A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (09/05/21): Friendship with God

Friendship with God
John 15:9-17

Jesus says:
As the Father has loved me, so I have love you; abide in my love.
And a moment or two later he says:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

Jesus gives us a single idea about what being his follower amounts to: loving one another. In the same way that the Father loves him, which is the same way that he loves us, we are to love one another.

One of the most frequent pictures that the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, gives us to illustrate the relationship between God and God’s people is that of master and servants. Again and again Jesus pictures for us the kingdom of God in stories about masters and servants. Of course these are not necessarily easy for us to understand. Or even if we do understand them, they are not necessarily easy for us to accept. We live in much different times from those into which Jesus first spoke. We imagine we live in profoundly egalitarian times. Where equality has replaced such hierarchies of above and below. And where they do still exist they are often treated with suspicion, or are subject to criticism. But the relationship between God and God’s people is often pictured by Jesus as being like the relationship between a master and the master’s servants. The way Jesus pictures it, it is a relationship of love. There is love between the master and the servants. But it is an asymmetric, uneven, relationship. There is love from above, and there is love from below.

The master’s love for the servants , God’s love for God’s people, is love from above. It is what the Old Testament calls: “loving kindness.” It is that love which is always seeking the best for the object of that love. This is God’s love toward us. God is constantly and exclusively seeking our well being in the broadest possible sense. In all things, what God does is for our benefit.
Another way in which Jesus and the Old Testament pictures this is Shepherd and sheep. “I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. He is one who cares for the sheep, and who seeks them when they are lost, and who stays with them when danger comes. And much of the aim of our discipleship is to become imitators of God in that way. There is much good that needs to be done. And as sharers and imitators of God’s love we love one another. This is half of the Great Commandment. This is what Jesus means when he says, “love your neighbour as yourself.” And what he means when he says, “love your enemy.” And what he means when he says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect.” The solitary guiding principle for all our actions should be the benefit of those around us, to love our neighbours by always seeking their wellbeing. There is no denying that Jesus commands us to love in this way.

But it is very comforting for us to “love from above.” It suits our sense of pride and self-worth to be doing the love, to be acting on behalf of others and seeking their good, their benefit, their well-being. It places us in a position of power and privilege. The world has problems, and we enjoy thinking that we have the solutions. People around us are in need, and we enjoy thinking that we are the ones to supply that need. Even as it can be difficult, and it is undoubtedly hard work, it makes us feel valued and important. But pride, even pride in trying to do good, is never a good thing. And loving from above has the potential to come round and bite us. Sometimes people don’t want our love. The presumption that we know what is the need and the best interest of others is always a risky one to make. And we lack perfect knowledge of God, which enables God to love us perfectly in the way which we need. No one really appreciates being loved from above. No one really wants to be thought of as a sheep! Even when it is loving it is still being “looked down on.” And in our greatest need humans beings are at their most contrary, like the drowning person who lashes out at the person who has swum out to save them and ends up drowning them both! Jesus more than any other human being truly demonstrated the reality of God’s love towards his children. And how well did that go?

The other side of that asymmetric relationship is the love of the servant for the master, love from below. The other half of the great commandment is, “Love the Lord your God.” The natural response that we make to the love which God shows us is to love God in return. God’s loving kindness is constantly shown to us, and our response is gratitude and devotion. This in large measure is what we came out to do today. To spend at least this hour showing that we do appreciate what God has done for us. We are grateful for the love that God has shown us in sending Jesus to us. We do love God and want to show God our love in return. It is the genuine appreciation that we would offer for the kindnesses that have been shown to us. Jesus says, “I am the shepherd and the sheep know my voice and they follow me.”

But this too has its shadow side. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know that is way they get fed. How much of the devotion of dogs to their owners is in fact what you might call “cupboard love.” Such loving from below too easily becomes a means to an end. Rather than gratitude for what has already been given, it can change into a lever for getting what we want. Sadly too often when people say: “I love you.” what they really mean is, “I love me, I want something from you.” And this is not something that we are immune from in the church. Often our prayers shift very quickly from Adoration and Thanksgiving into asking for things. Frequently these are good things for others which they genuinely need. But sometimes our prayers resemble shopping lists. Often we find ourselves asking God to bend the universe according to our preferences. Even if we don’t quite fall into praying, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”

God answers our prayers according our needs, not what we think we need, but what God knows we really need. God answers our prayers because God loves us (from above). Not because we earned an answer by loving God (from below).

Friendship must be just about the most undervalued virtue. When did you last hear a sermon preached about friendship? It should be surprising, even shocking, that this is the case! If the Master/Servant or Sheep/Shepherd relationship is asymmetric, a relationship in which there is love from above and love from below, then friendship is a symmetrical relationship. It is love on the level. And here’s the startling thing. Jesus says in so many words: “You are my friends.” In Jesus Christ the relationship that God is seeking with us is love on the level. Let that sink in for a moment.

The most startling Good News that Christianity announces is this: God befriends us! Jesus comes alongside us, which effectively then means that we find ourselves alongside God. We live in times that imagine they are egalitarian. Yet the equality which Christ is offering us is far more equal than anything our times have imagined. Christ offers us a kind of equality with God. Christ offers us a loving relationship with God that is mutual, a friendship, a love that is on the level. The quality of this love is openness and it is self-giving. Jesus actually undoes the master/servant picture.
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant doesn’t know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”
As useful as that picture of master and servant (or of shepherd and sheep is) it does not take us into the fullness of the relationship which God is seeking with us. God wants a relationship with us in which nothing is hidden. God hides nothing from us. Just as surely we can hide nothing from God. In friendship, the best friendships, there are no secrets, nothing is hidden, because the love that binds friendship drives out the fear of discovery and the fear of rejection.
And friendship is a relationship of self-giving. Jesus summarises in one of his best known and best loved declarations about love and about himself:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Perhaps it is a shame that those words are most often quoted on war memorials. Though also it is fortunate that friendship is seldom put to such an extreme test. But it is clear what motivates soldiers to bravery and self-sacrifice beyond anything else is their love for their mates, the other soldiers who stand beside them. The love which in Christ God has for us, and is seeking from us, has that quality of self-giving.

Thinking and speaking in these terms changes how we understand: What is the church? What is our mission? Clearly love from below is still required. We must love God. And we will continue to show it week by week is we give God our thanks and our praise. Clearly love from above is still required. We must love our neighbours. Good still needs to be done. And we can still be the ones to do it, at least some of it, some of the time. But friendship with God takes us beyond these. When Jesus says:
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
He is telling us to make the church above all a place of friendship, a community founded on mutual love. He is telling us to make the church a place of openness, where each is known and knows. But almost more important than this; Thinking like this might give us a clearer insight into what our mission is; Not loving our neighbours from above, but loving them on the level, opening ourselves to them, and giving ourselves to them. Our mission is not so much doing good, though we can’t cease from that, but more crucially, being with, being friends. Mission by this definition is befriending those around us with the love of Christ. Just as Jesus loves us, so may we find ourselves loving one another and our neighbours as friends.

Amen.

Friendship with God by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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