Sunday, May 21, 2006

Easter 6: It’s What Friends Do

John 15:9-17; 1 John 5:1-6

I hope you were listening carefully
when the Gospel was read this morning.
Because we heard something in that text
that, at least in my experience, I don’t hear very often.
When I read this passage again last week,
and got to that part, I had to stop, and wonder for a while.
In this passage, Jesus calls us his friends.
We’re friends of Jesus.

You might think, what’s so odd about that?
We hear all the time about beings friends with Jesus.
An all-time favorite hymn is,
“What a friend we have in Jesus.”
We’ve been hearing it since we were in Sunday School,
that Jesus is our friend.
But that’s just it.
We often hear it said, by us, that Jesus is our friend.
How often do we hear it said, by Jesus,
that we are his friends.
I checked the concordance for our blue hymnal,
there are dozens of references in the hymns we sing,
to the fact that Jesus is our friend.
I found only two passing references
to our being friends of Jesus.
I did some other scientifically sophisticated research on the issue,
which is to say, I “Googled” it.
And for the phrase, “Jesus is my friend,”
there were 19,600 hits on the internet.
For the phrase, “I am Jesus’ friend,” there were 10 hits.

Apparently, we’re a whole lot more comfortable
claiming Jesus as our friend,
than we are, claiming to be the friend of Jesus.
And it’s not the same thing.
Of course, friendship has to mutual.
We know we need to be friends with each other,
to call it a true friendship.
But sometimes it’s important to take note
of who is the one “naming,” and “claiming” the friendship?
If I say, for instance, “John is my friend,”
I am claiming that John’s relationship with me
is important to me,
that it benefits me in some way,
that it enriches my life.
But if John doesn’t readily say the same thing about me,
“Phil is my friend,”
my claim might seem kind of shallow.
Like some kind of name-dropping.
Or wishful thinking.
We hear it all the time in politics,
“Well, as my good friend, Senator Brown, said...”

And we Christians are verbose,
when it comes to claiming Jesus as our friend.
In fact, it’s kind of sad to say,
but it seems for a lot of people these days,
the sum total of their spiritual experience
is being able to call Jesus their friend.
A lot of what passes for Christian spirituality these days,
is not much more than a sentimental,
emotional attachment to Jesus.
In popular American Christianity,
Jesus is my good buddy,
my chum,
my personal spiritual sidekick.

Now don’t get me wrong,
I’m glad our God is not a distant God,
in some far unreachable galaxy.
I’m glad our God is more than a theoretical concept.
I’m immeasurably grateful that our God
dares to call us, “dear children.”
I’m amazed and thankful for scriptures that assure us that God
knows the number of hairs on my head (Matthew 10)
carries me like a lamb in his arms (Isaiah 40)
shelters me like a hen with chicks under her wings (Luke 13).
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
That’s great news.
That’s life-giving news.

But my relationship with Jesus is woefully incomplete,
if all I can say about it, is that Jesus is my friend,
that having Jesus as my friend is important to me,
a blessing to me,
a life-enriching reality for me.
A one-sided emotional attachment to Jesus
is not enough for a mature Christian faith.

That’s where today’s Gospel reading brings some balance.
You see, we don’t only claim Jesus as our friend.
Jesus claims us.
Jesus claims a significant attachment to us.
Apparently, his relationship to us means something to him.
It benefits and blesses him enough,
that he is willing to make the claim.
“You are my friends.”
He is addressing his disciples with those words, in v. 15,
those who follow him,
who obey his commandments.
So by extension, he is saying those words to us,
who seek to follow and obey as good disciples.
Jesus is saying to us, “You are my friends.”

Now, as I see it, there are two different ways to respond to this.
We can take this news with some self-satisfaction.
“Jesus loves me. I’m special.
Too bad for those other unfortunate souls.”
We can have the attitude of the Pharisee in the temple,
who prayed standing tall,
thanking God he wasn’t like that despicable tax collector
over there down on his scabby knees.
Yes, affirming that we are Jesus’ friends,
can still be self-oriented, it can still be all about me.

But, there is another way to respond to these words of Jesus,
“You are my friends.”
We can take it to mean that this relationship with Jesus,
because it is mutual,
has some real substance to it,
that it’s a thing of value to be appreciated,
and nurtured,
and protected.
That is has a real and tangible bearing
on the way we live our lives.

Because friends behave in certain ways,
if they are truly friends.
Friendship with God, through Jesus Christ,
changes a person’s life in concrete ways.

Friends do or don’t do certain things in relation to their friends.
We all know that “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
And according to some bicycle shop slogans,
“Friends don’t let friends ride junk.”
But there are lots of others things
I think we can say with certainty,
that are characteristic of true friendship,
and that, if we claim that Jesus is our friend,
and we accept Jesus’ claim that we are his friend,
then these things ought to be true
about our relationship with Jesus.

And just an aside, here.
Some people are uncomfortable talking about
having a relationship with Jesus.
I think that’s unfortunate,
even though I think I know why.
I think some people are uncomfortable with that terminology,
because it sounds too mystical and sentimental
and emotional.
Some people just can’t connect in a particularly emotional way,
with a figure who lived 2,000 years ago,
and so they reject the terminology of “relationship.”
I’ll say more about that later,
but if you’re in that category, I encourage you to think again,
and consider embracing the idea
of mutual friendship with Jesus.
I’m not saying this is a relationship of equals.
By no means.
Jesus is not only friend, but Lord.
But our relationship need not be equal, to be mutual.

I want to share at least four things that I think characterize
a mutual friendship with Jesus.

