Worship Service, May 9, 2021 “I Call You Friends”
Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik for worship on May 9, 2021 via YouTube
The message “I Call You Friends” by Pastor Erik can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service.
“I Call You Friends”
GOSPEL READING: JOHN 15:9-17
[Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. 16You 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. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
In order to get the true power of a Biblical passage it is sometimes helpful to go back and look at the historical context during which an account was reported to have taken place. I think this is true of the Gospel lesson we just heard. When we hear Jesus tell his followers, “I call you friends” I don’t believe we understand just how radical this may have sounded to his disciples or how radical it may have sounded to the early Christians who would have heard it for the first time. It is hard for us to understand how radical it may have been because we are used to thinking about the image of Jesus as our friend. The idea of Jesus walking beside us has been portrayed in artwork and songs. We are even used to the idea that God is our friend through a relationship with Jesus.
This would not have been true for Jewish folk living in the first century. It would have been unusual to refer to God in such familiar, friendly terms, particularly for those folks living in or near Jerusalem. We are doing a Bible study on Thursday mornings based on a book by Reza Aslan called, “Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.” In his book, the author gives vivid descriptions of life in the time of Jesus. One of the things he describes is the how the role of the Temple in Jewish life cannot be overstated. The Temple served as calendar and clock for the Jews, its rituals marked the cycle of the year and shaped the day-to-day activities of every inhabitant of Jerusalem. The Temple was the dwelling place of Israel’s God as well as the seat of Israel’s nationalist aspirations.
Unlike their neighbors, the Jews did not have a multitude of temples scattered across the land. There was only one religious center. There was only one unique source for the divine presence. There was one singular place and no other where a Jew at the time could properly commune with the living God.
Although the Temple was the place where God resided, a person could still only get so close to the Holy of Holies where God was actually present. If you were non-Jewish, you could only go so far as the Court of the Gentiles. If you were female and Jewish you could go a little further to the Court of Women, but even if you were a Jewish man you could still only go as far as the Court of Israelites.
The place where God dwelled was called the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter there, and only one day a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the sins of Israel were wiped clean. On this day, the high priest would go into the presence of God to atone for the whole nation.
If he was worthy of God’s blessing, Israel’s sins would be forgiven. If he was not worthy, a rope was tied to his waist to ensure that if God stuck him dead, he could be dragged out of the Holy of Holies without anyone else defiling the sanctuary. (Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 5-8, by Reza Aslan)
That’s right. If the priest wasn’t worthy, there was the belief that he might not make it back out of God’s presence. After all, this was the God who appeared as thunder and lightning over Mt. Sinai when the Israelites were in the wilderness. This was the God who sent plagues and the angel of death to free the Israelites from the Egyptians. This was the God whose power sprang forth from the ark of the covenant and destroyed the walls of Jericho and wiped out the enemies of the Israelites—a God whose wrath came down on Sodom and Gormorrah. This was not a God you wanted to mess with, and certainly not a God you could just hang out with. This was a God who was mysterious, vengeful, inaccessible, and mighty.
Imagine the surprise of the disciples then, when they are sitting with Jesus at the last supper and he says, “I call you friends.” Imagine their shock and confusion when the one who they have seen exalted at the transfiguration and hailed as a new Messianic savior when they entered Jerusalem says to them, I no longer call you servants, but friends. Imagine their curiosity and interest—the way they might have been drawn in—when their teacher, the one who has claimed to be One with God, tells them they can have a close relationship with him. This was not the way they were used to thinking about their connection to God. God was someone you served. God was someone you listened to and obeyed. But friendship? That was not something they were used to equating with God, and yet Jesus was saying, ‘I call you friends.”
This way of seeing God is not something that was new to people just back then. I think it can be new to people now as well. A lot of folks can see God simply as vengeful or demanding. Folks can think of God only as distant or far off. People can think of God as so pure and holy that of course that God would not hang out with mere humans. Yet, with Jesus, that is how we see God revealed to us, as someone who would eat with us around a table. Someone who would laugh with us when we have experienced joy or someone who would cry with us when we’ve experienced pain. Someone who knows our faults and failings and still forgives us anyway.
