An Open Table where Love knows no borders

I Call You My Friends

A sermon on John 15:9-17 by Nathan Nettleton

We heard one of Jesus’ most extraordinary statements in tonight’s gospel reading. It probably didn’t jump out at you as extraordinary. In fact you may have barely noticed it at all. But when you begin to unpack it, it becomes more and more extraordinary. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you you love one another as I have loved you. I do not call you servants any longer, but friends.”

The concept of being friends has become a little more confused in recent years with the advent of internet-based social networking. The politics and etiquette of being friended or unfriended on Facebook inevitably change the way we use the language. I’ve seen this a couple of times in the last week or so, even though I am a very infrequent user of Facebook. Paul Jones, who some of you will remember used to be a part of this congregation, published his first theological text book, and he sent an announcement via Facebook to everyone on his friends list who was in church ministry of some sort. And one of those people, also a published author, sent a rather snitchy reply saying “I must start publicising my books with unsolicited messages to random lists of Facebook friends.” Now to his credit, he later apologised, but it did beg the question, if you regard someone as so random that you wouldn’t even welcome a message from them when they do something as significant as publish a book in your field of interest, what on earth are you doing counting them among your “friends”? And then I was involved in an online discussion after a spokesperson for the Baptist Union of Australia criticised another Baptist pastor for supporting gay marriage. I thought his criticism was unnecessarily personal and nasty, but by the end of the day he had apparently unfriended three of his Facebook friends (though not me) for attacking him in ways that he thought were unnecessarily personal and nasty. Maybe they were. I don’t know; I didn’t see them. But maybe too sometimes what goes around comes around.

Anyway, Facebook is changing the meanings we hear in the use of the word friend, and creating the possibility that you have a countable number of “friends” many of whom you have never met, don’t actually know anything about, and might even regard as so random that if they message you, you think of it as spam. So when we hear Jesus speaking of counting us as friends, we may need to do a little translating and remind ourselves that his understanding and use of the word predates Facebook by a very long time. Funnily enough, when we speak of being followers of Jesus, we may have to remember that the word follower is being similarly transformed by social networking. I saw a cartoon once that showed Jesus saying to a young man, “No, when I said ‘follow me’, I meant it literally, not on Twitter.”

So, if we try to get our heads back into a pre-internet understanding of being friends, I want us to consider for a few minutes the meaning and implications firstly of Jesus calling us friends, and secondly of his call to us to love one another as friends.

Jesus clearly recognises how radical and even shocking his suggestion that he might now call us friends is, because he spells it out in a way that highlights the nature of the change. “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.” In other words, he is pointing to a change of status. We used to be called God’s servants. Now we are called God’s friends. And this is a change of status from something which was fairly easy for us to comprehend and respond appropriately to, to something that becomes more and more mind-blowing the more you think about it.

Being a servant of God makes sense to us. It fits into our usual thinking about hierarchical social relationships. Even here in Australia where our thinking is often more egalitarian than most countries, we understand hierarchical relationships. We just object to them much of the time. But our objections are against something we recognise and understand and almost take for granted. So the way we usually think of it, if God is God, then God can call the shots and our job is to fall into line and do whatever God asks of us. It’s much like when we go to work. If the boss is the boss, then the boss calls the shots and our job is to diligently do the tasks that the boss sets for us. If we do, then we expect to be able to keep our jobs and get paid regularly and all is well with the world. In most workplaces, we don’t expect the boss to count us as friends. We are employees, and that defines our relationship. And so mostly, it makes sense to us to bring that same understanding to our relationship with God. The relationship is defined by God’s expectations and our diligence in working to do all that is expected of us.

Of course, sometimes we take the understanding of our relationship with God further. We talk of God’s love for us, which is not something we usually expect from our bosses. But even then, we usually think of this love within hierarchical structures. God loves us as a parent loves a child, so though we are loved, we are still very much under the authority of this God and expected to do as we are told.

So within these hierarchical frameworks, a relationship with God makes sense to us. The strength of the relationship is determined by the quality of our work, our output. God gives the orders, we do the work, and at the end of the day we get paid and go home, hopefully rejoicing in what a loving boss we’ve got. We rejoice in the biggest praise imaginable in such a relationship: “Well done good and faithful servant.” And those of us who have trouble knowing who we are apart from what we do are especially comfortable in such a relationship.

But Jesus turns this completely on its head. “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.” Yes it is true that he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” but what is it that he commanding us to do as he says this? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is not work, work, work. it is just love, love, love. And importantly for what we are getting at here, it is not, “If you love one another then you are my good and faithful servants,” but “If you love one another then you are my friends.”

Many of us, when we begin to try to fathom the implications of that begin to get very awkward and uncomfortable. You see friendship completely breaks down the hierarchy. Friendship puts us on a level. And so usually our friends are those with whom we already feel on a level. The Pastors’ Code of Ethics tells me that there are limits to how much I can be friends with any of you because friendship is always understood as putting us on a level and it is assumed that a pastor has to have some proper professional distance in order to be able to provide adequate leadership and pastoral care. And I’m not meaning to reject the code of ethics outright, but Jesus doesn’t seem to have entirely signed up to it here. “I do not call you servants any longer, but friends.”

So what are the ethics of that for us, on the other side of the relationship? That’s the trouble, isn’t it? In friendships, the two sides are understood as equal, and so we’re not at all sure how to behave if someone who we regarded as far above us suddenly begins to treat us as an equal, a friend. “I do not call you servants any longer, but friends.” If that’s true, then no longer can the substance of the relationship be about what I do for God. It is not about my doing stuff. If I were to judge the quality of my friendships by what my friends do for me, I wouldn’t really be treating them as friends, would I? So now, if Jesus is inviting us to be his friends, we have to find out what it means to “be” for God, instead of “do things” for God. The relationship is now to be defined by a mutual love and care, by an enjoying of one another, by “being” for one another. Some of us have a hard enough time coping with that in our relationships with one another; the prospect of such a invitation from God is positively terrifying. Terrifying, but almost unimaginably wonderful too. Imagine actually being set free from the need to prove our worth, to obey and conform and produce and achieve. Being free just to love and be loved and be friends. With God!

Before I wrap up though, I have to touch on the implications for our relationships with one another, because Jesus does link this befriending clearly with loving one another as he loved us. It is clear that this new friendship he is inviting us into extends to friendship with one another. And this is a bit of a challenge for us because, as we often note, being a congregation who mostly don’t live anywhere near each other and who are quite diverse, it is quite difficult for us to build real friendships with one another. And we have gotten used to acknowledging that and saying that, although it might not be ideal, it is okay. It is okay for these relationships to be just what they are and we don’t have to all be close, hang-out-together-a-lot friends. And sometimes in pastoral conversations when there is some real tension between some of you, I’ve told some of you that it is not necessary to like one another and be firm friends in order to love one another. Love is a commitment and a chosen action, not a feeling. I’m not taking those statements back now, but it is clear that Jesus is calling us towards an ideal that goes beyond that.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ call to love one another begins with one another in the community of faith, the congregation, because that is actually where it is hardest. Because of the high aspirations we have for the community of faith formed in and around Jesus, this is where we are most prone to disappointing one another, letting one another down, offending one another, and infuriating one another. And because we are called to be a community who intentionally draw in and welcome those who are especially broken and in need of significant healing and transformation and growth, it is even probably the case that the average ability to relate gently and lovingly and graciously is probably lower in here than it is in many of the other places we will go. And so, in part, that’s the point. If you can learn to love one another and grow towards real God-like friendship in here, then you will be well prepared to do the hard yards of laying down your life for the world out there.

Which does mean that, how ever gentle I might have sometimes been with you when you are telling me that the best you can manage with this person or that person is to grit your teeth and tolerate them, Jesus is calling you to make sure that gritting your teeth and tolerating them is only a first step towards something much greater. When Jesus calls you to take one another by the hand as we share the peace shortly, and pledge yourselves to one another to live in love and peace from this day forth, then it is a call to pledge yourselves to a future in which you will eventually be able to gladly welcome one another as friends in a relationship defined by a mutual love and care, by an enjoying of one another, by “being” for one another. That exchange of peace is an acknowledgement that, however hard it is to imagine now, you know that one day, when the layers of hurt and defensiveness and suspicion and prickliness are eventually stripped away from both of us, we will see each other as beautiful, and wonderful, as shining with the image of God, the image of the God who embraces us as friends and who will love us into our full capacity to embrace one another as friends. And for the coming of that day on this, we work and pray. Amen.


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