First, a friend takes seriously what their friend takes seriously.
A friend seeks to know the heart, the passions, the vision
of their friend.
If you are truly my friend,
what’s important to you is therefore important to me,
so I’ll try to find out what that is.
A real friend of Jesus would naturally devote their life
to learning to know Jesus,
learning to know what Jesus takes seriously,
learning to know what’s important to Jesus.
We can learn a lot by just reading the Gospels.
We know that in Jesus’ teaching and preaching,
nothing seemed more important than the kingdom of God,
the reign of God.
Jesus proclaimed God’s reign.
He demonstrated life under God’s reign.
He called people to a higher ethical standard—
submission to the reign of God,
over any and all earthly kingdoms and powers.
And we know that Jesus had deep compassion for all those
who were alienated, broken, disenfranchised.
We know that Jesus was passionate about reconciliation.
Wherever there was brokenness and alienation,
Jesus was moved to compassion.
He worked to mend brokenness of body, of mind, of spirit,
of relationships.
So as Jesus’ friends, it seems we would naturally
take the reign of God very seriously,
and that we would have compassion on the alienated,
and would devote ourselves to the work of reconciliation.
And by the same token,
Jesus must take seriously,
the things we are concerned about,
our joys, our challenges, our pain and our passions.
He may not affirm everything about us,
but he takes us seriously.

The second thing friends do, which John chapter 15 makes very plain,
is that friends don’t keep important secrets from each other.
In v. 15, Jesus tells his disciples,
“I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.”
True friends hold nothing back.
To hold back information, is to assert power over the other.
Keeping a secret is a way of maintaining control.
The more we open ourselves to others,
the more self-revealing we are,
the more vulnerable we become.
Jesus was self-revealing.
He revealed to his disciples the secrets of the kingdom.
And as God incarnate, in the flesh,
Jesus represented a self-revealing God.
Jesus himself was an expression of God’s friendship toward us.
God, through the person of Jesus, was self-revealing.

Thirdly, and closely related to the second,
is that friends argue with each other.
Friends fight...yes! They fight fair, they fight without violence,
but they fight, they wrestle, they struggle with each other.
It’s one form of transparency, not keeping secrets.
If I’m hurt or angered or pained by something a friend does,
I won’t keep my hurt under wraps.
I’ll be honest, and tell my friend what I’m feeling.
To put on a friendly front,
is decidedly un-friendly.
It’s not what friends do.
Friends are honest with each other,
because their love and loyalty to each other can handle it.
We’re kind of used to the idea that God can get angry with us.
God’s judgment against sin and sinners
is well-documented in scripture.
We may not like to dwell on that fact, but it’s true.
God loves us enough to be honest
when God is hurt or angered by what we do.
So we’re familiar with God’s anger toward us.
But if our friendship with God is real,
it has to work the other way.
We have to be able to express our anger and frustration
and confusion and hurt,
or whatever it is that is causing a rift in our relationship.
This morning we turned to a psalm of lament,
Psalm 13.
Together we said—having in mind, no doubt,
the disorienting, and disrupting events in our lives,
in our community in recent days,
and in our world—
together we said to our friend in heaven,
“Hey, God! Pay attention!
Can’t you see what’s happening down here?”
I quote the psalmist,
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!”
And that psalm is mild compared to many.
The psalmist, who loves God deeply
and trusts God completely,
sometimes rages with God.
He lets God have it.
I am so glad these psalms
have been preserved in our scripture.
They show us what a meaningful relationship with God
is really like.
Like any genuine relationship, it can be rocky sometimes.
But it is bound by covenant love.
It can be strained and stretched,
but it is not easily broken.

And finally, also closely related to the one previous,
is friends don’t give up on each other.
Friends are fiercely loyal,
even when their friend disappoints them.
Our friendship with God can’t afford to be a fair-weather friendship.
The story of the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation,
is the story of a God who never gave up,
and still hasn’t given up.
So I think, if we’re honest,
we owe a similar loyalty to God.
God will disappoint us. Count on it.
Not because God will do us wrong.
No, it’s because we sometimes
set ourselves up for disappointment,
by having inappropriate expectations of God.
But even in disappointment, friends don’t give up on each other.

So let us nurture friendship with God, in Christ Jesus,
through the Holy Spirit.
Let us pursue, without hesitation or embarrassment,
building a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Back to this thing of having a relationship with Christ.
I’m not asking those of you who approach your faith in Christ
with more of a rational bent,
to give that up, in exchange for mysticism and emotionalism.
No, continue to use your head, and use your heart,
however that works best for you.
But open yourself to be changed by who Jesus is to you.
That’s what it really means to have a relationship with Jesus.
It means opening yourself to being changed.
To be in relationship, is to be impacted by the relationship.
no matter what you’re in relationship with—
a person, a God, an inanimate object, even an idea—
if there is no impact, there is no relationship.
If knowing what you know about Jesus,
has no impact on you as a person,
if it doesn’t change how you live your life,
you don’t have a relationship.
And you don’t yet know Jesus.

The Gospel of John is a relationship-oriented Gospel.
Luke is big on facts and logical order and connections.
Matthew is big on getting things right with the law and tradition.
John is all about relationship.
Did you know John uses the word “love” more than
all three other Gospels, combined.
So let’s be okay with talking about Jesus using “love language.”
Not romanticism and mysticism,
but a real, tangible, devotion to one who calls us his friends,
a devotion that will take my ordinary life,
and make it extraordinary.

It seems to me, there is so much about this world that is disorienting,
that we are greatly in need of reorientation,
a rediscovery of who we are, in relationship to God in Christ,
a recovery of the language of love,
a reminder that Jesus sees us who follow him,
looks on us stumbling disciples with great affection,
and says, “You are not only my servants.
You are my friends.
I love you.
I am for you.
Be at peace.

—Phil Kniss, May 21, 2006

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