Preached to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, via Zoom, Sunday, 9 May, 2021.
Readings for this Sunday: Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
To view the service, please go to https://youtube.com/embed/ezQMuApwkLE
15I 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.
As we think about what Jesus means in today’s gospel reading, I think it best to start by admitting that friendship ain’t what it used to be, at least in terms of how the word friendship is used today. For starters, think about Facebook friends. Are they really friends, in Jesus’ use of the word, if we can unfriend the people that annoy us on Facebook, or perhaps just limit the amount of posts we see from them? What about the friends we make in the work world – would you choose to associate with them if it wasn’t for the workplace? Are the people we meet from networking (think of LinkedIn, for example) really friends, or just people who might give us a leg up if we’re nice to them?
A lot of modern friendship has a mercenary quality to it that seems rooted in that old Dale Carnegie book, How to Make Friends and Influence People, and let’s face it, no one ever read that book unless they wanted to make more money. Of course, there are real, true, trusted friends, the kind that would take your call at any hour of the night or who would be on your doorstep in an emergency, but I think their number is far fewer than the number of “friends” we might have on Facebook.
I say all this as a short ground-clearing exercise, because to understand what Jesus means by friendship, I think we need to largely discard our contemporary understandings of the term, which are pale shadows of what Jesus means. Today I want to focus on three aspects of what Jesus means by friendship:
1) Friendship is doing God’s will;
2) Friendship is self-sacrificial;
3) Friendship with God and God’s people gives us true joy.
I want to briefly unpack these three points, and then close with a suggestion of how a concrete action in our lives might meet all three categories of friendship.
So what do I mean by how friendship comes from doing God’s will for us? To understand that, we need to get over some hurdles that might lead us to turn away from Jesus’ teaching, especially his statement, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (14). We might balk at the qualifier there, “if”¸ since we think of friendship as a relationship of equals. Can you be friends with someone if you have to take orders from them, or vice versa? Those of us who have been in positions of authority know that it’s difficult to be a manager and a friend. If you try to be both, it never ends well. Can we whole-heartedly sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” if Jesus makes his friendship conditional on doing what he tells us?
That sounds like a difficult thing to ask of a friend, but as we read on in the gospel, we realize that Jesus is not making his friendship conditional. In fact, in his next breath, Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you” (17). Jesus is saying these words as part of his long goodbye to the disciples in the upper room, as part of what is sometimes called the Farewell Discourse in John’s gospel. Jesus has chosen friends who will do anything but what he commands them to do. He has chosen Judas, the friend who will betray him, and he has chosen Peter, the friend who will deny him, and he has chosen the rest, who will abandon him.
Why does Jesus choose the disciples as friends, these losers who can give him no possible advantage, and who do not reward him in any way for his time and effort? The only possible explanation is that Jesus gives his friendship because he is doing his Father’s will. Repeatedly in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus tells the disciples that the very words he speaks to them come from the Father: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (Jn 14.10). Jesus befriends the disciples because he is fully obedient to God’s will, and it is God’s will that the disciples know they are loved: “For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (Jn 16.27). Friendship in John’s gospel is thus rooted in obeying God, who wants nothing more for us than for us to know that we are loved, and to allow that love to work in us and through us to others.
Jesus’ choice of the disciples illustrates the self-sacrificial aspect of true friendship. They are like the helpless, foolish sheep that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life to safeguard (Jn 10.9). Here is the cost of obeying the father’s will, as seen in the bloody sweat of the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus asks, even momentarily, if the cup can pass by him. We should not be surprised if friendship with Jesus is self-sacrificial. If we are the friends that Jesus wants us to be, then this sort of friendship will have a cost. The cost may not be drastic – few of us will be asked to die for a friend, though we might be called on to pay a steep price – an organ donation, a call to some extravagant generosity, even (God forbid!) being asked to be an Anglican church warden! We will certainly pay a price in our time, talent, and treasure. We will certainly have less as a result, if we measure our goods in material things. Let us remember that the Farewell Discourse starts with Jesus paying a price, in setting aside his authority as “Teacher and Lord” to wash his friends’ feet: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn 13.12-14). Friendship in the kingdom of heaven is costly, yes, but it’s only costly if we stop thinking of friendship as something that ultimately works to our advantage (The Win Friends and Influence People school of thought). Jesus is however clear that friendship with God has its rewards.
Do you think of God as someone who is stern and unapproachable? Jesus tells the disciples: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (Jn 15.12). Here is a variation on the “abide” language we heard last week: if we stick close to Jesus, we share in his joy (and if Jesus’ words are the Father’s words, then his joy is the Father’s joy), and we become joyful. What does “joy” mean here? Mirth and merriment? Perhaps, but could it also mean “contentedness” or “fulfilment” or even freedom from the destructive things that pull us away from God, namely sin and death?
John’s gospel is clear that joy comes from doing the Father’s will. Even in the midst of this long and sad farewell before his death, Jesus repeatedly talks about wanting to give his friends joy: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16.22). Imagine knowing a joy that isn’t just a mood swing or some temporary string of things going right, but a deep down, soul sustaining happiness in knowing that you are loved and that everything will ultimately be ok because the good shepherd will never abandon you? That’s the same joy that the disciples feel when they see their friend on the other side of the grave: “he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they say the Lord” (Jn 20.20).
Today I’ve spoke about the true friendship which comes from being a friend of God in Christ, and the joy that comes from doing the will of Jesus without counting the cost. Let me finish with a practical example of what that friendship might look like. Next week we will send out our quarterly givings statement, and it will have some frank talk about our fiscal situation. All Saints has suffered financially during Covid, and our offerings are down this year. As you know, our offerings do more than pay for my salary. They keep our church beautiful and in good repair, ready to reopen to show God’s love and grace to King Township post-Covid. We are also a missional church. All of these things require self-sacrificial giving.
It’s also tax return season. So, if you got money back from CRA this spring, and if you can, I’m challenging you to give 10% of your tax return to All Saints, as I have. I did so because I could afford to, and I know that some of you on fixed incomes and tight budgets won’t be able to. That’s fine. You probably know more of God’s joy than some of us do. But, if you can, I’m challenging you to tithe 10% of your tax return, as a friend of Jesus. They say that money can’t buy you happiness, but giving freely will make you joyful.
11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.