“On Friendship” Colchester Federated Church, May 9, 2021, Sixth Sunday of Easter (John 15:9-17)

Our story from John’s Gospel is found within Jesus’ farewell discourse—a lengthy speech in the Gospel that extends from Chapter 13 all the way to Chapter 17.  Jesus is teaching his closest followers because he knew that his time on earth was nearing the end.  This particular passage includes the famous love commandment.  Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing.  Instead, I call you friends.”[1]

This was quite a moment that Jesus shared with his disciples.  This call to love one another, this movement from being servants to being friends.  In addition to contemplating Jesus’ love commandment and the gift of friendship, today is also Mother’s Day.  Happy Mother’s Day to all who are celebrating.  May you feel loved and appreciated for all you do and for who you are.  The truth is that sometimes Mother’s Day is a joyful day and other times it’s a painful day (or anything in between).  Sometimes the relationships that adult children have with their mothers develops more into friendships over the years.  Other times relationships between mothers and children are strained or even non-existent going into adulthood.  Sometimes women yearn to be mothers and struggle with infertility, miscarriages, or infant loss.  Sometimes mothers lose their adult children.  Sometimes our mothers are no longer here with us physically and we must rely on the wisdom they shared with us over the years, just as Jesus’ disciples contemplated the wisdom that he shared with them after his death, resurrection, and ascension (like the love commandment).  No matter how we find ourselves feeling—may the day fall gently. 

Though hopefully the theme of friendship can shine through when we contemplate today’s Gospel text on Mother’s Day.  Because it is a significant transition in the text when Jesus moves from the love commandment to talking about the disciples as his friends.  We can ask ourselves what friendship means to us.  Sometimes our friends are there for us in profound ways in moments when we experience the joys and sorrows of life.  We can think about our friends or the relationships in our families that have elements of friendship to them.  Sometimes our parents or our siblings (while still in their familial roles) do become like friends to us.  What a gift this can be to experience the evolution of relationships that may come with the passage of time.

We can think about the qualities that we desire in friends and how we can be loving friends to one another.  Remember Jesus said, “I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing.  Instead, I call you friends.”[2]  This implies that Jesus shared more openly with the disciples, and in that open sharing the relationship moved from being servants to being friends.  It’s in this context of the farewell discourse (where he’s imparting knowledge before he will face his own trials) that Jesus commands his followers to love one another.  Because that’s just what friends are supposed to do.  Love for the other provides a strong foundation for a friendship.

Even thinking about Jesus in the role of friend to the disciples may evoke some thoughts and feelings.  Do we think about Jesus as our friend?  We will end this worship service by hearing (if we are in person) or singing (if we are at home) the wonderful hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  The opening line of the hymn is, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!  O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”[3]  True friendship that gets beyond the surface level of an acquaintance requires us to be open.  It requires us to even be vulnerable and to allow another person to see us without some of the masks we may wear day in and day out.  The bearing of our souls to another person can be one of the most beautiful aspects of friendship.  Humans are social creatures.  We have learned this on a whole new level during the pandemic.  We need one another—to see one another and to be seen by one another.

So what makes a person a good friend?  We can consider traits like loyalty and honesty.  A good friend is someone we fundamentally trust.  A true friend accepts us for who we are, and we can be authentically ourselves in their company.  A good friend may also be someone who holds up a mirror, who is brave enough to tell us things we may not want to hear about ourselves in the spirit of honesty.  That takes courage in a friendship, when friends hold us accountable when we have done something wrong.  And let’s not underestimate the importance of friends being present to one another.  Because on a basic level making time for one another for the betterment of your friendship is important, and that’s not always easy given the busy lives we often lead.  Though how can friendships grow and be sustained if we never take the time to simply be with one another?  Focused presence is a sign of love.  Jesus said, “Love each other just as I have loved you.”[4] 

What does this sort of love look like?  Theologian William Stringfellow wrote about the relationship between listening and love (and we can see how friendship is referenced here too).  Stringfellow wrote, “Listening is a rare happening among human beings.  You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable.  Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered.  Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love.”[5]

When we deeply listen to one another, that is an act of love.  That is an act of friendship and is one small (though not easy) way that we embody Jesus’ commandment to love each other just as Jesus has loved us.  Because if we are friends of Jesus, we are also called to be friends to one another.  We take time to be present to our friends.  We bring our authentic selves.  We strive to be open and even vulnerable.  We are loyal and honest.  We hold up a mirror when necessary.  We love with our whole hearts.  And in so doing, we live out Jesus’ commandment to love one another just as Jesus has always and will always love us.  What a friend we have in Jesus, indeed.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] John 15:12-15, Common English Bible.
[2] John 15:15.
[3] “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” Words by Joseph M. Scriven and Music by Charles C. Converse.
[4] John 15:12.
[5] William Stringfellow as quoted by J. Barney Hawkins IV and Ian S. Markham in Words that Listen: A Literary Companion to the Lectionary, 297.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash