This Week’s Lectionary Sermon

To find other sermons for Lectionary Year B, go to Menu on the home page and find Year B Lectionary Sermons.  They are listed in ascending order, so the Advent series is at the bottom.

The Fruit of a Friendship                                                                            Rev. Deb Mechler

John 15:9-17; Acts 10:44-48                                                                                    Easter 6B

May 13, 2012                                                                             Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Friends matter.  When my kids were growing up, we paid close attention to the people they were hanging around with.  My son got into trouble with his best friend one time.  They were maybe six years old at the time.  We didn’t appreciate it when they slathered our painted siding with mud.  It seemed as though they were well-behaved when they were alone, but as a combination they could get into mischief.  It seems that we become like our friends.

            In his last conversation with them before he died, Jesus made a point of telling his disciples that he didn’t want to call them his servants any more.  He preferred to call them his friends.  But he seems to alternate between friend language and servant language, so it can be confusing to us.  Are we servants, friends, or both?  Are disciples the same as friends?

            Relationships are complicated.  Maybe it was just as puzzling to Jesus as it was to Peter, Nathaniel, James and all the rest of them.  When it comes to the many layers and functions of a close relationship, I think a better word than “puzzling” might be “mysterious.” 

            It is strange how a master/servant relationship can at the same time be a close friendship.  We know it happens.  The film “Driving Miss Daisy” comes to mind.  The black man whom his white employer actually treated with some contempt as her servant became, over the years, the one who understood her and loved her best, so he endured her crotchety comments, even her bigotry.  She needed him as much as he needed her.  Even when she could no longer pay him what he deserved, he stayed on and helped her because he knew she depended on him.  He was her friend.

            That interdependence might be part of what Jesus is getting at.  He depends on us obeying what he has given us to do.  If we don’t, the friendship can’t survive.  We depend on Jesus to show us his way, to make his intentions clear so we can align our lives with his life. 

            In John 15:14 Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Sounds like an odd statement to our ears.  If we didn’t know better, we would think that Jesus doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the good feelings of friendship and the barking of orders by a master.  So he really must mean something different than our usual definition of friendship.

            The Greek word for “command” in this verse has a few nuances to it.  Here it may reflect a responsibility Jesus is entrusting to us.  Even if we don’t feel the least bit capable of loving God and each other as Jesus charges us to do, he trusts us to do it because we are his friends.  We receive Jesus’ love, and we participate in the love of Jesus with the Father.  It is a position of privilege that makes us want to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us.

            It seems that the friendship Jesus is describing involves a deep regard, so deep that friends are willing to give their lives for each other.  Occasionally we have the opportunity to discover how much we love someone when we are called to lay down our life for them in one way or another.  It can mean actually taking a bullet for them, or taking care of them in their illness, or maybe enduring struggle in a friendship that we refuse to abandon.  We discover that we have a capacity for love we might not have realized otherwise.

            The relationship with Jesus is a friendship that has no hint of being a burden to us.  You have friendships that feel burdensome, I’ll bet.  Where someone only seems interested in your friendship when they can get something they need from you.  It doesn’t feel mutual.  It’s not life-giving for you.  When you see their number on caller ID, you sigh and wonder what they want now.  That kind of relationship puts a tinge of falsehood on what used to be a friendship, maybe.

            Friendship with Jesus is another matter altogether.  It is not about serving Jesus earnestly, hoping to earn his love.  It is not about trying harder and harder.  This kind of friendship is “the kind of burden sails are to a ship, wings are to a bird,” to quote Samuel Rutherford.  The responsibilities it entails are received with joy because the relationship gives joy.

            So often I think we treat our relationship with Jesus as a burden.  It is our duty to pray, to read about him, to serve him.  We fail to see the friendship as a gift.  “We may try to alter our lives by good resolutions and intentions, by imitations and effort, but how fruitless it all is until we open our lives to his friendship and are transformed like a grafted rose, not from without, but from within.  It is the precious gift within that makes the difference.”  So says Leslie D. Weatherhead in his classic book, The Transforming Friendship.[1] 

            I have been trying to point out in this Easter season that we are blessed with the presence and power of the living Jesus Christ, not just an idea or a memory of someone who was great once, somewhere else.  He is our friend, the source of our life right now.  Another idea from Weatherhead helps us realize the difference, I think:

                        “Quite a number of people…have got the notion that Christianity is a kind of movement; a movement worthy of support and doing a great deal of good work, but still a movement…You find them going about recommending their religion, as a movement, with some degree of misgiving; and they are surprised when people pick up the misgiving and don’t pick up the religion.  Some of them are very lovable, very pathetic souls, who don’t realize how utterly they have missed the way, and what an enormous lot they are still missing.  They do often wonder why their life seems to be without power, why life seems to lack meaning and beauty, why certain secret sins have such deadly dominion over them, why the way is so steep and tortuous, why others pass them with radiant faces and a song on their lips, while to them life is all so grey and drab.  I am afraid in many cases it is because they are supporting a movement, a movement which they can see is doing excellent work.  Strictly speaking, they do not know what religion is, because religion means a binding back of the soul to God, a definite personal relationship, a link between a man’s soul and the heart of a great Father.”[2]

            Jesus says further that the friendship we have with him—what he also calls our abiding in him—exists for the purpose of bearing fruit.  It is meant to be reproduced.  That’s the purpose of fruit isn’t it?  Not just to taste good but to be the vessel for seed that grows new vines or trees.  That fruit-bearing is all bound up with obedience, with love, with time spent together.  It is knowing one another and loving each other—I’m talking about our love for each other now, as well as Jesus’ love for and among us—that is such a delight that we cannot help but share it with other people. 

            See, life in Jesus is not a movement we’re somehow hired to promote as an ad agency might be hired to promote a product.  Instead we are compelled by an irrepressible force.  It is the unstoppable love of Jesus that the writer in 1 John 5 says conquers the world! 

            So when we hear Jesus’ command in Matthew 28, what we often call the “Great Commission,” it is instead the Great Compulsion to give to a hurting world what Jesus has already given us.  The Son of God himself loves us!  He is for us!  Good news, people: this love is more real and healing than any other love you have ever known.  The truth of Jesus’ presence and love is too good to keep to ourselves.

            So the outward movement of our mission is not a robotic, grudging obedience to the command of our master.  Instead it flows out of a relationship that, by nature, must be reproduced or it will wither and die. 

            How do we grab hold of this friendship?  The relationship has to have fertile soil to germinate and grow.  Conversion, faith, and baptism do not develop in a vacuum any more than a seed plants itself in your field and grows without the sun and rain.  The place for this nurture is the church.  St. Cyprian, a third century African bishop, said that it is impossible to have God as our Father if we don’t have the church as our mother.

            I’m just finishing up my visits with eighth grade confirmands and their parents, in preparation for their affirmation of baptism next month.  In the conversation I make sure to help them understand how their faith literally depends on the community of believers we call the church.  It is the same for us all.  We need one another so we can understand the Word of love, can have the courage to obey, and are able to receive the Holy Spirit’s power to do it with confidence and joy.  But it is not a task we undertake out of duty.  It flows from our mutual growth and faith.  It flows from worshiping God together, receiving God’s love as a community and learning what that looks like in practice.

            We are given relationships as a gift—friendship with Jesus, family relationships, fellowship in the church—not just so we can have a kind of mutual admiration society.  That quickly becomes ingrown, narrow-minded and prone to drama.  The love we incubate in our fellowship (and in our homes as disciples of Jesus) is a love that is meant to grow up and make a difference in the world.  It is an outward-reaching force that can’t be stopped.

            This is what Peter discovered when he fell into a trance during his prayer time on a roof one day.  What he had understood to be his mission was shaken up.  He had to let go of what he thought it meant to serve God (following the cleanliness laws of Judaism), and trust his Lord enough to do something totally out of the box.  His understanding of God’s love was radically transformed into the expansive, boundary-violating force that embraced people who were previously considered unclean, incapable of being included in God’s family. 

            That’s what friendship with Jesus will do to you.  It will keep surprising you.  The force of it will stimulate and exhaust you, and you will want to keep coming back for more.  It will change your life and the lives of the people you influence.

            I was visiting last week with a woman who has become the leader of a very effective ministry.  We chatted over lunch about our work, and I asked her how she started the Bible studies she has led in her neighborhood for many years now.  Here’s what she told me.  She became a Christian in her thirties.  She prayed a lot first, then she called up her neighbor and said, “If you had cancer, and I knew the cure was buried in the ground right next to me, I would have to dig it up and give it to you.  I couldn’t do anything else.  I know you have read the Bible, and you know about Christianity, but Jesus has changed my life, and I want you to know about it.  Will you at least come and hear what I have to say?” 

            She couldn’t help but share Jesus’ love with her neighbors.  She knows that Jesus is alive and well and changing lives every day.  She knows what it is to come out of the darkness of fear and into the light of friendship with Jesus.  Now she can’t help but look for opportunities to offer that life-giving friendship to other people.

            I don’t tell her story so you’ll feel guilty about not “witnessing” enough.  I don’t think that’s where most of us need to start.  What we need is to get to know Jesus as the friend he said he is to us.  Don’t wait for one more day to know Jesus like that.  You have the tools you need.  Maybe your prayer life needs to get real and not be a recitation of the same old requests.  Maybe you need to get into the Word more than you ever did.  Maybe in your case it is a matter of obeying the voice you have been resisting, to go and do and tell.  Yes, friendship with Jesus involves time and work, but so does any relationship worth having.

            Beloved congregation, you cannot know friendship with Jesus and friendship with the world at the same time.  You have to make a choice.  Your life will never have the glow of deep joy, never be boundlessly purposeful, never have the contagious force of Christ’s love unless you give up a half-hearted allegiance to him; until you give up posing as a disciple but living as though Jesus didn’t matter at all; until you take up the only cross Jesus has for you and understand that it is a symbol of love and not a burden.

            “God, the greatest Lover of the human soul, leans out of His immensity to say, ‘My child.’  He waits for as personal a response,‘My Lord, My God.’  Then life will begin all over again for you.”[3]      

[1] 1990.  (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 25-26.

[2] Ibid., p. 83-84. 

[3] Ibid., p.87-88.