“I Have Called You Friends” 05/06/18 (Easter 6B)

“I Have Called You Friends”
Texts: 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 6, 2018 ~ Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

“I have called you friends,” Jesus says. I have to admit, I balk at talk of Jesus as our friend. Some of you may have seen the funny but completely irreverent 1999 film Dogma. The film features a larger-than-life statue of Jesus which is utterly absurd. Buddy Christ “is a parody religious icon, and he’s part of a campaign (“Catholicism Wow!”) to renew the image of (and interest in) the Catholic Church. Viewing the crucifix image as “wholly depressing”, the Church, led by Cardinal Glick (played by George Carlin), decides to retire it, and creates Buddy Christ as a more uplifting image of Jesus Christ. The icon consists of a statue of Jesus, smiling and winking while pointing at onlookers with one hand and giving the thumbs-up sign with the other hand.” [1] When I hear about our friend Jesus, unfortunately I tend to think of Buddy Christ: a powerless and affable guy who mostly just wants us to feel good.

But Jesus is so much more than that, and his friendship is so much more than a wink and a thumbs up. His friendship is all about deep, powerful love.

In Greek, the word for friend is philos, and it comes from a common verb for love, phileo. Therefore, in the New Testament a “friend” is “one who loves.”

Love is one of those hard-to-define, often overused words that we do well to pause and consider. As you know, Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite contemporary theologians because his concise reflections on words and concepts are full of wit and wisdom and help me access complicated ideas in easy ways. Here are Buechner’s words about love:

Love. The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.
The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agape giving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for the victim (the King James Version translates it as “charity”) – these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you – to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.
Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold that is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.

So what does “love” look like to Jesus?

Long before Buechner penned those words about love, Jesus told simple and witty stories, and he performed vivid and imagination-capturing actions, knowing that these are the best way to convey deep truths. A few chapters before we hear these words from Jesus about love, we watch him enact that love. He has gathered his disciples together in Jerusalem for Passover. Instead of the Last Supper, the Gospel of John gives us this:

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

This is love: a relationship not of master-servant or teacher-student, but of mutual care and concern: friendship. “I have set you an example,” Jesus says. “Wash one another’s feet.”

In this morning’s passage, Jesus elaborates further:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Again: their relationships are to be about mutual love – and a love that is marked by humble service and deep care demonstrated in concrete acts of tenderness, and even of sacrifice.

Let’s be honest. Just as the kind of love Jesus is calling forth in his disciples isn’t something that can be forced, so too the kind of love Jesus is asking his disciples to demonstrate – a deep and abiding love – isn’t easy.

Moreover, how is it that we’re supposed to make ourselves love anyone? To return to Buechner’s musings on love:

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze.

So how can we possibly do this? How can Jesus be commanding us to love?

The problem with reading short passages from Scripture on Sunday morning is that we lose the larger picture. This is particularly true in the Gospel of John; today’s nine verses come from a full four chapters of Jesus talking non-stop, giving what has come to be called his Farewell Discourse. So let’s put today’s words in context. After he has washed the disciples’ feet, and shortly before he talks about keeping his commandments and loving one another, Jesus says:

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8)

“I am the vine, you are the branches…and you will bear much fruit.”

We are, as one person has said, “already a living branch off the true vine that just is Jesus.” We can love one another because we already have the “sap of Jesus flowing into [us…and it is this “sap” that] bends [our lives] into the kind of shape – and makes [us] into the kind of person – who already has such a fundamentally Christ-like attitude that hearing a command to love will make sense.” [2] It is because we already abide in Jesus that we are already able to love one another. As another person says, “It is like a tree that bears fruit. The tree doesn’t try to bear fruit; it just does, because that is what a healthy tree does!” [3] As long as we abide in Jesus’ love, as long as we don’t cut ourselves off from the true vine, we will automatically bear fruit – not by our own willpower, but as a natural outgrowth of Jesus’ love in which we dwell.

“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Because Jesus has chosen us and called us friends, because he has made us part of the vine in God’s vineyard we can – and will – bear the fruit of love: fruit that lasts.

Thanks be to God.

[1] “Buddy Christ,” Wikipedia.

[2] Scott Hoezee, 30 April 2018.

[3] Patrick Johnson, “As I Have Loved You”

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