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.
Judging from the religious kitsch and the ridiculous music I sometimes hear, it seems that everybody wants to be friends with God, sort of in the same way that in high school, everybody wants to be friends with the good-looking, popular kid with the fast car and the parents who are frequently out of town.
But even more than that, we long to maintain a close relationship with God. It’s one of our core convictions that God is with us personally, not just some distant figure in the sky, but right here, among all of us. And maybe it says something about the state of our own friendships that there is so many poorly written books and songs about Jesus being your friend, as if what we really want is not just a closer friendship with God, but closer friendships with our friends, because there is so much that gets in the way of close friendships.
My friend Anjie texted me one afternoon this week and said, hey, I’m in the neighborhood, do you have a few minutes? And there aren’t a lot of people I am willing to drop what I’m doing and go see, but Anjie is one of them, and since she and her family live in Rome, Georgia, we don’t get to see them as much as we would like, so I closed my laptop, got in the car, and drove to meet her.
And it’s always good to be with the kind of friend you deeply trust and can share important things with, and Anjie is that kind of person, and I walked away refreshed, like I always do when I have time with a friend.
But the thing that gets me is that we spent the first ten minutes of the conversation talking about how silly it was that we hadn’t had a chance to talk in a long time. I mean, she lives in Rome, Georgia, not Rome, Italy, and I have a phone and so does she. But we just hadn’t kept up with one another’s lives like we should so we spent some time doing that.
In some ways, that’s ridiculous. Do you know what I mean? You hear a lot that “oh, we’re the kind of best friends who can not talk for a year and then pick up the conversation right where we left off,” and that’s great, except for the fact that this person who you claim is your best friend has not talked with you for a year! And I get it, I get that life gets in the way, that raising a family and dealing with health problems and generally trying to survive as a human being on planet earth is enough in and of itself, but it is not enough, and if we want to learn more about what it means to be friends, we don’t have to look any further than this morning’s Gospel passage. As usual, Jesus has some helpful words for us.
In this passage from the Gospel of John that we read just a few minutes ago, I think it is notable that these are sort of Jesus’s last words, his farewell speech to the disciples as he prepares to walk that difficult road that will lead to his crucifixion, and that they are words about friendship of all things. And this is what he says: love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. You are my friends, he says, if you do what I have commanded you to do, which, of course, is love one another.
Love one another. This is the key to friendship. And of course it is, this isn’t exactly rocket science, but just because it is obvious doesn’t make it easy. In some ways, I’m more able to take seriously Jesus’s command to love your enemies than I am to take his command to love my friends, because I can look at my enemies and say, oh, bless their hearts. They had a tough time coming up, look at the state of their family, I can understand why someone who grew up like that is such a pill.
But when my friends drive me crazy, I just want to smack ‘em! I want to say, “You ought to know better than that!” Friendship is messy. It is not easy, because it involves humans, with all of our baggage, and idiosyncrasies, and hidden agendas. And for as much as it is hard to stay friends with someone who does something dumb, it’s even harder when they do something good, because jealousy is a powerful thing. Let me tell you, if I were to rank the seven deadly sins in terms of their impact on my own life, envy would be at the top of the list, and it’s just poison for friendships. Absolute poison. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to my friends, even though this is a person I love, this is a person who I want to be successful, I find myself jealous when he, when she succeeds, and I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic this week, and I think I have figured out why it is so insidious, and why it happens the way it does.
The thing is, when I am honest with myself, I think I have this weird need for people to look up to me. I want to be just a little bit higher than they are. I want to be just a liiiitle bit more successful, a little bit more popular. I want them to look up to me. This kind of pride is natural—everybody shares it a little bit—and it is present even in friendships. And when the shoe is on the other foot, when I find myself in a situation where my friend has accomplished something quicker or better or more popular, I don’t like that, because I am the one he’s supposed to look up to! I am the one who she’s supposed to ask for advice.
I don’t think I’m just sharing my own dirty laundry up here, except to say that if these are the clothes I tend to wear, you probably wear them, too. This is what it means to be human, and I see it again and again: friends who are driven apart because one of them gets successful and it’s not the successful one that blows up the friendship: it’s the one who didn’t make it quite as far. Jealousy is an incredibly powerful force, and nobody, nobody is immune to it!
It is to this dynamic that Jesus says: stop! Stop! This is not what it means to be friends at all. There is no room for power dynamics in friendships. Oh, they are there, but you can’t get stuck on them, because when one person has power over the other, that’s not a friendship at all! Friendship requires a level playing field.
