John 15: 9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
What is so amazing about this passage?
How is God’s kind of friendship similar to human friendship?
- Wanting the same things, rejecting the same things
- Costly—may entail laying down one’s life
When my cellphone rang one day recently, up on the screen popped an unfamiliar number. Bummer: another unsolicited spamming/scamming robo-call. Some days I get as many as four, even though I’m on a Do-Not-Call list. Usually I just let them ring. If it’s a real person calling, they can leave a voicemail message.
But this one day, for reasons and feelings I’m not proud of, I confess to wanting to hassle a phone solicitor, for a change, until he hung up on me. So, I answered the phone, prepared to hear, “Hi! This is Rachel, from Card Members Services,” or “Congratulations! You have been selected by Marriott Hotels for a free vacation stay!” I was ready to press one, get a live operator, and ask, “Have you no shame? Have you no conscience? How do you even sleep at night? Does your mother know what you’re doing?” (Did I tell you that I’m not particularly proud of my attitude at that moment?) Fortunately, before I even got to my spiel, I heard a friendly, familiar voice saying, “Matt! This is Steve, from our old college days! How are you?”
Then I remembered. Oh, yeah! Steve had looked me up online recently and contacted me by email. We had exchanged phone numbers, but had never yet set a date or time to call. Bless his heart; Steve took the initiative to resume the friendship.
How was I? Steve asked. Well, surprised! Flabbergasted! And immensely grateful. And humbled, too. In one of my worse moments, when I was loaded for bear emotionally speaking, and just itching to pull both triggers and unload both verbal barrels on someone, God stepped in and gave me what I needed most: a friend.
Now, when has God ever done that before? Given us what we needed most, by way of a friend, I mean? Actually, when has God not sought and given friendship to us? With that, we come to the first question in the sermon outline: What is so amazing, outstanding, striking, stunning and unique about this passage? It is about a God who comes to us as a friend, seeking friendship with us, offering friendship to us, seeking friendship from us.
A God who comes to us as ruler, as a mighty monarch, as judge, there are plenty of references to such qualities and titles of God in the Bible. That makes sense when we consider the power, the majesty, the holiness and the timelessness of God. We Christians share such an understanding of God’s awesomeness with Muslims, Jews and many other religions. For such a high and mighty God we can understand being servants. Or subjects.
But friends? Me? Us?
Or we can more readily imagine a God who just doesn’t come to us at all, because we can seem so tiny and insignificant in this vastly infinite and timeless universe. That is also common to some religions and philosophies. Whatever or whoever is responsible for this infinitely expanding universe is so far beyond our comprehension, that we might as well not bother with him or her or it, and just get on with wisdom for this life. Most tribal, primal religions, would say that, Yes there must be one supreme God at the source of everything. And yet he seems so distant and so far above and beyond us, that we are better off dealing with all the other gods and goddesses and spirits and ancestors and other divine beings between us and the one supreme source of it all. Those lower, intermediate deities and entities are more accessible to us; they are more involved in our world and our lives, they would say.
But in the opening chapters of the Bible, in the Garden of Eden story, we read about the One Supreme Creator God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” looking for his human friends, to walk and to talk with them as was his custom, as good friends would.
And after Adam and Eve have listened to a snake in the grass badmouthing God, and doubted his word and tried to usurp his place–as do we all, sometimes—even after they fled from God, and hid from him in shame and fear– as do we all, sometimes– this almighty, everlasting, all-powerful, all-sufficient God does not give up on his faithless, fickle, half-hearted, fair weather friends. This God continues seeking to restore the friendship with us. The rest of the Bible is about God doing just that: continually coming to us, yes, as Creator, as Master, as judge, as ruler, as liberator, rescuer and redeemer, but also as a friend, seeking friendship with us, one day to walk and talk with us again, intimately, lovingly, as friend-to-friend, again in a Garden that will also be a city, the New Jerusalem.
