Sunday, May 17, 2009

(Easter 6) Fans, Friends, Followers: Relating to Jesus in a Facebook Age

Easter 6: John 15:9-17

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Twice, as I prepared for this sermon,
I received a bit of a jolt
in regard to this notion of being a friend of Jesus.
One of the jolts came from today’s Gospel reading.
The other one came from Facebook.

This is not in the order of priority, by any means,
but let me start with the jolt I got from Facebook.
Facebook, as many of you know, and as some of you don’t,
is a website for social networking,
for connecting with people you know . . .
like some you already see in person every day,
and some you haven’t seen in years, like old classmates.
Any Facebook user that you allow to connect
to your Facebook page,
is referred to as your “Friend.”
In the Facebook world, you soon learn,
the word “Friend” is very loosely defined.
Friends aren’t expected to be there for you if you need help.
Friends don’t necessarily get together.
Friends don’t even have to say a word to you directly,
in person or in writing . . . ever.
Some Facebook users have “friends” they’ve never met.

On Facebook, as on other social networking websites,
like “MySpace” or “Twitter,”
being a friend, or being a “follower” as Twitter likes to call it,
requires absolutely nothing at all from you.
You can be a perfectly legitimate friend,
when all you do is sit on the sidelines and eavesdrop
on someone else’s thoughts or feelings
they happen to post online.

I’m a Facebook user,
and I do enjoy making some connections with long-lost friends
and keeping up with relatives at a distance,
and with many of you in this congregation.
But not long ago, I got a bit of a jolt, when I saw on my Facebook page
that so-and-so had become a “Friend” of Jesus,
and were suggesting that I become a Friend, also.

See, public figures can have a Facebook page,
even if they’re dead and gone,
as long as someone puts their page online, and administers it.
Turns out Jesus actually has quite a few Facebook friends.
On the pages of public figures, like Jesus,
or Gandhi or Mr. Bean or Madonna,
people who connect are referred to as fans.
So when I clicked on the Jesus icon,
I saw that Jesus had well over a million fans.
Not as many as Barack Obama,
but a whole lot, nonetheless.

It gave me a bit of a jolt as I thought about it.
The notion of what it means to be a friend in the age of Facebook,
fits perfectly with the way most people look at Jesus anyway.
Jesus has always had millions, and now billions,
of fans in this world.
Now, due to Facebook, it can be said he has millions of Friends.
And if Jesus was on Twitter,
I’m sure he would have millions of “followers.”

In the Facebook age, we have mastered the art of connecting with others,
without really connecting,
at minimal personal cost,
and with maximum anonymity.
It’s perfect for the way lots of people would like to relate to Jesus.
Low cost. Low risk. High freedom. High independence.

In the end,
I decided to pass on the Facebook offer
of being a fan or friend of Jesus.
I’d rather struggle to figure out how to do it the hard way,
in real life.

Well, as I said, the other jolt came in today’s Gospel reading, John 15.
This reading comes right in the middle
of a long, four-chapter monologue by Jesus.
If your Bible’s a red-letter edition,
page after page you’re seeing red.
John puts this monologue in the context
of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples.
After the meal, after the washing of his disciples feet,
and after Judas Iscariot runs out of the house, with other plans,
Jesus launches into this sermon.

The Gospel of Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount.
Luke has the Sermon on the Plain.
John has a Sermon at the Table.

And it’s significant that it’s at the table,
because this is an intimate, heart-felt, and soul-baring sermon.
Not the kind you’d preach to a crowd.
Certainly not like any I’ve preached.
This is the kind of sermon that family elders might give
to their children and grandchildren,
gathered around their death bed.
Such as,
“If there’s anything I want you to remember in life, remember this.”

So Jesus is telling the eleven disciples who remain, things like,
“Don’t let your heart be troubled . . .
I’m going away, but I’m sending you the Spirit as an Advocate.
And I’m preparing a place for you.”
And things like, “You already know the way to God.
I am the way. Follow me.”
And things like, “I am the Vine, you are the branches.
Abide in me. Stay attached. Stick with me.”
And he finishes up the sermon with a long prayer to his Father,
spoken at the table right in front of his disciples.
“God, take care of these disciples.
Don’t let go of them.
Make them one.
As I send them into the world,
be in them, and I am in you, and you are in me.”

But in the middle of this beautiful sermon,
I was jolted by these words of Jesus to his disciples.
“I do not call you servants any longer . . .
I call you friends.”

On the one hand, there’s nothing surprising about Jesus
calling his disciples “friends.”
They had spent several years together full-time.
They ought to be friends.
But no, there is more to this statement.
This signifies a radical change in the status of their relationship.
“I will not call you servants any longer.”
This is a rabbi speaking to his students.
No longer am I going to play the part
of the wise and mysterious and distant expert,
and you the helpless and dependent novice.
“I have already made known to you,” Jesus said in v. 15,
“everything that I have heard from my Father.”
I’ve finished my job of dispensing knowledge to you.
Now you know what I know.
So, just go out there and do what you know to do.
Love each other as I have loved you . . . v. 12.
I love you so much I am laying down my life for you . . . v. 13.
So love each other.
Love. Love. Love.
Abide in my love.
Lay down your lives for your friends.
You are my friends.
Which makes you friends with God.
And friends with each other.
Now, go do what friends do.
Give your all.
Or, as I said in my sermon two weeks ago,
place your life in the life of the other.

