Sunday, May 05, 2024

On Friendship - A Sermon on John 15;9-17

I like going to hear live music whenever I can. I know that some of you will dispute that it actually is music, but that’s a conversation for elsewhere! On occasion when I have headed into a venue I have come across another famous musician whose music I love, who has come to see the band that I have because they are also a fan. Those meetings have often only been fleeting, a thank you for their music, a photo, a hug. Other times that gratitude and fan-boying has led to something more and now I call a few of those musicians friends. I’ve transitioned from - thank you for the music - to how are you, do you fancy lunch sometime? And surprise surprise, our heroes are just normal people, with the same struggles and joys as the rest of us.

What kind of friendships do you have? You might be a friend of a local community group. Some people here are members of the Friends of St Thomas’. On Facebook, people probably ask you to be friends. You might, by virtue of membership, be a ‘Friend of the Earth’. You might still be in touch with a few friends from school, even if you haven’t seen them for years. Perhaps you have a weekly meeting with friends at the pub, or at weekends, with another set of friends, you go to watch your favourite sports team. Some friendships are deep and lasting and you pick up where you left off when you see each other, others come and go. There are different kinds of friendship. But I wonder as Jesus calls his disciples friends, what kind of friendship do you have with Jesus?

In John’s Gospel, we are now into what is known by some bible scholars as the farewell discourses (chapters 14-17) - in the convoluted language that the Gospel writer uses, Jesus prepares his disciples for his leaving of them; his return to be with God in heaven; and prior to that, the giving of the Holy Spirit to enable them to undertake all that he calls them to. These chapters of teaching, as we have them, happen round the table of the Last Supper. And maybe it is most appropriate, that as we gather for the Eucharist this morning, we hear them in a similar context.

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...'

Harper Lee is right - you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. And each of us here this morning knows the truth of that saying. At this point in what I preach I’d often tell you a short story or anecdote, something I’d read or heard, or something I’d found on the web to illustrate my point. I know friendships go deep. I wanted to illustrate that. I typed ‘friend’ into the search-bar of the BBC news website and up came 29 pages of stories of transformative, deep, and loving friendships - of friends who raised money for charity in memory of a friend who died; of German prisoner of war who found life-long friendship with a family in Devon; or places and spaces that are seeking to become accessible to all especially those struggling with dementia. Friendship cuts across age, gender, sexuality, race etc. 

The only person in the whole of the Bible who is called ‘the friend of God’ is Abraham. So for Jesus to call his followers friends and to entrust them with knowledge of God’s will and purposes is nothing short of remarkable and it reminds me at least of how extrordinary is Jesus’ love and trust of me, of you. And that friendship is based on life laying, of putting others' needs and desires before our own, it is not phylia (love between people) that Jesus speaks of here. but agape - servant-hearted, self-giving love.

The disciples haven’t chosen to be friends of Jesus. They did not choose him, but he chose them. As ever, the initiative is God’s: ‘not that we loved God but that he loved us’ (1 John 4.10). And the purpose of the friendship is that the disciples bear fruit. It’s not yet clear what this fruit will be at this stage. We must wait until after the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit to see that. But we are told what the mark of this fruitfulness will be: the love they will have for one another. Time and again through history, love for fellow human beings has been the touchstone of fruitful lives lived as friends of Jesus Christ. Tertullian, in the third century, imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, ‘See … how they love one another.’ Would that it were always so.

So, what about us? A crucial question to ask when reading the Gospels is, ‘Where am I in this passage?’ The writer of the Fourth Gospel, in particular, has the ability to draw us into the narrative. We can imagine ourselves being there with the disciples, listening to Jesus. It might seem presumptuous to place ourselves alongside them. But they were a mixed bunch too: convinced believers alongside instinctive doubters, a betrayer and a denier thrown in; and that’s just the apostles, to say nothing of the many others – women and men – who formed the wider group of disciples. A motley crew of all sorts and conditions; why should we not place ourselves with them? 

If, then, we are there with the disciples, it is to us too that Jesus speaks those words. We are to keep his commandments, to love one another, to abide in his love and know ourselves to be his friends.

In Catherine Fox’s third novel, Love for the Lost, the central character, Isobel Knox, suffers a crisis in her life and seeks the wise counsel of her bishop. He asks her whether she sees herself as a child of God, servant of God or friend of God. As which of these do we see ourselves? Child of God? We are clearly part of God’s family, but children know their place. Servant of God? Servants are entrusted with important work but don’t know the employer’s mind. Or friend of God? Chosen, taken into confidence, and in a relationship so close that, like Abraham and like Adam and Eve in the garden, we walk and talk with God: the easy conversation of friends.

God chooses us not primarily as servants, nor even as children, but as friends. And God chooses not someone else but you and me. I wonder how, this week, we can see each other and all those we encounter, as those beloved and chosen by God and how will we demonstrate that love for us in our loving, of joyfulness, our peacemaking, patience with other, kindness to all, our always seeking the good, our gentleness and control of our emotions and perhaps above all in our faithfulness to those amongst whom we live and work - otherwise known as a our friendship.