For the last couple of weeks, the readings have been a love letter from Jesus. I have spent time working with the poetry and beauty of words like “love” and “abide” and questioned what it means to be a branch on the vine. And in all this warm and fuzzy space, I have allowed myself to detach from the context in which these love letters have been written. These teachings about love from Jesus to his disciples were not post-resurrection teachings, but pre-crucifixion teachings. He was preparing them for life without his daily presence. So when we have this in mind, these love letters become a bit sad. Jesus is in essence saying goodbye.
However, Jesus’ farewell discourse (as it’s technically called) holds the disciples and us in a place of tension. On the one hand, it is sad. It means things will be different. Life as it has been is going to change. On the other hand, if we are abiding in God’s love, those changes will lead to growth and abundant life. And so it is within this tension that Jesus calls the disciples his friends.
What does it mean to be a friend? In our current time and place, the word “friend” has become somewhat of an empty word. Thanks to social networking sites like “Facebook”, you can “friend” someone you might vaguely remember from high-school, and you can “unfriend” your parents. To be a “friend” on Facebook means you have access to photos, fleeting thoughts of the day, and time-wasting games, quizzes and puzzles. While it may be fun to reconnect on some level, the number of “friends” on Facebook is hardly a measure of the type of “friend” you are.
When I taught Ethics in high-school, we studied Aristotle’s work on friendship. Aristotle believed there are three kinds of friendship: 1) those that are useful to us (networking); 2) those that are pleasurable to us (people we enjoy hanging out with); and those that are formative (people who challenge us, who deeply care and love us). For Aristotle, the third type of friendship was the most important, and the most difficult to achieve because it required of both parties a mutual respect, a mutual granting of dignity, and responsibility for one another.
It is this kind of friendship that Jesus talks about with his disciples. In the ancient world, if you were a slave to a good master, the relationship was as positive as it could be…very little to no abuse, meager but living wages; you may even be a trusted companion. But as a slave, you were never equal to your master; there was always a power differential. That’s why it’s important that Jesus tells the disciples that they are not slaves, but friends. They are equal. There is mutual respect. There is responsibility to one another. Friendship, is in essence, a covenant…not to be entered into lightly. And it is in the spirit of this friendship that Jesus has given the disciples everything they need to go ahead with the spreading of the kingdom of God. What does he give them? A reminder of God’s abiding love, and the commandment to love one another. Why does he do this? So that their joy may be complete. Jesus doesn’t leave behind a “how to” manual for his friends. He leaves them with love and friendship. It is that love and friendship that calls the disciples into ministry and into the joy of the kingdom.
When the Bishop was here almost two years ago for my installation as Rector, I got to pick the Gospel lesson of the day, and I chose this week’s text with a particular line in mind: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Jesus chose us. He chose us to be his friends…to love one another, respect one another, and be responsible for one another. He chose us to bring about the Kingdom of God. With that in mind, are we willing to be “friended”?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.