Sixth Sunday of Easter
Jesus called those early disciples, as he also calls us, his friends. His choice of words might seem a little strange. The word itself, “friend”, shifts the paradigm and supplants hierarchy for a relationship into one of mutual respect, dignity, and reverence for all sides. It’s near impossible to think of life this way as there are so many lines that separate us, one over the other. One more important or better, one lessor, one superior or inferior, etc..
We often think of God as distant, remote, removed, unreachable; but in fact, God is nearby, present, at hand, available and accessible. God is one, who shares, converses with us, walks along beside us, understands us, speaks to us, and listens to us. Can you imagine that God would think of us this way? Friend.
It speaks of a kind of intimacy – a deep way of knowing and being known; trusting – where all vulnerabilities are safe to be laid to bear.
We meet a lot of people along the way. Some stick, while others are easily forgotten. We meet them at work, in school, in our neighborhood, riding the subway, standing in line at Whole Foods, in the church. And sometimes, we know instantly and instinctively that this person will be a part of our lives forever. We can’t remember the moment the relationship began. We just know that life without that person would be empty, miserable, bereft. I’m told that sometimes pets give us this as well. Their spirit and demeanor agrees with ours somehow.
There is almost no learning curve at all; no need for weeks or months of “getting to know you” in order to see how things might work out. It’s just there, and when others ask how you came to know one another, you almost struggle to remember because it seems as if there was never a time when that person was not part of your life.
Sometimes we are bound together by people with common interests – mothers whose children are of a certain age, married or coupled people who tend to hang out together, single people. And then, there are those who are connected professionally – lawyer types, judge types, even clergy types, etc.
To be great friends, even good friends require something of us. Jesus said, “I lay down my life for my friends.” Good friends know that they have to lay some things down; give some things up. They know that there are words they can never utter; and other times, there are words that must be spoken. They must. And they muster the courage and graciousness to do so, trusting that the relationship is strong enough to be sustained, because truth-telling is always risky.
Good friends are trustworthy. They have one another’s back. They can be counted on in good times and bad. They are present in mind, body, and spirit. So it is with God.
They are neither double minded nor double tongued. Oh my goodness, a good friend, a really good friend, is hard to find. They are a precious jewel and a treasure in the best way.
We need them in our lives: people who care for us and help us. Who reserve judgment and give us a break. Who confront us in love, console us in pain. Who can be thoughtful in moments of despair, stay with us in grief and bereavement, tolerate not knowing all the details or trying to solve everything but who can just let us be. Let us evolve.
And evolving is an important component, because we all are evolving; at least I hope so. We need friends who help us evolve; to grow into the person we can be. You have heard that expression, haven’t you, “We are known by the company we keep?” I think it’s true. In fact, most often, I think we become the company we keep, taking on each other’s characteristics, both good and bad.
Henri Nouwen has written, “No two friends are the same. Each has his or her own gift for us. When we expect one friend to have all we need, we will always be hypercritical, never completely happy with what he or she does have. One friend may offer us affection, another may stimulate our minds, another may strengthen our souls. The more able we are to receive the different gifts friends have to give us, the more able we will be to offer our own unique but limited gifts. Thus, friendships create a beautiful tapestry of love.”
A life without friends – real friends – is a sad existence. We need people.
Jesus says, “This is how your own joy will be complete.” Can you imagine that? This is how you will have joy in your life by your ability to love and be loved; to form meaningful and healthy relationships. If joy is lacking in our lives, perhaps here is an anecdote right here, right now. An invitation to be lived into.
In seminary, they teach aspiring pastors to not be friends with people in your congregation. Stay apart; separate yourself; be over there. Don’t let them get too close. People will turn on you. They won’t respect you.
Yes, there is that risk and I understand it completely. I get it, honestly I do. There are risks involved in letting people get “too close”. There are levels of vulnerability at stake. And that’s the last thing we want or need, isn’t it? I’m not suggesting that anyone tell anybody or everybody everything. And, yet…
It occurs to me that Jesus was very much a part of the community and nothing was lost on him. If anything, he was willing to be a real person among real people; touchable, accessible. A person who laughed and cried. A person who had great desires and ambitions; a person, at times broken. He ate and drank with them; laughed and told stories. And, I could be wrong about it, but it does occur to me that if Jesus thought it was a good thing to be friends with those around him, it might be worth trying. And I think churches that are able to do so are churches where other people want to be.
Jesus marks this new way, this new relationship, by giving us a new identity. You are my friend. No longer servants who do not know what the master is doing, because you do know. You know exactly who I am and what I am about. You are no longer servants who must obey out of duty or obligation as though you have no will at all; servants who are bound by rules and regulations that you most often cannot keep. You are my friends bound to Christ by love, freedom, and generosity. This is how we are to also be bound to one another.
It’s his final night with the disciples. He is moving off the scene to be crucified. It would be a reminder for all eternity that even though things are a mess and about to unravel, they have a shared purpose larger than their individual selves.
Jesus says, “I have chosen you. You did not choose me and I have appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”
What a great gift and a great opportunity: friends together in solidarity and common work as a collective witness in a broken and divided world.
He calls us Friends and sends us on our way. May it be so.