Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 15th of Eleventh Month, 2020
Speaker: Brian C. Young
Scripture: John 15:12-17
John 15:12-17, NRSV: 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 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. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Good morning, Friends!
Today, it is at the same time superficially easy and incredibly difficult to be a friend. Friendship is one of the greatest treasures of life, but at present it is suffering.
Friendship in the age of social media is far too easy. Facebook has made becoming a friend a one-click transaction, no harder than buying a pair of socks or a box of chocolates on your favorite shopping website. One can acquire hundreds of online friends without having met any of them in real life. And while virtual connections have some value, when they become the primary measure of what it means to be a friend, friendship suffers.
Friendship in the time of COVID-19 is much harder than it was even a year ago. The uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic have put all of our relationships under strain. When we cannot easily be with one another, when we must distance ourselves, when almost all of our relationships are mediated by computer screens or the telephone, friendship suffers.
Jesus, no stranger to suffering, speaks the words of this passage to his friends in the days leading up to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In this chapter and the surrounding
chapters, he prepares his disciples for his departure, with much teaching. This section of the Gospel is complex, and in this brief passage alone, there are quite a few things going on. One of the things that Jesus teaches the disciples here is that the kind of intimate relationship that Jesus has with God they also can and will have, because of their relationship with him. We see this most clearly just prior to the beginning of today's passage (vv9–10): “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” So “abiding love” is an important part of the background of this passage. The disciples are to abide—to stay, to remain, to keep, to be bound in, to wait—in love. In this they will be doing God's will, keeping God's commands.
And the love that Jesus speaks of here is two-dimensioned. It is not simply the disciples’ love for God, and God's love for them; it is also their love for one another. In the life of faith, there are vertical and horizontal dimensions. Love of God and love of our sisters and brothers go hand-in-hand. We see this, of course, in the other Gospels, when Jesus is asked which of the commandments in the Law is the greatest; he chooses two: first, love God, and second, love neighbor as self. And this kind of love for neighbor is not a gee-whiz emotion; it is not primarily even a feeling, but rather a movement of the will. As Jesus says here in John 15:13, it is being willing to lay down one's very life for those that one loves.
Jesus goes on to say that those who obey this love commandment become his friends. In fact, they have been elevated from a much lowlier status—they are no longer slaves. The version of the Bible we usually use here at West Richmond uses the word “servants” in this verse. But the Greek word that is being translated here is often rendered “slave” elsewhere in the New Testament. I think using that word intensifies what Jesus is saying. Think about it for a moment: true love is liberating love.
True love, life-laying-down love, sets captives free. True love breaks the bondage of slaves—who would have held the lowest status in any household in Jesus' day—and makes them into friends; honored guests of the host, those fit to recline at the table and sup with the master. This is God’s abiding love for us; it is also the kind of love that we are to extend to one another.
And this love casts a different light on friendship. This is not Facebook friendship. This is much deeper and wider.
The title that I chose for this message was, “Why are we Friends?” There are lots of Quakers who would answer that question by going straight to today's passage, to verses 14 and 15: “You are my friends if you do what I command you… I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” When we look at our history, however, it's not really clear that this is what the first Quakers were thinking of when they chose a name for their young movement. As far as I have found, the full name of the movement, early on, was the Society of Friends of Truth, or the Society of Friends in Truth. Now, it doesn't mean that they didn’t have this part of the Bible in mind when they came up with that name. For George Fox and the other founders of Quakerism, Truth and Christ were very much the same thing. They believed that Christ was available to everyone in the present, to teach the Truth to anyone who would truly listen and inwardly turn towards it. So first of all, if we claim this tradition, we are Friends because we hold that Christ is still available, here and now, to teach us Truth.
But: this is a pretty audacious claim. Are we really saying that Christ has made known to us all that he has heard from God?
In fact, being Friends of God is not something we receive at one point in time and never need to revisit. For many of us, the name “Friend” is a goal on a lifelong journey. We discover more of God’s Truth as we move closer to God. And on that journey, there are also plenty of obstacles. Most of these are, I think, obstacles of the heart.
One of these lies in the way that we spend our time. About my own life, I have to ask: “Am I really spending enough time in Christ's presence to be able to call myself his friend?” Quakers believe that there are a variety of ways to spend time in Christ's presence. Prayer and reading Scripture are of course important; also the practice of spiritual disciplines; and perhaps most importantly, waiting on God in worship, whether individually or corporately. All of these are vitally important steps on the journey, drawing closer to Christ, becoming friends more and more.
Another obstacle of the heart, for some of us, might be the way that we think about God. For some, it may be easier to continue to have Christ as Lord, or Savior, without his becoming as close as a friend. Some of these traditional titles given to Christ can be a way of keeping him at arm's length, because they are so exalted, because God becomes so much of an other, because God is a “distant King” rather than a present person. In classical theology, Christ Jesus is both divine and human, tied together in a mystery; but sometimes for us the Christ clouds up and covers over the Jesus, and that can put more distance between us and God. It is much harder to refuse an invitation of friendship from one who stands right in front of us, right in our midst, than from one off in the heavens somewhere.
There are other obstacles, no doubt; but here's one thing that helps us make it past these and all the others. As I read this passage, one thing that stands out to me as being really important is where the motive of friendship comes from. It's not from me; it doesn't come from us. Jesus reminds the disciples, “You did not choose me, I chose you” (15:16). Doesn't that change things significantly? Aren't things different when the friendship doesn't depend on me? Might God even strengthen me to the point that I can be Christ's friend, despite my fears, my selfishness, my desire to maintain control? Is it not within God's power to make me a dependable friend? God did it for the quarrelsome disciples, and God no less can do it for us.
If, by God’s choosing, we are Friends, then our work is to be friends both of the Truth and of one another. And that is hard, for sometimes we are more inclined to favor one over the other.
Friendship with Truth necessarily means opposing falsehood. And that can put us in uncomfortable places. Perhaps you know people who are so focused on their pursuit of truth that they have little regard for the needs of others, or for their own need for companions on the way. Many pursue Truth in isolation, but it does not have to be that way. When Quakerism first started, it was particularly founded in the vision of George Fox; there was much about that vision (and about Fox himself!) that was so revolutionary that it could be alienating. But the real strength of the movement was that others gathered around him, and they began to work that vision out in community. One of the lasting things that came out of that community was our commitment to corporate discernment—that the faithful can learn what God's will is for the community, together.
On the other hand, sometimes we allow our relationships and our regard for one another to weaken our devotion to Truth. Sometimes we are willing to let things slide in the
interest of getting along, because we’re afraid of alienating others. Sometimes we opt for surface interactions or half-truths when the better way would be to go deeper and to pursue Truth. That takes more time and so much more effort, but we can do it with God's strength, grace, and abiding love.
We need to hold friendship with Truth and friendship with one another in dynamic tension, attending to both as best we can. We need to strengthen our individual spiritual development and devotion at the same time that we promote corporate worship and discernment, seeking in everything to speak the truth in love—whether that's a witness to the world on a social concern, or when there are issues that need to be confronted and worked out in personal relationships.
I can't say that we always deserve the name that we've chosen for ourselves; sometimes we we might be no better than Jesus' acquaintances. But let’s not forget:
We are Friends because that's what God calls us.
We are Friends because that's what God calls us to be.
We are Friends because that's what God has chosen us for.
In a time where it is on the one hand superficially easy and on the other far too difficult to be a friend, our world needs people who are truly dedicated to God’s call to friendship. My friends, let us listen anew for this call this morning.
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