Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity – Year C 2019
‘Friendship with Jesus’
‘I have called you friends’ John 15:15
Years ago I remember someone giving a sermon on today’s gospel reading which began – ‘well this reading is all about love, so I’m going to preach on 1 Corinthians 13’ . . . and that was the last we heard of the words of Jesus regarding hating our father and mother and giving away all we possess and taking up our cross . . . perhaps understandably
Looking at the title for the address today, you may be thinking that I am engaged in a similar avoidance of the words of Jesus, after all, these words of Jesus are not about friendship as we know it, but about the cost of discipleship . . . yet, I beg you bear with me for a few minutes 🙂 We shall get round to the gospel reading, directly.
A man was seen out in a coffee shop engaged in an obviously warm and affectionate conversation with a woman. When curious friends enquired ‘is there something going on between the two of you?’ they replied, ‘oh no, we’re just friends!’ Immediately of course raising suspicion 🙂 ‘Just friends? There seemed to be more to it than mere friendship . . . Yet, the fact that we so readily think in these terms reveals that in our culture we have an implicit hierarchy of relationships, and that there are higher forms of relationship than ‘mere friendship’
But, what if here we are doing a disservice to friendship, as if in the grand scheme of things friendship isn’t anything ‘that’ significant. What if in the world as we know it, one of historically unusual ease and comfort, friendship has lost its significance?
Certainly if we look back into history, from the early days before this weary age in which as it were the heavens have become impermeable to grace, Friendship was most certainly held in far higher if not perhaps even the highest honour. A form of Love which even exceeded marriage, marriage which was usually a social contract – or a arrangement between families, and often nothing more . . . Yet Abram is called God’s friend and Jesus says to his disciples ‘I have called you friends . . .’ ‘Just friends?!’
So tuned are we to read the hierarchies of love in the way in which we been trained, that people are ‘just’ friends, that we may well read scripture awry.
When Jonathan is killed in battle with his father Saul, David says of him in his eulogy ‘I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.’
One writer describes this as ‘an intense love between these two men that went well beyond friendship.’ – yet that implicitly assumes that there is a higher form of love than friendship. And that is our assumption too, living in a world where we become ‘friends’ by the click of a button on a keyboard . . .
Yet, let us think for a moment about David and Jonathan. Two young men who meet and spend much of their lives in the thick of almost continuous warfare, in which Jonathan dies.
And then think of the silent eyes of veterans at the cenotaph on ANZAC day . . . Anyone who can still remember conversation with those who lived through war, know that bonds were forged there in the furnace of suffering, bonds which transcended blood links with relatives and yes marriage itself. When a brother from the days of the war was in need, everything else was dropped. A friend in need. A Friend in deed.
And again how readily we accept the reading of Peter’s words to Jesus, Lord you know that I love you, where he uses the word for Friend Love . . . as if Peter couldn’t make the higher love Jesus called him to. Yet Jesus had recently called his disciples his friends . . . Peter is saying’ You know that I love you – that I Friend you!’ Peter is matching Jesus’ declared love for his disciples!
What does Jesus say? ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends . . .’ While in war memorials we like to abstract these words to mean dying for ‘the common good’, or some suchlike abstract phrase, for those who read the words with silent eyes, having fought alongside these men, they know the truth of the Greater Love of True friendship. They know who their fiends are.
Friends go through Life Together . . .
And so we come to these words of Jesus to the crowds following him . . . ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’
Perhaps it is because the idea of friendship has become so emptied of meaning that spirituality fills the place of following Jesus to the cross. We like the idea of Jesus being there for us, in that sense being our friend, but that is not in question – Jesus after all even calls Judas ‘friend’ – that Jesus befriends us is not what is in view here.
The question Jesus with which Jesus challenges us in our Gospel is ‘are we Jesus friends?’ – are you coming with me? Are you going to lay aside your life in order to be with me . . . in the very thick of it?
Perhaps this is why a dear friend of mine from many years ago – someone who knew the scriptures well once surprised our little home group with the assertion that ‘I don’t think Jesus expects us all to be disciples’ . . . Yet this is what it is to call ourselves friends of Jesus . . .
When Peter dares to call Jesus his friend, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you as a friend’ Jesus immediately follows up by ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) That’s what happens to those who are my friends . . .
Which brings it down to us . . . Recently someone commented to me, ‘it is so hard to make friends here . . .’ a comment which I have heard more than once. Whilst it is easy to do a cultural critique of a highly secular and mechanistic society – I think rather that in a society of ease we know little of true friendship – which is why perhaps this whole business of being the church, of life together is so apparently difficult.
As Jesus will point out in the gospel in a couple of weeks time, we need friends, now and in eternity. Marriage is ’til death do us part’, Friendship is eternal. Something which unknowingly perhaps my duaghters’ friends reveal with their BFF logos on cards and letters. Yet the way to friendship lies through the Cross, through the thick of it – sharing in all of life’s vissiscitudes.
And this is what it means to be Church. To be people formed together in one body by the Cross as St Paul puts it, and we see that this is perhaps no mere abstract theological idea, but a theological reality. Friendship through Fire – yet in a society of relative ease, we are perhaps strangers to the way of the Cross amongst ourselves?
Of course this is not the case on a global stage – throughout history and perhaps more so in this age than any other. Most Christians have known the cross. Just this last week I was speaking with a member of the persecuted church who told me of 200 police coming into their church to disrupt their gathering and ban their association. The person told me of how at first this caused the church to shrink – as when Jesus first reveals the way of the cross, the church all but disappears . . . yet now it has grown from the original 200 members to 800, meeting in secret in small house fellowships . . . as the church which saw the Way of Jesus’ friends was the cross and the blood of the martyrs because the seed bed of the church . . . being known as a friend of Jesus is to be open to the way of the cross
The church if it is to be the body of Christ, to reveal Christ and Him Crucifed amongst us – is to use the Quaker’s phrase, a Society of friends . . . the body of the friends of Jesus, it is a community which gladly leaves everything aside for one another and goes with him where he goes ahead of us . . . If we are to share in the Life of Christ, that must be worked out as much amongst ourselves – we must move from being friends in the sense the world hands to us, and live into being Friends in the Way of Jesus. That is the work of the Cross amongst us – that is how when we are friends of Jesus, Jesus our friend is revealed in our midst.