Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 9, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
Watch Here (TLC Worship Service 05/09/2021)
Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
After college, my best friend moved to the West Coast and I moved to the East Coast. We kept in touch by phone for several years, and vacationed together, but then life started to happen. I became involved in other activities and formed new friendships.
At one point, my friend grew frustrated with me because I wasn’t calling enough. My friend said it seemed as if I was growing distant. I replied that nothing had changed. I still considered this person my best friend, even if we weren’t on the phone with each other as much.
Looking back on it now, it’s clear that we had different ideas about what it meant to be a friend. For me, at that time in my life, I understood friend as a NOUN – a friend was something like a parent or sibling – a fact that remained true regardless of time, distance, action. My friend, on the other hand, understood friend as a VERB – a friend was defined not by what a friend was, but by what a friend did, by actions taken between two people to stay in touch, to communicate with one another, to be an active part of each other’s lives.
There’s no right or wrong way to be a friend. Some friends can go years without seeing each other, and then pick up right where they left off. Some friends need each other to be an active part in each other’s life, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, active encouragement.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus used the word “friend” to describe a new season of relationship with his disciples. “I no longer call you servants,” Jesus said to his disciples on the night of his betrayal, “But I have called you friends.”
Lutheran theologian, Erik Heen suggests we shouldn’t underestimate the profound implications of Jesus calling his disciples – friends. In describing his disciples as friends, Jesus disrupted the established social order. The established social order of the day was a hierarchical patron/client relationship that existed all throughout society. The patron was dominant, was respected and obeyed, held authority, power, and money. The client was subordinate, was a student, servant, or slave.
In that system, Jesus was the patron – the teacher. The disciples were the clients – the subordinate followers learning from Jesus their master. This helps explain Peter’s rebellion when, shortly before Jesus called his disciples friends, Jesus knelt before them to wash their feet. Peter rebelled because the higher caste doesn’t bend down before the lower caste, the master doesn’t wash the slaves’ feet, the teacher doesn’t wash the student’s feet! Jesus kneeling to wash the disciples’ feet wasn’t just an affront to their relationship, but a direct disruption to the way they understood relationships all throughout society.
But in naming the disciples his friends, and in kneeling before them to wash their feet, Jesus introduced a new social order! But this new social order was not one of status – in calling the disciples friends, Jesus was not elevating them into some exclusive club. Rather, in calling his disciples friends, Jesus was calling them into action, that they would do as Jesus did, that they would name those around them friends, and that they would kneel before others in love and service.
Both Professor Heen, and theologian Bernard Brandon Scott, point out that today’s scripture is the conclusion of the teaching of the vine and branches. While our lectionary separates the reading out over two Sundays, unfortunately giving us the impression of two different stories, they are in fact one story. Jesus the vine, his friends the disciples the branches, interconnected, interwoven, into one community, for the purpose of bearing fruit – bearing the fruit of love.
“This is my commandment,” said Jesus to his friends, “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.” The new social order of friendship was for the sake of love. Love that brings the lofty down and the lowly up, love that stitches back together that which sin kills and destroys.
Professor Heen writes that the fruit of this vine, this community of friends is love, love that that is “not based in emotion, but rather in the difficult deeds of service extended to the neighbor and the world.”
Professor Scott writes that this friendship love is the “laying down one’s life for the other, of going to the limit … it is not one of quietism but one of action that knits and prune humanity back together in love.”
The friendship love of Jesus disrupts the social order.
And in disrupting that order to love his disciples as friends, Jesus sent his disciples forth to love the world as friends. And in naming others friends, to knit and prune humanity back together in difficult and important deeds of love and service.
And so, friends, I wonder what it would look like today, if just as Jesus has called us his friends in the water of baptism, we went forth to disrupt the social order by calling others our friends?
Here’s an example of what this might look like:
Recently, the Congregational Council voted to identify Trinity as an AMPARRO Welcoming Congregation. AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities. What might it look like if we discarded the titles asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, immigrants, and instead used the term friends?
What would our discourse look like, if we asked questions in this way:
- How are we responding to our friends at our Southern border?
- How are we responding to our friends sending their children to the United States all alone?
- Did you hear that our friends are in detention centers all alone, hungry, and scared, we should do something!
I’m not suggesting it would make things any simpler or easier, but what would our response look like if we saw these humans not as a problem to be solved, but as friends to be loved?
But this teaching in the Gospel reading today, is not just about public policy and actions, it is also a matter of our hearts. In the spirit of confession and repentance, this teaching invites us to look into our hearts and to be honest about our beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts. Who are the people we call lazy, dangerous, criminal, overly sensitive, dramatic, complainers? What are the sinful social orders we perpetuate through those attitudes?
The truth is, friends, that the Gospel reading today does not let us off the hook. While we too often love in ways that are convenient, comfortable, partial, tepid, hesitant, careful, and constrained, none of those describe the love to which Jesus called us.
“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “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.”
The friendship love of Christ crashes the party on all forms of hierarchy, division, and sin. The friendship love of Christ sees each and every single person, each and every single person, as friend. The friendship love of Christ is costly as it calls us to lay down our lives for not only the people we like, but also people we don’t, but who nonetheless are our friends in God’s eyes.
The Good News today, is that Jesus chooses each one of us as friends!
“You did not chose me,” said Jesus, “but I chose you. And I appoint you to go and bear fruit that will last.” John 15:16
In the water and word of baptism, God chooses us. God names us friends. And in that naming, God appoints us as friends to bear fruit that will last.
As friends of Christ, we are called to bear the fruit of love that reshapes, reforms, and refashions the world. Alive in Christ, we are called to live in a new social order of equality, and equity, and justice – a new level playing field of friendship.
In that love, may we go forth breaking down any and all hierarchies. For the sake of our friends, may we resist and reject all the ways we name others inferior, deficient, subhuman. In the boldness of the Holy Spirit, may we have the courage to lay down our lives for our friends, and in so doing reshape and reform the world.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!