Relating as Friends
Fifty years ago, in 1965, the year I graduated from high school, a young professor at Harvard Divinity School named Harvey Cox published a volume called The Secular City which made a great impact on the religious world, including me. One point in it that I remember all these years later was that he argued that God was active and working in the secular world at least as much as in the church, perhaps more. In fact, the church was really a group of people in the world not an institution isolated from it. Like most revolutionary statements, it was, at points, an overstatement, but it made that young scholar’s reputation. He finally retired from Harvard in 2009 at the age of 80. He’s now 85 and published a new book called How to Read the Bible about a month ago. I should make it clear that Dr. Cox has never been a biblical scholar, and is not one now, and there are technical imperfections at that level of the book, but it is easy to read and he makes good points. Most importantly, he cares about the Bible (perhaps because he’s an ordained American Baptist minister). He says that we can and should read the Bible at three levels. First, there is the level of “story,” by which he means just what the text says, without a lot of inquiry as to background. Second, there’s the level of a historical reading that asks questions like when and where this or that was written, by whom, and why; what it meant in the ancient world, and what it has meant through the years. Lastly, and very importantly, is what he calls “Spiritual reading” which means reading the text in light of the other two levels and asking, “What can it mean today?” Although these are my words, not his, he finds the direction in which the ancient story is pointing, after understanding the history, and asks how can we make that text alive today by taking it in the same direction it was pointing? It’s a vital, risky, and thoroughly necessary job for the people of God. This shouldn’t surprise many of you, and surely no one that’s been to TEE.
Let’s keep these new words from Harvey Cox in the back of our minds as we think about our texts this morning. A key word in our Gospel Lesson from John 15 is the word “friend” (verses 13, 14, and 15). In contemporary English, the word “friend” can mean something like “acquaintance.” It can mean someone of whom we’re fond, or someone with whom a relationship is cultivated because of what it brings to us. Or it can mean simply someone with whom we hang around.
Originally our English word friend had a more robust meaning. It derives from the Old English verb FREON which means “to love,” which is parallel to its derivation in the Greek word used in John 15, which also derives from a word that means “to love.” In this text Jesus’ “friends” are not just his chums, his mates, his buddies, but his “loved ones.” It is a deeply visceral and active word that Jesus uses to refer to his disciples as “friends.”
Here at FBC (like in many other churches) we think of ourselves as followers of Jesus or disciples. In the first part of John 15, which was our Gospel last week, Jesus defined disciples as those who “abide” or “remain” connected to him as branches must remain connected to the grapevine in order to live and bear fruit. It’s weird to think of trying to do anything vaguely Christ-like if we don’t treasure Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings and nurture a relationship with him. Of course relationships take different shapes, but a relationship is basic and non-negotiable. Today, our scripture lessons speak to ways in which disciples of Jesus relate to other disciples of Jesus. As with almost everything in our faith, we need to start with God. Our Old Testament lesson contends that God’s people are the recipients of God’s own love, which is neither temporary nor fickle, and does not depend on circumstance. Whether we turn to the most distant past or the farthest reaches of the future God’s love exists, steady and faithful. Jeremiah 31 puts these words in God’s mouth: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (v. 3). The context in which God’s everlasting love is found might be said, in a word, to be wreckage. The people were destroyed and simply needed rebuilding.
The situations into which God’s love is poured are often not positive, but, nonetheless, God’s love is gracious, provides rest, and is faithful. When 1 John 4:19 says “We love because God first loved us” it is of this everlasting, grace-filled, rest-intending, faithful love that it speaks. Make no mistake, this is how God chooses to relate to humans. It is not only the successful and outwardly beautiful that God loves. Again and again the Bible stresses that God seeks out and showers divine love on those who have been uprooted and devastated, and who have suffered loss after loss. Our first lesson, if we would be Jesus’ disciples, is that we relate to others as God does. Our message as disciples must not be garbled or confused: God loves the people of God as well as the world with an everlasting love. To be the object of such overwhelming, unfathomable love is part of what it means when Jesus calls disciples “friends,” “loved ones.” He intends us to relate to one another that way.