There are a few quotes I want to share that begin to get at this idea of friendship. One is from Greg Tamblyn who said, “Friends are people who know you really well and like you anyway.”
Another is from Bernard Meltzer who wrote, “A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked.”
A third quote is from Erwin T. Randall who said, “True friends are those who, when you make a fool of yourself, don’t believe that this condition is permanent.”
God sees our sinful condition, but doesn’t believe it has to be permanent. That is why God became incarnate in Jesus, so we could be forgiven and have a fresh start. Each of these quotes talks about the idea of friends knowing that we might have faults and shortcomings, but still loving us anyway. At his last supper Jesus knows that his followers are going to fall short and abandon him at the cross, and yet he still calls them friends.
Writing on this topic of Jesus and friendship the author Gail O’Day points out that one of the most common verbs for “love” in Greek is phileō. The Greek word for friend, philos, comes from this verb. In the New Testament a “friend” is immediately understood as “one who loves.” O’Day goes on to write that, such an understanding of friendship and the life of faith means that the way Christians account for their piety and make decisions about what is ethical or moral behavior must be reassessed. If we take Jesus’ commandment to love seriously, and if we long to be called “friend” by Jesus, then the Christian vocation is to give love freely and generously without counting the cost and without wondering and worrying about who is on the receiving end of God’s limitless love. Because this, too, is how Jesus loved. Jesus loved Judas, even though Jesus was well aware that Judas would betray him (John 6:64, 70-71). Jesus did not exclude Judas from the circle of his love, but loved him in the same ways that he loved all of his other followers. What counts most is the embodiment of God’s love in the world, not necessarily the character of those who will receive it.
Jesus also makes it clear that the kind of friendship he is talking about is not just about feelings. It is not just about having a good time and experiencing warm fuzzies. It is about action. He makes a dramatic statement about what true friendship looks like. He says, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This sounds like an extreme that we are not used to in everyday friendships, but it was an ideal that was expressed in the ancient world as a way of showing the depth of friendship. In our modern world it is an important reminder that friendship would call us to be with folks not only in happy moments, but in struggles and difficulties as well. It may not mean giving the ultimate sacrifice as Jesus did, but it may mean making smaller sacrifices to show people that you care.
On this Mother’s Day I’m mindful of the sacrifices that moms have made for us and how friendships between mothers can help them through the difficulty of parenthood. Jessica Johnston writes about the importance of friendship and tells a story about a couple years ago when her son broke his arm on the trampoline. Johnston’s friends happened to be there at the time. Her husband jumped in the truck with their boy and rushed him to the ER. Without a word, their friends loaded Johnston and the other kids up and followed them in. While she ran shaking into the emergency room, their friends went and bought pizza and comforted the other three sobbing kids.
Johnston shares how these friends have shown up again and again, and nothing can take the place of the history of those times they stood alongside each other through hardship. She also writes about how a few summers ago she had an absolute meltdown. She was so anxious, she said she couldn’t leave the house without multiple panic attacks. One of her friends showed up every single day. “What are you scared of today?” she would ask. Johnston would tell her, and the friend would say, “It’s just the anxiety; you aren’t dying I promise.” And then they would cry together.
The writer says she still get tears in her eyes thinking about it now. She says she tries to be a “fun” person to be around, and she feels insecure when she is struggling. But that friend showed up when she wasn’t fun; in fact, she was downright depressing to be around. Now this friend isn’t just her friend, she is like family.
Today we hear Jesus tell us, “I call you friends.” As he tells us this, he gathers us into a new connection with God and a new connection with each other. Jesus makes God accessible as if God were like a friend. He loved without limits, and he makes it possible for us to live a life of friendship—because we have been transformed by everything he shared with us. Through friendship we can come to know God more deeply and through friendship we can enact the love of God. We can risk being friends because Jesus has been a friend to us. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner