Texts: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; John 15:9-17
The reading from Acts 10 offers a foretaste of Pentecost, only two weeks away. After Peter receives a vision telling him that nothing is unclean, the same revelation is given to the community—this is the movement of the Holy Spirit. The gift of God is poured out “even on the Gentiles.” The people exhibit the visible signs of God’s favor (tongues, praise), and Peter is moved to declare that “surely no one can stand in the way” of their being baptized in the name of Jesus.
Psalm 98 is one of a group of psalms that proclaim the enthronement and universal rule of God. This one seems to reflect the annual celebration of God’s creation of the world at the Feast of Tabernacles. Hence, the Psalm contains the line: “sing to the Lord a new song.” Most of us prefer the old songs, of course. This Psalm was intentionally chosen to be paired with the reading from Acts, because the story in Acts of the way the Holy Spirit breaks through all the OLD ways of doing things, and thinking about people. The new song celebrates the way in which God continually creates new life, new hope, new love, new promises, and new community or new family.
John 15 introduces a concept which is at the heart of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples: friendship, from whence cometh the official name of the Christian group known colloquially as “Quakers”: The Society of Friends.
We’re born into our families, with all of the associations that come with that – genetic, social, religious etc. But friendship is a relationship of choice. We are not linked by nature or obligation to anyone as a friend – we choose to make friends and remain in friendships.
At the Transy reunion last week, a couple of 22 year olds listened with what they later told me was awe at the sharing in our worship service by those “wise elders” as my friend Julie spoke of those gathered. The awe was generated by the obvious friendship among a very diverse group of people who had shared some life -changing experiences together in college 50 years before. They began to be aware, they told me, each separately, that their own lives were already being shaped in ways they didn’t realize by their experiences and classmates during their 4 years at Transy.
The comparison Jesus makes is with the master/servant relationship, where a certain distance is maintained, and information is shared on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. Friendship involves intimacy, personal transparency, trust and freedom that go beyond a servant/master relationship. It is a two-way relationship. No one in a friendship is superior to the other. There is an equality to friendship, and a surprise, sometimes as well, when friendship transcends the usual boundaries that we place on our relationships. That it is always the beauty, mystery, and grace of friendship.
Certainly the concept of servanthood is strong in Christianity, and we even understand Christ as a suffering servant. The servant images of the foot washing and the crucifixion have been very formative in Christian theology. But the concept of friendship with Jesus has received less attention.
Not only is friendship at the heart of the relationship Jesus offered those who follow him, it is also central to the relationship between those who follow him today. Remember, these words are in the context of the metaphor of the vine and the branches, the ‘fruit’ imagery continuing in these verses.
I want to suggest to you today that there are 8 factors which build friendship.
First, a matter of equality. A significant aspect of the imagery of the vine and the branches here in this 15th chapter of John’s Gospel is that it is not a model of hierarchy. Friendship can acknowledge that the friend may have attributes and skills not possessed by the self, but in a true friendship there is no superior party or an inferior one. Each of us recognizes in the other something that we depend upon. In many ways, to continue the vine and branches metaphor that begin this chapter, the vine needs the branches, as much as the branches need a sturdy vine in order to grow.
Second, in friendship there is self-disclosure. Jesus points this out in verse 15. Friends share personal thoughts and feelings they would not reveal to just anyone.
Third, friendships are based on a mutual understanding of the reliability and concern of the other for each partner’s best interests. This is trust. It is also agape love, one of the three kinds of love that are known in Scripture., the other two being filia (or the love that one has for a sibling, as in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, and eros, that wonderful gift of romantic love). Agape love is that love that is characterized by “womb-like” or mother-like love of concern for the other, and desire that the other be than not be, and a willingness to give up one’s very life for the sake of the beloved.
Fourth, friendships are a matter of free choice. Martin Marty, the famed church historian at the University of Chicago, suggests in a 1980 book on friendship, another factor that I think it is helpful to consider as we think of Christ’s friendship with us: “Friendship has to be given; no one can take it or demand it or force it.” (Marty, Martin. Friendship. Argus Communications, 1980, p. 63) Marty also suggests that “friendship does not always come as the result of a search; it can come when we least look for it, just as it denies itself when we pursue it too earnestly and with pathetic eagerness. In some sense,” he says, “the friend simply confronts us as the stranger who need not, must not, remain a stranger.” (Ibid.,p. 49)
Fifth, friendships are mutual: self-disclosure, listening, generosity, and honesty are not just behaviors of one person in a friendship. It must always be a two-way process—or, in terms of the vine and the branches metaphor—multi-directional.
Sixth: friendships are based on respect. Controlling behavior, manipulation, using the other destroys the underlying regard for the other person’s dignity necessary for friendship. In friendship we accept differences. We allow our friends to retain their differences and their integrity.
Seventh, friendships do not happen in a flash, although they may begin that way, with a perception upon encountering a stranger, that this is a person we want to know, as Martin Marty suggested. Friendship, like a marriage, takes some living into the relationship to acquire duration and stability. I think that is a bit of what Jesus is implying in his request that we “abide” in his love, so that we will be shaped by it. The word abide occurs 17 times in John’s Gospel, and only one other place in the New Testament. The Fourth Gospel is convinced that unless our “lifeline is connected to God, and constantly nourished by prayer, meditation, thought, we will be unable to hold onto that vital friendship. Holy friendship with God takes time.
And the eighth point about friendship is that it is rarely stagnant, forever the same. The give and take of friendship changes us, changes our loyalties, our duties, our cares.
Amongst clergy, a story is often told about the church member who congratulated the minister for NOT preaching a sermon about love. “Love, love, love,” she said. “For once the subject wasn’t about love.” We make love too easy. Love is difficult. Jesus’ command, “Love one another” isn’t just a bunch of words, it can be very difficult.
Think back over your life and about the attitudes, opinions, even directions that your life has taken. Haven’t you been changed by the holy encounters that friendship brings? I know that I have.
In the news this past week, North Carolina , with endorsements from Billy Graham and many other religious and conservative groups, encoded a particular religious idea, about marriage into law, and, in the opposite direction, President Obama used his Christian faith—that he was called to “do unto others as he would have them do unto him”, and that he was called to “love his neighbor as himself”—to announce that his own opinions about so-called “gay” marriage have “evolved.”
Personally, I too have come to a decision: in the matter of marriage, I know that I no longer want to be an agent of the state in the matter of legalizing a marriage. I want to officiate as couples publicly share holy vows in a circle of their friends and family, but the legal part is the state’s business. Not mine. I hope you will back me up on this, but because I love you we can talk about it and what I am suggesting—for a long while, if necessary, until we discern what God is asking us to do. It is not my decision alone to make, for I am your friend, as Jesus understood the word. But I think God is asking all of us to engage our hearts and minds around our calling as friends of Jesus in this particular matter. I think it is time the church got out of the state’s business; and the state got out of our business. On the secular side of things, it’s a matter of religious liberty.
I mention this only as an illustration of how hard it can be to truly understand our role as God’s friends, to take seriously what it means in our time to love one another, as Christ has loved us. In past eras, the challenge to love might have forced us to deal with slavery, with racism and segregation; with war and peace; with sexism and how we treat women. The challenge for us today, and I suggest it is God who lays this claim on our lives, is how to deal with the rampant and sometimes violent prejudice against persons of differing sexual orientations from what is argued as the “norm”. That’s not to say that we have managed to learn how to be a community of friends with people of other races; or how to solve international threats without war.
In short, John redefines love as communion, the experience of community, a community of friends. The new commandment is simple to say but difficult to do: that we love one another as he has loved us.
It is time for me to finish: There is in this Gospel lesson for today reason for incredible wonder and joy. Jesus says that we did not choose him but he chose us. There was something in us that he, and the God he reveals, wanted not as servants but as friends, not as passive recipients of grace, but as partner in grace to the world. In his farewell speech, Jesus gives to his friends a joyful place worthy of our destiny. We are friends—of Jesus, of God, of one another. O sing to the Lord a new song, for God has done marvelous things. So may we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to comprehend the good news. Amen.