Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Acts 10:44–48 | 1 John 5:1–5 | John 15:9–17
Today I want to start by having you think: Who are your friends? What do you like and value in those people that you consider friends? In celebration of a recent birthday, I went out to dinner with two of my very good friends—insightful, funny people who listen, laugh and cajole—and by the end, get life all back into perspective. We’d all had a couple busy non-stop weeks—and, well, the general isolation of COVID—and so met early on the hillside patio of a local restaurant. There was a lot to talk about: Challenges and joys, family, memories . . . I was a little shocked, however, on my way home, to discover that I had been gone for five hours. (Don’t worry, we moved ourselves to the far-flung picnic tables to make way for new guests. And we had blankets and coats for after the sun had set.)
Forty-four years before Christ, a Roman named Cicero wrote a piece he called “How to Be A Friend.” There were also letters that he had written to his friend, Atticus, filled with warmth and appreciation. This was not necessarily the norm for the time when the Roman idea of friendship was often seen in very practical terms: as a relationship between people for mutual advantage. Cicero’s work endures, however, because it describes good friendship so well. Here are his main points. (Remember, in the tradition of the Greek philosophers, Cicero speaks in terms of ideals. Most of the time life falls short of the ideal, but perhaps you will find this inspiring—and we’ll see how it ties into the gospel.)
There are different kinds of friendships: We come in contact with many good people in our lives whom we call friends—in business, volunteer work, school. But we are fortunate when we have some to whom we bind ourselves on a deeper level: They are usually rare—because they require so much time and investment of ourselves. These friends can change our lives, just as we change theirs.
People must be of good moral character to be true friends.
Choose friends with care: Move slowly and see what’s in their hearts before you invest ourselves—in case they aren’t who we thought and we need to extract ourselves.
Friends make you a better person: They help us see ourselves: challenging us to become better and always holding up our potential. Simply put: They help us thrive in ways that isolation cannot.
Make new friends, but keep the old: (I sang this song in Brownies years ago. ) No one is a sweeter friend than someone who has been with you from the beginning; but as you grow and change, stay open to new friendships—including those with younger people. It will enrich both of you.
Friends are honest with each other: They will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want them to say. They don’t need to flatter you because they care about you enough to risk your anger with the truth—hard as it may be to receive. Be thankful for this gift!
The reward of friendship is friendship itself: Whatever practical advantages it gives—advice, companionship, support in difficult times—friendship is finally sheer gift with no need for repayment or keeping score.
A friend never asks another friend to do something wrong: Friendship is based on goodness, it cannot expect evil.
Friendships may change over time: Friendships from youth will not be the same in old age—nor should they be. Life changes us with time, but the core values and qualities that once drew us to together can survive the test of time.
Friends, Cicero says, make life worth living: While we may have every material thing we could want or need, life would be hard without a friend, who brings so much joy by her very existence.
You may have some things to add here, but I like how it gets us thinking about the words of Jesus in the gospel of John; where he is giving this parting speech before his death and trying to bolster up the disciples. How might they understand the relationship with Jesus? How will this continue to be of help to them? Well, Jesus uses the framework of friend, here. in John 15: “You are my friends” . . . “I have called you friends” . . . and, in laying down my life, “I am your friend.” I think we can draw on all kinds of aspects of friendship to think about this relationship with Jesus: He’s worth our trust, we can go deep with him, be ourselves, hear honesty, and be renewed in the time we spend with him: Which I know can feel different than human beings sitting across from us—but to me looks like quiet prayer, journaling, art, appreciating nature, church. There have been times in my life when those deep friendships weren’t there—or at least I didn’t avail myself of them—and it is good to have Jesus as a constant friend.
So here’s a fun thing about that word “friend” that Jesus uses: The Greeks didn’t really have a word for “friend” like we do until Latin came along. The Greek word for friend here is philos, which literally means“loved one” or “beloved”—someone you hold dear; the “brotherly/sisterly” kind of love—we hear this in our English words like philanthropy, Philadelphia. This affectionate term stacks up in our reading with the other nine references to love which are the word agape- or the benevolent love that bestows good will and esteem upon the other through attitudes and action. Jesus’ talk—like the vine last week—pulls at strings that we discover are all connected to God and to Jesus laying down his life; goodness and love; for us, to us, from us. The commandments are in there too: Those ways to live, spelled out and given by God so long ago, are in this love weaving. Joy as well! For us, to us, from us: Loving one another.
Notice that Jesus has also taken love up a notch by contrasting “friend” with “servant.” “Serving” is used elsewhere in scripture—like when Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve—and we consider this an important part of our Christian lives, but what if we just started by seeing one another as “friends” or “loved ones”? Just as Jesus promotes the relationship to mutuality, so now do we with one another. This imagery of “serving,” or “servant” after all, can bring up hierarchy in which some apparently deserve to have more than others, and even bondage. If Jesus is friend to us; and we to him; and we to one another—might we not just act, but begin to SEE differently? It’s pretty much what’s in the commandments, after all! Think, then, of all the goodness that being and having friends can offer; the love, the joy, the deep mutuality that crosses divides. Jesus was willing to risk friendship—even with Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s 3-time denial. He is not put off by their fear and Peter, at least, will be transformed. Peter’s words “I do not know this man,” will become a three-time declaration of friendship on the lakeshore, “I love you, Lord.” And because the work of Jesus gives his life for his friends, he calls them to BE friends: “feed/tend my sheep.” As 1 John says, this is the kind of love that “conquers the world.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.