The gift and burden of friendship (a sermon from John 15:9-17)

Almost everyone who has been in church is familiar with the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was written by a son to comfort his mother whom he had left behind in Ireland when he came to the United States in the 1850s. It reflects the sentiments of a Victorian age, but it is a much beloved hymn. According to the hymn, Jesus is our friend because he bears our burdens and sorrows. The hymn was written to assure his mother, that though he couldn’t be there with her, Jesus is with her and he is a friend like no other. He asks, “Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” The hymn presents Jesus as a faithful friend who helps us to carry the load of our personal sorrows and burdens. Friendship is presented as gift and blessing. Who can argue with that? Who would want to argue with that?  

The subject of friendship is introduced in our text today, but it is presented from a different angle. Jesus contrasts servanthood and friendship, calling his disciples friends. Now, it’s important to understand that in this particular passage servanthood takes on the meaning of servanthood as practiced in their social and cultural context, not servanthood as presented in the biblical tradition. In fact, in the very next paragraph Jesus identifies his disciples as servants and speaks of them in a completely different way. He says, “Servants are not greater than their master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Here he is preparing his disciples to face the kind of opposition from those in power that he has faced. Jesus’s disciples are indeed servants.

To be a servant of God is a high and holy calling. Jesus understood himself to be a servant of God. And being a servant of God meant being a servant of others. Two chapters earlier in John 13 Jesus takes a basin of water and a towel, and washes the feet of his disciples. He says to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example . . . I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” Later, Jesus will tell them that as the Father sent him, so he sends them. Jesus, the Servant of God, is sent by the Father, who then, in turn, as God’s Son, as God representative, and with God’s authority, sends the disciples to love and serve as he loved and served. Jesus is the Servant of God par excellent, and we, who are his disciples, are called to be servants of God like Jesus.

In the Synoptic Gospels there is a passage where James and John come to Jesus requesting positions of honor and authority in God’s kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and reminds them that God’s kingdom is not about aspiring for positions or power, but is about being the servant of others. And in Mark’s version of that story, the emphasis is not on serving fellow disciples, but all people. Jesus instructs them to follow his example as here in John, because he did not come (he was not called or sent by God) to be served, but to serve, and to give his life up in the service of others, for the cause and will of God in the world.

So being a servant of God is a high calling and honor in the biblical tradition. Jesus regarded himself as a servant of God. And the early followers of Jesus applied the Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah to Jesus. So as followers of Jesus, Jesus is our example and model for serving God and serving others.

In this passage in John 15 where Jesus contrasts servanthood and friendship, Jesus is speaking about servanthood in a very different way. In the social world of that day and time people of power had servants. These servants were often from people groups who had been conquered by those in power. Servants in a household are not privileged to know the plans or intentions or passions of the master of the house. Their job is to do what the master says – period. Friends, however, are equals and partners, and are privileged to share in the thinking, the motivations, the passions and interests of their friend.

In this passage John puts into the mouth of Jesus the words where he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What we do as friends of Jesus we do as partners with Jesus, in co-operation with Jesus. Jesus serves God and others and we learn from Jesus how to serve God and others. Jesus makes known to his disciples all that he has learned from his Abba. This is why John calls Jesus the Logos, the Word made flesh, because Jesus embodies God’s will. Jesus knows God intimately. Jesus knows God’s will and makes God’s will known to his disciples, whom he calls his friends. Now, this seems like a wonderful gift and blessing, and it is, but that is not all it is.

The late Fred Craddock tells about a sermon he heard some years ago that presented this prospect of being a friend of Jesus in a way that he had never thought of. A combination of misfortunes led to Craddock hearing the sermon: A cancelled flight; a last minute reservation in a motel near the airport; a search for a church within walking distance, since the next morning was Sunday; and then a  housekeeper at the motel pointing in the direction of a church six blocks away. All of that lead Craddock to a cinder block building where a few tired souls had already started singing gospel songs.

The preacher was a large man, with poor eyesight. He spoke in a kind of crippled speech that reflected his appearance. His text that morning was James 2:23 where Abraham is called the friend of God. His opening words were: “Abraham was a friend of God. I’m sure glad I’m not a friend of God.” And then his sermon was an explanation of why he was glad he wasn’t a friend of God.

Craddock says that he cannot recall any time when he was as engaged in a sermon as he was that Sunday. The preacher’s delivery was without animation; his physical condition denied him that, says Craddock. Craddock says that all of those who were there in the service wanted to help the preacher get his words out. But still, despite all of that, he was captivated by the message.  

The preacher recalled the story of Abraham, who as a pilgrim and wanderer was homeless for years and was buried in a land not his own. “Abraham was a friend of God,” the preacher said, “I’m sure glad I’m not.” He then spoke of others who had been friends of God who were faithful in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. He concluded with a story of Teresa of Avila, who is remembered by the church as a friend of God. He recalled her begging in public in order to raise funds for an orphanage. After a series of misfortunes where flood and storm and fire repeatedly destroyed the orphanage, she said in her evening prayers to God, “So this is how you treat your friends; no wonder you have so few.”

The preacher closed his sermon with the admonition: “If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you.” Then he said, “But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.” Pray for the strength, he said, to bear the burden of being a friend of God. Have you ever thought about bearing the burden of being a friend of God?

Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was emaciated – his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die. Please take my baby! 

Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby!

Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane. 

Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a great force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.

Being a friend of Jesus means that we share the heart of Jesus, and that can be as much of a burden as a blessing. There are days I think I’m the friend of Jesus, and then there are days that I’m not sure, and even other days when I don’t want to be the friend of Jesus at all. Jesus gave his life, not just for his friends, but for the world – this crazy mixed up world – because God so loves the world. To what degree am I willing to love the world? Some days I feel like that old preacher, “I’m glad I’m not the friend of Jesus.”

Now, the servant that Jesus is talking about in this passage does not really know what the master is up to. He is not obligated to share the passion and heart of the master. He does his work and goes home. And maybe that’s not so bad. The servant doesn’t have all the worries and anxieties the master has.

Now, if the servant were to become the friend of the master, the servant would have to share the burden and passion of the master. Jesus says to his disciples, “I have chosen you to be my friends. I have called you to bear the fruit that I bear – to love one another the way I have loved you, to love the world the way God loves the world.” To be the friend of Jesus is to bear fruit like Jesus.

A lot of jokes and stories involving heaven begin with Saint Peter at the gates of heaven or in heaven. Well, in this story Peter is invited into the heavenly house of many rooms. He is given a room all to himself. The angel who shows him to the room says, “Sleep well” and then leaves. Peter’s bed is a cloud and Peter drifts off to sleep with the sound of soft music playing.

But then sometime during the night Peter is awakened by sounds coming from the next room. Clearly, someone is having a bad night. It isn’t snoring or sleep-talking. It’s more like groaning or even moaning, accompanied by tossing and turning. Peter is tempted to go over and knock on the door, but is afraid to. So Peter lies there and tosses and turns himself, only getting little snatches of sleep.

At daybreak Saint Peter hears the door open and someone step out into the hall. So Peter does the same, wanting to see who it is that had such a restless night. Peter is shocked. It’s God. The God of peace who gives peace beyond all understanding. God is the one who had such a restless night and couldn’t sleep. Peter is speechless – he doesn’t know what to say. God says, “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I just couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children down there.”

When I think about having a friend in Jesus, all my sorrows and griefs for Jesus to share and bear – that sounds like such a blessing. But when I think about being the friend of Jesus, of sharing his passion and longing and burden for peace and justice and the healing of the world, I’m not so sure I want to be the friend of Jesus at all.

You know, I don’t have to be the friend of Jesus to be a good pastor to all of you good folks. Feeling the pain and burden of a broken world, of sisters and brothers beaten down by the powers that be. Feeling for the victims of mass shootings and children dying from chemical weapons. Grieving the moral sickness that pervades society, beginning with those in power. That’s not really in my job description. And it’s clearly not in our church constitution and by-laws. I don’t have to be a friend of Jesus to be a good pastor and you don’t have to be the friend of Jesus to be a good church member. Now, I know some friends of Jesus. I have no doubt that Lonnie and Fran Turner are friends of Jesus. I know some others too. So, I’m torn. I’m kind of on the fence about being a friend of Jesus. And I have to admit there are days when I just don’t want to be the friend of Jesus at all. And what about you? Do you want to be the friend of Jesus? And I would say too, that if you can’t live with this kind of tension, if you can’t live with paradox or contradiction you won’t make it as a friend of Jesus. The old preacher was being truly honest with his congregation when he said, “I’m glad I’m not a friend of Jesus.” And to be honest, I don’t know if I’m the friend of Jesus or not. Some days I think I am. Other days I know I’m not. What about you, friend? Are you the friend of Jesus?

Lord, I have to be honest with you. I’m not really sure this morning I want to be the friend of Jesus. I’m not sure anyone hear wants to be the friend of Jesus. We like the blessing, but we sure don’t care for the burden. When we hear you say to us in our hearts that you have chosen us to bear fruit like Jesus, it doesn’t take  a whole lot of smarts or theological knowledge to figure out where Jesus ended up by preaching truth, crossing bearers, breaking down walls, and welcoming all different kinds of people to the table of fellowship. Most of us, Lord, were just told how wonderful it is to have a friend in Jesus. We weren’t warned about the burden of being a friend of Jesus. Lord, be patient with us, because we are going to have to give this some serious thought. And help us, Lord, at least to have enough courage to ponder the implications of what it might actually mean if we were to be the friends of Jesus. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.  


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