As Jesus speaks the words we hear today, he also is walking with those whom he calls “friends,” from the upper room, where he washed their feet, to another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane. There too he will seek their intimate companionship in prayer. There too they will flee from him in shame and fear, and hide, at the moment of his arrest. After all that, still he will seek them out where they are hiding in that upper room. Instead of saying, “Well, what lousy fair-weather friends you clowns turned out to be; I’m going to find new and better friends than you,” he says, “Peace be with you,” a greeting among friends.
Now, that, in the whole range and history of world religions and philosophies, is what I find so amazing, outstanding, striking, stunning and unique about today’s passage. An all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Most High Supreme God over the infinite universe who wants our friendship? That is either true, or it’s crazy.
God’s initiative to befriend us also explains why Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit.” That’s not a license to construct an entire doctrine of double predestination, the belief that God alone chooses who will enjoy eternal life and who will not, without any say-so on our part. Jesus is simply saying, “Our friendship started at my initiative; I was seeking to “friend” you before I was ever even on your radar screen.” Like when Steve first Googled me, and made contact. We can also trust a friend like that to never stop trying to befriend us, no matter how often we fail at our end of this friendship. That only reinforces what I find so awesome and amazing about these words of Jesus: the divine offer of that kind of divine friendship from an Almighty, Infinite God whom we would think would need and want nothing from anyone in all his vast, mind-boggling universe.
Which brings me to the second question in the outline: How is friendship with God like friendship between people? Three things come out in this passage. The first is the necessity of honest and transparent self-disclosure. Friends not only share things, they not only share time and activities. Friends share themselves, honestly, truthfully, vulnerably, transparently.
That’s how human friendships usually start, with some kind of risky self-disclosure. One person opens up and shares a particularly personal feeling or event, like, “I’m so tired today because we went up into the mountains last night to watch the meteor shower. But even though I only got three hours of sleep, I’m still grateful; it was worth it.” Another person hearing that, thinks, “You too? I thought I was the only person around here who cared that much anymore about natural wonders like a meteor shower. In fact, I was keeping secret the fact that I did the very same thing last week, for fear that others would think I’m crazy. Well, if I am crazy, at least now I know I’m not alone. So, how many meteors did you see?”
With that sudden recognition, “Hey! I’m not alone anymore” with something deep, something personal, something sacred, whether painful or pleasant, that’s the spark that can kindle a deep and lasting friendship. And that’s how Jesus makes friends with us: by sharing our life in flesh and blood, the good and the bad, and by sharing himself, in risky self-disclosure, self-giving, sharing all that is most sacred to himself. Jesus says, “Everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” In other words, Jesus the Son has openly, lovingly, vulnerably and honestly, at great risk of rejection, disclosed to the twelve what is most intimate and sacred to himself: his life with God the Father. Thus does God invite us into the life and love of God the Father, with the Son, through the Holy Spirit.
Today, in this time and culture, we typically think of romance, marriage and sex as the ultimate expressions of love, because they require the unveiling of bodies, and the union of bodies. That’s pretty important of course; it’s how we all came into the world. And the Bible sometimes does speak of the relationship between God and God’s people also in images of courtship, marriage and intimacy.
But friendship requires the unveiling and the union of souls and spirits. While it’s hard to live without sex and romance, it’s impossible to live long or well, or at all, without friendship. While some are called by God to celibacy as a gift, none are called to life without friendship, whether with God or with people. Marriage is a calling for some. But Jesus’ offer of divine friendship has no exception clauses for anyone. Just as human friendship is indispensable for this life itself, so the friendship of God is absolutely vital to eternal life.
So, again, the first thing that human and divine friendship have in common is that they involve and require deep self-disclosure of some of our most personal aspects and experiences. God has deeply and vulnerably shared and disclosed himself to us in Jesus.
The second way in which friendship with God is similar to friendship among mortals is this: not only do we find that we feel the same things, not only have we experienced the same things, we want the same things, and we reject, or oppose, the same things. That, actually, is a definition of friendship from ancient Greek philosophy: “to want the same things, and to oppose the same things.”
