the “true vine” and us being the branches that have to abide in the vine to bear fruit; likewise, Jesus says, you should “abide in my love.”  And that was good, but now Jesus adds to that; he speaks of a connection that’s more than merely functional, more than something based on obedience or performance, if you will; but rather a relationship which by its very nature becomes intimate and personal and life giving; something very much like… friendship!

And as I said before, that is a radical shift!  Think about it: Moses was well-satisfied with being called a servant of God; Joshua was content with being called a servant of God; David, Jeremiah, so many of the prophets, they viewed themselves first as servants of God; even Mary, the mother of Jesus, viewed her high calling as being “the handmaiden of the Lord.”  But here’s Jesus offering us something more, a different kind of relationship:  Jesus is choosing us, seeking us out and relentlessly pursuing us as friends; continuing that pursuit even to the extent of giving himself up on the cross, because “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  What is that old maxim about how a friend is the person who knows who you really are and loves you “anyway?”  Well, Jesus Christ is the one who loves us for just exactly who we are, but then who will not rest until he has the kind of relationship with us that will bear “the fruit that will last;” the kind of blessing that comes in an eternal relationship with God.  And Jesus does this because… well, because that’s what friends do!

When I was in the 4th grade, there was a new boy in my class whose name was Arthur, and he was one of those kids who were always off by themselves on the playground; and it really didn’t seem like he’d made many friends since he’d come to our school.  Well, one day after he’d been in town a few weeks Arthur asked me if I wanted to come over to his house after school; you know, to play, hang out, watch TV and so on.  And even though I didn’t really know him all that well, I did go over to his house; and though I don’t remember too much about it now, I do recall having fun, and that he had cool stuff, and that it was a good time. What I’ll never forget, though, is that at some point during my visit, Arthur comes out with this wad of dollar bills in his hand (in retrospect, it probably was five or ten dollars at most, but I still remember thinking that this was a huge sum of money!), and he says to me, “If you will promise to be my friend, I will give you this money.”

Now, remember I’m a kid and this was, as far as I was concerned, a mother lode of riches; or at least an amount greater than my weekly allowance!  But no… even if I had been tempted, because of the way I’d been raised I could have never taken him up on his offer; and so, with some modicum of wisdom I told Arthur to put his money away, that I’d be his friend without his having to pay for it, and why don’t we play “Rockem Sockem Robots” instead!  And we did, and we had fun… but I still remember going home that night and feeling so sad that anyone could be so lonely and so friendless that they’d take their birthday money and give it to someone… anyone… just so they could have a friend.

And the thing is, it wasn’t going to work; it couldn’t!  A real and lasting friendship can never be created, much less sustained, on the basis of a financial transaction; friendship has to do with the giving of ourselves, not money; it has to do with our willingness to put ourselves out there for the sake of this other person who is your friend, and it’s in that self-sacrifice that you begin to gain his or her friendship.  As the saying goes, “the best way to have a friend is to be one!”

Actually, as I think back on it, Arthur’s utter determination to be my friend was not at all unlike what Jesus does in bringing you and me closer to him.  But how Jesus does it, you see, is with love; love that is truly agape: what the Greeks define as love that is wholly self-sacrificial.  Jesus gives himself to us wholly and completely, and he does it that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete.

That’s the kind of friendship that Jesus offers us and is determined for us to receive; and that is incredible good news indeed.  But, as is typical of Jesus, that’s not the end of it; for here’s the other half of our reading for this morning: that the same kind of relentless and determined drive to friendship that Jesus brings to our relationship to him is the same kind of friendship that we’re called to offer others. As Jesus says it, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

I’ve heard it said about this particular part of John’s gospel that for a passage that says so much a great and abiding love, there seem to be a lot of conditions attached; that is, a whole lot of “ifs” that resonate in Jesus’ words:  “IF you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love… you are my friends IF you do what I command you.”   And honestly, that kind of goes against our whole notion of the unconditional love of Jesus; but, of course, what we need to remember is that true friendship is ever and always a two-way relationship; at least, it ought to aspire to be, even if it doesn’t work out to be a totally balanced relationship!  My Grandmother Ware was always fond of saying that in any good marriage (or any relationship, for that matter), in order to have a fifty-fifty relationship, both parties always have to be giving 60 and getting 40 (and there are those couples I know who might even push that one to 80-20!).  But again, only if both parties are doing that, that self-sacrificial stance has a way of creating a wholly balanced, truly loving relationship!  But the other side of this – and this comes back to what we were saying earlier about the daunting work that comes with friendship – is that if you’re not at all in the place of giving of yourself in that relationship, but more often than not it’s a relationship that’s doomed to failure.

My point here is that there is indeed an expectation that in a friendship with Jesus Christ, our lives and living need to be a reflection of his life and living: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  But understand this is not so much the requirement of Christ’s friendship as it is its bond and its connection; to live as he lives is the fulfillment of our friendship with Jesus, and it is its joy.  It is a singular and all-encompassing truth of our faith: that love can be the only possible response to love; that the love we have to give needs to be shared with the same openness as that of Jesus; and it ought to contain the same measure of care, compassion and – dare I say – patience he has given us! Simply put, the same deep level of devotion, trust and commitment that Jesus has extended to us as his friends needs to be what we bring to those who are our friends… and perhaps especially to those who are not.

So often it is that we forget that, you and I… or perhaps, more accurately, so often it is that the effort becomes so difficult that sometimes it’s hard for us to remember.

The fact is, when you consider all the aspects of what our Lord Jesus teaches about love, it really does seem conditional:  I mean, turning the other cheek; going the extra mile; thinking of others first, before yourself; forgiving those who have wronged you not once, twice or even seven times, but seventy-times-seven; when “anyone wants to… take your coat, give your cloak as well;” (Matthew 5:40) love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?  Hey, as faith tells the tale, friends, true love can be difficult at best, and often downright painful!  But following Christ, walking in the way of this one who calls us his friends, means that we are to love others in just the same way he has loved us… because that’s what friends do!

Not that we’re always going to succeed in that.  The truth is, sometimes we’re going to fail at friendship, and sometimes friendship will fail us; as I like to say, there are going to be times in our lives when we will cast our bread upon the waters and all we’ll get back is soggy bread!  But you see, Jesus is not calling us to be successful in love, only to be faithful in it; to abide in his love as you and I walk along the pathways of life and living; to dwell in the comfort and beauty of our friendship with the highest and to have it inform our dealings with one another; so that our friendship with him might be the gold standard for all of our relationships now and forever.

I pray with all my heart that each one of us here today is a true friend of Jesus.

Thanks be to God who makes that friendship possible.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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