Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic archbishop of Manila who played a key role in the People Power revolution there, liked to tell the story of a woman who attended his weekly audience to inform him she had a been having visions and conversations with the Virgin Mary. He brushed her off several times, but she kept coming back. Finally he said, ‘We Catholics have strict rules governing visions and message from God. I need to test your authenticity. I want you to go back and ask the Virgin Mother to ask her son Jesus about a particular sin I recently confessed in private. If you ask Our Lady and she tells you the answer, I’ll know your vision is genuine.’
“The next week she returned and he quizzed her, a bit nervously, ‘Well, did you ask Our Lady to ask her Son about my sin?’ ‘I did’ she replied. ‘And did she answer?’ he asked. ‘Yes’ she responded. ‘What did she say?’ ‘She said that Jesus said that he couldn’t remember.’
Jesus said: ‘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. You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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.
We are reminded tonight of the extent of the love that Christ has for each of us - we are not servants any longer, not knowing what our Master does, but we are called friends because we know for ourselves the extent and depth of His love and forgiveness for us.
Jesus gives His friends a new commandment - to love one another. Previously God’s people had been called to honour His presence in their lives with a range of thousands of rules and prohibitions, marking out their distinctiveness amongst the vast array of neighbouring peoples, languages and religions.
Questions about the heart of those commands rose from time to time. Even Jesus was asked about it once - His reply was that the heart of the matter was about loving God with all that you are and loving your neighbour as yourself. The new commandment that Jesus gives here - loving one another - takes this all to a new, more personal plane. If we love this way, we are called friends of Jesus.
There was someone I was at theological college with called Rita. She had spent quite a bit to time learning with and from the Mennonites. For those of you who haven’t come across the Mennonites, they have a particular renown for teaching and living lives of non-violence and love. Anyway, after some time at the Mennonite centre in London, She and a member of the community were making their way across London on the tube. As they came down one escalator, they saw a man being mugged. As quick as a flash, desperate to put into practice what she had been learning - as the attacked man lay on the floor - Rita loved the mugger hard by beating him with her handbag. Much to everyone’s surprise though, the Mennonite brother she was with, didn’t do the same, but lay down on top of the other man, protecting him and getting a good kicking in the process.
Hearing Jesus command us to love one another may conjure up all sorts of associated images in our heads - someone ordering us us to action or of a distant God issuing written in stone rules. Jesus commanding us to love seems a bit anachronistic until we realize that a command, like the outcome to love one another, is about gathering people. A commandment - from the Latin comandare - is something that is entrusted to us, committed to us, enjoined to us. It’s something that flows naturally and instinctively from us - like that Mennonite brother protecting the person being attacked - literally laying down his life - our love for one another is a defining characteristic of our relationship with Jesus; through our demonstration of that love, the world can come to know what we know.
Living and loving this this way, Jesus calls us His friends - literally his philios - his beloved ones. Our friendships can be our most intimate and enduring of relationships. They are intentional. ‘You can choose your friends. You cannot choose your family.’ Jesus chooses us and loves us. So we love in return.
Only one other person in scripture is called a friend of God - was Abraham. Moses comes a close second when on the mountain in Exodus 33, God speaks with him as one does with a friend. Such is the love that Christ has for us that we are called His friends and there are no lengths he would not go for us - even to the cross.
For many of us, living and loving the way of God is hard - something that Jesus warns us. The decision before us tonight is, as it was before Nehemiah concerning rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, are we prepared to continue in the face of adversity, in the face of distraction, in the face of oppression, trusting God regardless of what others may think of us? And what lasting legacy are we building - walls and masks of protection to defend us from the sniping of others, or as Jesus’ friends with hearts open afresh to His command to love to be lived and shared with all?