At both the beginning and the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus repeats pretty much the same commandment to love other disciples in the same way as he has loved us. Both of these statements repeat what Jesus said to his disciples in chapter 13: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” Then he washed their feet as an act of service to show what he meant. What this says to us, is that if we would relate as friends one to another, the standard of love is Jesus’ sacrificial and other-centred love. “No one has greater love than to lay one’s life on the line for loved ones (or friends),” Jesus says. Jesus’ love was not turned inward on himself.
Now, Jesus was perfectly plain when he said, “You’re my friends if you do what I command.” His command is intentional self-giving love. This statement of Jesus is often misunderstood to mean that obeying Jesus’ commands makes one a “friend” of Jesus. Obedience is not a test of whether one is, in fact, beloved of God or Jesus. Rather loving flows from being loved. So, if you are a disciple who remains in Jesus and takes him as your compass and companion, you will relate to other disciples by treating them as friends, loved ones of God in Christ. It’s simply normal behaviour. It’s the outcome not the qualification.
Our second lesson in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 10 tells a story about that kind of love. We come into that lesson only at the end, but the whole story is important. In it, Peter – in those days chief of the Apostles – learns that God is more broad-minded than he, and that there is more in the broad mind of God for the church than there is in Peter’s own narrow mind.
This is the story of Cornelius the Gentile who was – in spite of everything that was different about him – included in God’s family (and this by God’s own design, not Peter’s). Peter had a dream in which he is commanded to eat that which the Jewish Kosher rules wouldn’t allow. The first, and even the second, time this happened, Peter stuck with what was Kosher. In the story, Peter followed a time-honoured practice of instructing the deity on how theologically correct God must be in order to meet his expectations. With shock and a bit of superiority he said, “I have never eaten anything profane or unclean” (14). When we move to what Cox would call a Spiritual reading here, we find this isn’t about Jewish Kosher rules, it’s about expecting God to be as narrow-minded as we are and instructing the Almighty on orthodoxy when pushed outside of our little comfortable places. I have discovered that I do this to God. Maybe you share this tendency with me. The text pushes us to open up to the breadth of God’s mind and God’s vision for friendship.
In our story, God kept nudging at Peter’s narrowness. Here are the words of the text itself: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” All this happened three times and Peter didn’t know what to make of it, until Cornelius’ servants showed up at his door to ask him to share the good news of Christ with their master – a profane, and unclean Gentile. Even Peter finally got the point. More words from the story: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (28). Or, even better, “I truly now understand that God shows no partiality…” (34). When Peter centred his message to Cornelius in the story of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and he and his companions were included in the people of God, even though they were not the same as Peter was.
Again, to push forward to the line we draw from that ancient story to our stories. What might it mean for us who are not living back then, but now? First, personally, the Acts story implies that God calls people “friends” who we might exclude because they’re not like us, even in ways we might consider important. How might this show up today? What do we (and maybe our parents and grandparents) consider unclean that God is in process of accepting? Think about it. We need to remember that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, which is, like the wideness of the sea.
This old story of Peter discovering that God is more broad minded than he was and has more in that broad mind for the church than he did can also be applied to congregational life. We need to recognize that God has made each of us different in many ways, and, in a fellowship that seeks to be honouring and inclusive of everyone (as our church values say we try to be), we need to strive to value and honour everyone, differences and all. This can be especially difficult when the way people are seems different from the way we are (or think they should be) and when the temperament of those who have these differences kind of cuts across our grain. But God is broader minded than we are and has more in mind for us than we may. This is not easy to pull off, and we may want to come back to it some time.
What is crucial is remaining in Jesus (from the story of the vine and the branches) and following Jesus commandment which is the commandment to love as God in Christ loves us. Such a commandment calls on us to value one another with all our differences because we believe God does. We are called to relate to one another as true friends, each of which has been chosen by Jesus to bear the fruit of love. Let us do whatever we can to nurture that. Where could that lead us, what doors might that open?
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, who calls us friends, AMEN.