Easter 6B — May 10, 2015

Best Friends

Mark Shannon — Guest Preacher

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “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. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
            The Bible is an amazing book.  When we read a novel or work of nonfiction, the events in that volume are typically confined to a specific time and place and relevant to a few pertinent characters or subjects.  But the Bible is unique in that even though the words of a text may apply to a narrative story in Scripture, or even directed to certain individuals in an epistle, the Holy Spirit’s words reach across the generations and speak to our own hearts and minds and engage us in the story of God’s plan for the world.

            So it is in today’s text from John.  In these verses Jesus is speaking to his disciples, those twelve men He has chosen to teach and to witness the events of His life and death.  For these are the people that have to carry on in His place after Easter and His subsequent ascension forty days later.

            Yet even though these words of our Lord were spoken shortly before His arrest and crucifixion to a group of confused and bleary-eyed followers more than two thousand years ago, I do not think any theologian would disagree that the words in this text can equally be said to be addressed to Christians and those who will become believers around the world today.  Such is the power of Scripture that the words Jesus spoke to His disciples can inspire and inform our walk with Him this morning.

            So what is Jesus saying to us in this passage?

            One thing He is saying is “Congratulations!”  Other spiritual leaders and worldly teachers regard their followers as servants.  In exchange for lessons that impart one person’s idea of the truth and how to live one’s life these leaders and teachers put themselves in positions of authority over their listeners and consign them to lower-class status.

            But Jesus will have none of that.  Instead of servants, He has declared us to be His friends.  He has elevated us—and not demeaned us—by sharing with us all that we need to know about Him and what He wants us to do in His strength.  We are not mindless servants who blindly obey without understanding.  We are friends of the Son of God and not because we claim to be but because He has announced that we are His friends.  So again “Congratulations! And rejoice!”

            Did you know that today the word “friend” is a verb?  On sites like Facebook you can approach someone online and ask them to “friend” you.  Then they can decide whether to include you on their list of followers or not.  And by the same token, you can be unfriended-another new verb, if you fall out of favor with that individual.  Well, here’s some more good news.  Once you become the friend of Jesus, and He becomes your friend through your acceptance of His saving work on the cross, He doesn’t have a button that He can push that renders you “unfriended”.  His promise of friendship is an ironclad guarantee that He will never desert you or turn away from you as long as you draw breath in this world.  And I know what you might be thinking.  What about after you die?  Fear not, the hand he extends in friendship will be the hand you see in Heaven, pitted with a hole where the nail to the cross has been pounded through it.  This promise of friendship includes an eternal lifetime guarantee.

            And the wonderful thing about this guarantee is that it is now in effect.  It is not just reserved for our Heavenly home.  Through His resurrection power Jesus is alive today.  It is He who lives in us and through us.  And only because He is alive in us are we able to carry out His commands. 

            So what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?  It all sounds well and good….as long as I don’t  have to go share my faith with that guy that leaves his cigarette butts outside the back door of the apartment building.  And don’t count on me to be a friend in deed if it means I have to go someplace wet and hot with big hairy spiders coming at me with poison in their fangs.  Friendship with Jesus will probably cost us something—won’t it?  It’s not like hanging out with the neighbors over a cup of coffee and catching up with their family and comparing notes on who got kicked off “Dancing with the Stars”.  Is it?

            What does the Bible say about friendship?

            Right off the bat the verses that came to my mind are from the book of Proverbs.  There we read that a friend loveth at all times and that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother.  Sometimes we make the mistake of putting ourselves in place of the word “friend” in these verses.  Who among us can measure up when it comes to loving the other person at all times or being closer than a blood relative to someone else?

            Take heart friends.  It makes much more sense to say that Jesus Himself is the Friend that loveth at all times and it is indeed He who sticks closer than any relative.  Sometimes in the Old Testament we catch glimpses of the Savior before His incarnation—and so it is in these verses, I believe.

            So don’t be afraid to be considered one of Jesus’ friends.  You’ve heard it said in this church from many different people down through the years.  Jesus won’t send you somewhere that He hasn’t equipped you to go.  He will accompany you whether it is across the street or around the world.  And another adage that’s become familiar to members of this congregation is that Jesus hasn’t taken us all this way so far just to drop us abandoned and alone somewhere totally unfamiliar to us.  Make no mistake, Jesus doesn’t promise us that the path will be an easy one and that the journey will be pleasant all the time.  But His companionship means that He will walk along side you, surrounding you on every side, helping us to accomplish what He has for us to do.  I don’t want to jump the gun on next week’s message but as if the very Presence of Jesus with us was not enough, He also plants within us the Holy Spirit to remind us of the Word and the promises made in those pages.  There is no way He will abandon us to the world or take His Holy Spirit from our lives.  He is indeed a friend that is “stuck” with us.

            Now what about that line in today’s text that says:  “You are my friends if you do what I command”?  That sentence has always bothered me somewhat.  Those words sure sound like something a bully in the schoolyard would say.  “If you give me your lunch money I won’t beat you up…I’ll even say you’re a pal.”  Is this what Jesus is talking about?  What kind of friendship is that?

 I read the text again a few times.  What could that sentence mean?  What does Jesus command us to do?  Suddenly a light bulb gleamed just like in the comics.  The last verse of today’s text, verse 17, says it plainly.  “This is my command:  Love one another.” Could it be that simple?  By the same token Jesus couldn’t have said words much more difficult to obey.

            A couple of weeks ago Mitzi and I were talking about the words found in verse 13.  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  What prompted our discussion was something Susan said in her sermon.  She said that if her kids were awakened in the night by someone holding a gun to their heads and asking them if they were Christians or not, she hoped that they both would answer with a question:  “Which answer is going to keep me alive?”  So in our discussion we wondered if denying that we were Christians in order to stay alive meant that Jesus would deny us to His Father in heaven.  Because elsewhere in Scripture that is just what He does say.  We talked about stories we’ve heard about. In times of warfare one man throws himself on a live grenade in order to save his fellow soldiers—even if he knows he’s going to die.  We call those people that do commit such acts heroes and we know that they are the exception—not the rule.  Even in peacetime there are stories in the news about somebody jumping in front of a speeding subway car to rescue somebody else who has fallen onto the tracks.  They are just as much heroes as the sacrificial soldier.  One conclusion I made during our talk was that even if we fail to confess the truth about our faith in the event that someone’s holding a gun to our head, we don’t need to fear that we have denied Christ.  To be honest, if we think about it, we deny Jesus all the time.  When was the last time you reprimanded somebody for saying “Oh my God” by telling that person:  “Hey, watch your language that’s my Lord you’re talking about”?  When we fail to say grace at mealtimes, aren’t we failing to acknowledge that God is the one who provided the food and the money to purchase it?  Jesus won’t abandon us for failing to acknowledge Him to other people in circumstances like these.  Thanks be to God for that.

            Once again, I believe that Jesus is telling His disciples in this passage that the greatest example of love for one’s friends, laying down one’s life for them, is a foreshadow of what He is about to do on the cross for them—and for us as well.  He is giving them an example to aspire to, and a foretaste of what is about to happen.  You’ve heard it said that Jesus is the Pioneer and Perfector of our faith.  His life is recorded for us to learn from, not to duplicate.  We can never come close to doing the things He calls us to do with any degree of perfection.  This is because no matter our intentions, our motives are so beset with sin that the end result falls far short of perfection.  But His life is meant for us to be a model of how to live, a measuring rod to aim for, full in the knowledge that we can never equal much less surpass His accomplishments.

            If you think about it, in one respect the Lord’s command to love each other isn’t SO terribly difficult.  After all, it’s somewhat easier to love our friends, isn’t it?  Those people we’ve come to know over time get something of a pass when it comes to the things about them that would make strangers unappealing to us. It’s easy to overlook a character flaw or a sharp retort when we consider the time spent together with friends.

            Remember, it is only because Jesus is alive and living in us that we are able to carry out His command to love one another.  He loves people through us—it is not by our own doing.  We are completely reliant on Him to accomplish this.  What an amazing idea.  Jesus gives us a command and then only by His power can we carry it out.

            Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed knowing a number of friends.  Some of them I got to know through childhood activities.  Others were introduced to me through work experiences, and many of them worship here in this congregation I’m happy to say.

            One of my friends was a paratrooper in the Army.  Another friend thought that the best way to spend a vacation was to take two weeks and travel to Churchill, a little town in Canada where polar bears roam wild every year around Halloween.  And another friend was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as a blind woman in the movie “A Patch of Blue”.    All of these people and others besides them have a special place in my memory.

            But friends have a way of leaving us, don’t they?  They move away or get married and have kids.  And they also leave us by their death.

            Studies show that one of the keys to a healthy and long life is the quality of our social contacts.  If we have at least a few close ties to other people as we grow older, we will be more likely to enjoy good mental and physical health.  It is a concern of some scientists that men have a harder time cultivating close ties with other people in their senior years.  Men who haven’t bonded with teammates in sports activities when they were younger are at somewhat of a disadvantage, I think.  There is a lot to be said for the tight-knit relationships that athletes form in team sports.  These ties often are points of reference for reminiscing and for assessing the skills of the current crop of players.

            So I challenge myself, and I also challenge you, to keep making new friends at each stage of your lives.  Today’s text says we are called by the Lord to bear good fruit that lasts for the Kingdom.  If we are content to stop exploring the possibility of making new friends we may well be cutting ourselves off from what Christ is calling us to do. 

            Where do we find potential friends?  Look around you as you leave the sanctuary today.  There are infinite possibilities to explore.  You may literally run into your next new friend at the grocery store or that person may be the parent of one of your children’s classmates.  And if it’s a romantic relationship you are pursuing, try making a date with a real- life Christian matchmaker.  It worked for me and my wife.  This is definitely an area where prayer would be beneficial.  Praying to meet a new friend seems like just the kind of prayer that God enjoys answering.

            The real challenge in following Jesus’ command is to love those people that are difficult to love.  Sometimes we are thrust together with people we would cross the street to avoid.  What do we do then?

            Once again it is good to consider Scripture.  Jesus says “Apart from Me you can do nothing.  Because He lives and is alive in us we can carry out this command.  Years ago the author Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the Holocaust, happened to see a guard she recognized in the hospital where she was visiting a friend.  As I recall, the man was very ill.  Despite all that he had done to her and the other Jewish prisoners in the camp, she felt a strong urge to say a word of forgiveness.  She noted in her account of the incident that she didn’t want to offer this man forgiveness.  But she did so knowing that it was only Christ that enabled her to say anything to him.  In her own strength she was paralyzed and kept from speech.  But Jesus worked through her and accomplished a great work in the process.

            It’s always a good idea to find common ground.  Shared interests and opinions can go a long way  toward overlooking those things that we find unappealing in another person.  It’s also wise to try to determine if the people you inwardly shy away from belong to Christ.  If that is the case then a world of common experiences and points of reference open up before you.  Through conversations with strangers who are Christians, we develop a keener awareness of how Jesus is at work in the world and what He has been doing in the lives of others.  Those kinds of conversations can form a strong basis for friendship.

            Notice that in today’s text the disciples have no idea what awaits them in the next few hours and days.  Despite some pretty explicit descriptions they fail to realize that very soon their friend Jesus will be taken away from them and put to death.  By the same token they also have almost no conception of His coming resurrection.

            We don’t know what will happen to our church in the days ahead.  We have some ideas and some strong indications about how things might proceed.  But we have something the disciples didn’t have during their final lessons with Jesus.  We have the assurance that no matter what happens the Triune God will be up to His elbows in the midst of events with us every moment along the way.  The building may crumble and the hymnals may fall apart and be forgotten.  But Jesus will abide.

            And finally what better way to end this sermon—and maybe every sermon—than to repeat the Lord’s command.  Friends:  love one another.