Again, in comparison with romantic, erotic love, a romantic relationship is about two people together, face-to-face, focused on each other. Again, that’s wonderful. Friendship, however, is about two people together, side-by-side, but looking elsewhere, at something else, the same something else, something they both want. For a romantic relationship to last as a lifelong marriage, it too must take on these same aspects of friendship: true, honest, vulnerable self-disclosure, and common, shared concerns and values.
“You are my friends,” Jesus says in verse 14, “if you do what I command.” “To want the same things” that Jesus wanted, and “to oppose the same things” that Jesus opposed, will lead us to do the same things as Jesus did, most of all, to love. You’ve heard the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” When Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command,” he’s saying, in effect, that “imitation is the sincerest form of friendship,” with himself, at least. Friendship with Jesus means imitating him, which means obeying him.
Now, friends may find some other wants, beliefs and values that they do not share in common. That’s what makes us friends, not clones. I have good friends who are Muslim, or agnostic, or who are Christians but who are politically or theologically more liberal or conservative than I am. We can always be friendly to each other. Sometimes our differences can even enrich us as much as can our similarities, because they force us to really think about them, even if we finally can’t come to agreement on them. But we can have deep, true, mutual friendships whenever the things we both want and we both oppose are more important than the things we don’t want or oppose.
That, again, is the second feature of friendship with God in this passage: we want the same things as Christ does, which puts us in opposition to the same things he opposes. Thus will we imitate and obey him.
The third thing which friendship with God has in common with friendship among us mortals is that true friendship can be can be costly. It was costly for Christ, who demonstrated that, “no greater love exists than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As he did on the cross, to atone for the world’s sins, and to conquer death.
That should not surprise us. Among us mortals, true friendship will cost us the masks we wear and the barriers we put up to keep the world from knowing who we really are. But we find that to be worth the cost. Friendship can cost us other things, as well; just ask the folks on the high school basketball team in Kansas, who lost a district championship game a few years ago in the last second to a three-pointer scored by a young man named Kevin on the other team. Technically speaking, Kevin did not even play on the opposing team. So the coach of the opposing team could have contested that shot, and prevailed. But he chose not to.
Kevin did not play on the team was because his right arm and leg were so much smaller and weaker than his left arm and leg, due to a severe injury he sustained in a car accident, when he was a toddler. But because Kevin loved basketball so much, his high school team took him on as manager. He took attendance at practice, took care of the balls and the jerseys, kept statistics, filled the players’ water bottles and kept the snacks coming.
When Kevin’s team was down by two points in the last few seconds of the game, and had possession of the ball, the coach called for a time-out. To everyone’s surprise, he called Kevin in to play. He had seen Kevin practicing his one-handed three point throws, with a respectable success rate, as long as no one was in his face, trying to defend against him.
Kevin was as shocked and surprised at the coach’s call as everyone else. Yet he suited up, came onto the court, and received the ball from the sidelines. With the clock ticking down, 5, 4, 3… everybody, including the defending team, stood back to let Kevin try his three point shot with his one good arm. The ball hit the rim, rolled around a few times, and as the buzzer rang, it dropped through the net. Everybody leapt for joy and cheered, including everyone on the team that had just lost the championship game by one stinking little point.
Why? Because, in that part of Kansas, Kevin is everyone’s friend. No greater love had the opposing team members, than that they laid down a regional high school basketball championship title for Kevin. And everyone who was there that day says it was worth it. Everyone.
“I no longer call you servants, but friends,” Jesus said. All those to whom Jesus spoke these words today, died a martyr’s death for that friendship. Friendship with Christ can still be costly. More than half of all who have since paid with their lives for their friendship with Christ have done so in just the last one hundred years.
Again, please marvel with me at God’s offer of friendship with us, even, at God’s graciousness, goodness and persistence in seeking us out for friendship. Just like my old buddy, Steve, seeking us out after all these years. Marvel again with me, please, at the intimate and vulnerable self-disclosure of All-mighty God to us, even at the risk and cost of a cross. Consider as well, how, at heart, God and we want the same things and oppose the same things: our eternal well-being, and that of all Creation. As gracious as such an offer of friendship is, count also the cost. “No greater love has anyone than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends.”