When Jesus talks about friendship, of course, he says, this most incredible thing. I mean, when you think about the fact that Jesus is God incarnate, it is just the most incredible thing for God to say: 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.
And what a revolutionary idea, to be friends with God! And do you understand why it is possible? It is possible because God has humbled God’s own self, laid down God’s own life, so that the dynamic of I am up here and you are down here—it’s blown to smithereens! God has chosen us and brought us up here so that we may be in true relationship with him, not in some jealous way, but in a truly loving way.
It is revolutionary, to be called a friend of God, and it is helpful, for it helps us understand how we can maintain friendships with one another, and I don’t mean that like Facebook means it, I mean truly friends in the way God intended, which is to say you are here and I am here and there is nothing: not success, not failure, not money, not fame, nothing that can make one of us above the other because in the final analysis, when you set all these things next to love, they are dwarfed. They are so small as to disappear when you step back to take in the totality of love.
I do not call you servants any longer, Jesus says, but friends, for friendship requires a level playing field, not that both of you have the same amount of money, or the same amount of success, or even, in this case, the same amount of divinity. But love stands in the gap. It is as the apostle Paul says, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is why it is obvious that the best friendship advice we could get is “love one another,” but why it is still so absolutely necessary to hear that advice again and again, for the power of that love is real. It is real.
Of course, Jesus isn’t just talking about what it means to be friends with one another. He is talking about what it means to be friends with God, again, not in a flippant way, but in a real, true way. And the truth is that because Jesus has leveled the playing field, because he became human, because he became love so that those barriers melted away, so that to have a relationship with Jesus Christ is not just an empty platitude, not just something that street preachers put on their poster boards, but it is a real possibility, a real friendship, a real connection point with the heart of God.
And like in any friendship, there is responsibility. It takes work. It takes intentional work to stay friends with God, to do the things God calls us to do, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God, so that we aren’t the kind of people who say, of our friendship with God, “oh, we’re the kind of friends who can not talk for a year and it’s like no time has passed at all.” No! To be friends with God is to truly put effort into that friendship.
Jesus says, in this passage of the Gospel of John, that to be friends with God is to recognize the great gift we have been given and not just to leave it there, not just to roll around in it, but to go bear fruit! Last week we talked about what it means to be in relationship with God, as Jesus says that he is the vine, that God is the vinegrower, and that we are the branches, and that the vinegrower prunes the branches so that they may bear more fruit. So don’t be the kind of branch that needs pruning! Be the kind of branch that bears fruit, that bears the fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Be the kind of branch that says, I have been given an incredible gift, an incredible love, and rather than trying to keep it for myself, I am going to sow love everywhere I go! I am going to tend to my relationship with God, I am going to go out into the world to be a vessel for the love I have received, so that I may share it with everyone I meet.
This is what it means to be friends with God! That we are so moved by the incredible gift of love we have received in the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ that we go out into the world to share it, to be friends, in the truest sense, with people not just of our age and station and income level, but all people, for by no longer calling us servants but friends, Christ has undone everything that could possibly separate us, if we will just abide in that love.
I will end with this. Friendship can make you do crazy things. My friend Anjie, who I had coffee with this week, is married to Andy; they are also United Methodist pastors, both of them, and they are the kinds of friends that are family more than anything else. And when each couple had kids, the other couple would collect letters from loved ones, to be presented to each child upon the occasion of his or her baptism, welcoming them to the world and the family of God. This book is one of our most prized family possessions.
And maybe because it’s Mother’s Day, I don’t know, but I found myself looking through it this week, moved to tears by the way that our friends and family were talking about Emmaline, who wasn’t three months old at that point, and you could feel those barriers of age and time and station in life just melt away in the presence of love. Again and again, they called her “friend,”—friend!—this three month old who didn’t even yet know the power of that kind of love.
I won’t read this morning from the letters that people wrote—these are Emmaline’s friendships, not mine—but I do want to say this. Included in this book are letters from people who have since passed on into Heaven. By the time Emmaline is old enough to understand the promises of friendship made to her in this book, by the time she is old enough to understand God’s promises, it is inevitable that several more of the authors of these letters will have passed into God’s hands. Eventually, we all will. And yet because of the love that has been made manifest in this book, she can always remember that even the barrier to friendship that is created by death is dwarfed in the presence of love. Because of the love that has been made manifest in the Bible, the book we hold sacred together, we can all remember.
For this is what it means to be friends, to love one another, no matter the circumstance, as God first loved us, as God has always loved us. And thanks be to God. Amen.