This is the polar opposite of
Facebook’s dumbed-down definition of friendship.
This is high risk friendship with a huge price tag.

I find it fascinating that in the Gospel of John
there is a deliberate pairing
of the concepts of love and commandments.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
“This is my commandment, that you love one another.”
In human friendships we rarely use the word command.
It’s too easy to fall prey to controlling and manipulating others.
That doesn’t fit with friendship.
But John sees no conflict between
talking about our love of God,
and our obedience to God.
Our friendship with God is not a friendship of equals.

But even in a relationship with such an imbalance of power,
it is perfectly right to speak of friendship with God,
because God took the amazing step, and risky step,
of voluntarily limiting his power,
and giving us freedom to shape our lives and future.
We are invited, not pressured, to respond to God’s grace in Christ,
and enter a relationship that entails both deep friendship,
and deep obedience,
a laying down of our lives for the higher purposes of God.

It is possible to have a profound and even mutual
friendship with Jesus Christ,
because, and only because, of God’s grace.

You know, we could give ourselves a little test,
to see whether we have yet to open ourselves
to God’s gift and grace of friendship with Jesus.
There are some marks of friendship we can look for.

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.

We know by reading the Gospels,
that nothing was more important to Jesus
than the kingdom of God.
Jesus came to proclaim and demonstrate
life under God’s reign.
He called people to submit first to the reign of God,
and put all earthly kingdoms and powers in their place.
And we know that Jesus had deep compassion for all those
who were alienated, broken, disenfranchised.
We know Jesus was passionate about healing.
Wherever there was brokenness,
Jesus was moved.
He gave himself to the work
of making whole what was fractured—
in body, in mind, in spirit, in relationships.

So if I’m a friend of Jesus,
I’ll take the reign of God very seriously.
I’ll have compassion on the alienated.
I’ll devote myself to God’s mission
of saving, healing, reconciling, and restoring.

Another mark of friendship, which John chapter 15 makes very plain,
is that friends don’t keep important secrets from each other.
Jesus told his disciples,
“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.
And Jesus represented a self-revealing God.
Nor do we hold anything back
if we call ourselves a friend of God in Christ.
We bring all that we are—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And it will be graciously received.

A third mark, closely related to the second,
is that friends argue with each other.
Friends fight . . . yes!
They fight fair.
They fight without violence, without violating each other.
But they fight, they wrestle, they struggle with each other.
It’s a form of transparency, of not keeping secrets.
If I’m hurt or angered or pained by something a friend does,
I won’t keep it under wraps.
I’ll be honest, painful or not.
To put on a false friendly front,
is not friendly at all
It’s not what friends do.
Friends are honest with each other,
because their love and loyalty to each other can handle it.

We know about scriptures
where God got brutally honest and angry with his people.
We sort of get that picture.
We don’t like to dwell on it, but we get it.
God loves us enough to be honest with us, even in anger.
But if our friendship with God in Christ is real,
it ought to work the other way!
We will be able to express our anger and frustration
and confusion and hurt,
when there is a rift in our relationship.

Read the psalms of lament.
They say, “Hey, God! Pay attention!
Can’t you see what’s happening down here?”
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever?
How long will you hide your face?
The psalmist, who loves God deeply
and trusts God completely,
sometimes rages with God.
The psalmist is showing us what friendship with God looks like.
Friendship can be rocky sometimes.
But it is bound by covenant love.
It can be strained and stretched, but not easily broken.

And another mark of friendship, also closely related,
is friends don’t give up on each other.
Friends are fiercely loyal,
even when their friend disappoints them.
Friendship with God cannot be a fair-weather friendship.
The whole story of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation,
is a story of God never giving up on us.
We owe that kind of loyalty to God.
God will disappoint us. Count on it.
Not because God does wrong,
but because we set ourselves up for disappointment
by having misguided expectations of God.
But even in disappointment,
friends don’t give up on each other.

So this morning,
let us vow to learn friendship with God in Christ.
Let us pursue, without hesitation or embarrassment,
life-giving and life-long friendship with Jesus Christ.

As Jesus invited his disciples in his Sermon at the Table,
“I am the Vine, you are the branches.
Stick with me. Stay with me. Abide.
And your life will be fruitful.”

So we are invited to a life of love,
by one who already loves us deeply.
Jesus said to them,
and, I believe, continues to say to us,
“You are not only my servants.
You are my friends.
I love you.
My heart burns for you.”

Our work is to open ourselves to this burning love of God.
To create a space in our lives,
where the flame of God’s love,
can burn unhindered.
And where the warmth of that flame,
can be seen, and shared, and felt,
by everyone and everything that God also loves.

To love what God loves.
That’s what friends do.

May God help us.

—Phil Kniss, May 17, 2009

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