United Church of Christ

Loving Friends

Sunday, May 6, 2018
Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B

Focus Theme:
Loving Friends

Focus Prayer:
Faithful God, make our hearts bold with love for one another. Pour out your Spirit upon all people, that we may live your justice and sing in praise the new song of your marvelous victory. Amen.

Focus Reading:
John 15:9-17

[Jesus said:] "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."

All readings for this Sunday:
Acts 10: 44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5: 1-6
John 15:9-17

Focus Questions:

1. How does being a member of the church afford us the possibility of both space and time for friendship, for caring about one another?

2. Have you ever experienced another person or a community being "for" you? Is your church a "safe space" where you can be known and cared about?

3. What is your understanding of the "plan" that Jesus has shared with you, as one of his friends?

4. How do you respond to Jim Wallis' story? Should the kind of love Jesus commands have any effect on the way we structure our communal, public life, or is it only for the church and our families?

5. Are you and your church "captured by the story" of Jesus? Where is the light of that story taking you?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

This week's passage from the Gospel of John contains many familiar phrases that inspire and comfort us, including the heart, the bottom line, of what it means to be a Christian: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." As Jesus neared his death, he made a farewell address to his followers, and the theme of love is powerful throughout.

When Jesus knew his hour had come, the Gospel writer says, "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (13:1b). "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (14:15). And now, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you" (15:9).

The meaning of abiding

These words about love help us to understand the meaning of Jesus' command to "abide" in him, to understand ourselves as living our lives within his own reality, as part of him in the Body of Christ, as sheep of his flock, as branches of a vine that bears rich fruit for a world hungry for love. These words about love help us to understand what love really is, and what it means to make our homes, or to abide, in Jesus.

John's Gospel tells us that we are known and cared for, as sheep are loved and cared for by the shepherd who even lays down his life for the flock, rather than running away like a hired hand. Because of that love, we can trust the One who knows us intimately and cares for us tenderly, who holds our very lives in that care. We are known and held and loved, but we are commanded, too, to belong to one another, to care for one another, to love one another.

That is the kind of obedience, not blind obedience but trusting obedience, that Jesus inspires and even models, for he has lived his own life in trusting obedience to God. This kind of love and trust is where we live our lives and live out our faith.

These laws aren't harsh or burdensome

The word "commandments" isn't legalistic and doesn't refer to a harsh code of burdensome laws. John's Gospel doesn't even focus on the commandments of the law as the other Gospels do; John's theme is love, and to obey is to love. This command is not the "but" in "I love you, butÖ." Rather, it's the "and," as in, "I love you, and I want you to love one another."

Or maybe a better word is "so": "I have loved you, so you must love one another." This unselfish love that binds us together in community just as it binds us in relationship to him, he tells us, is the path to true joy, the kind of joy we can abide in.

Love to sustain community

An other-centered, belonging-to-something-greater-than-yourself love was crucial to the struggling little community that John was addressing. Just as the disciples were about to experience their world imploding as Jesus faced death and those disciples ran for cover, so the Johannine community a generation or two later was facing all sorts of persecution and ostracism because of their faith. They might have been tempted to turn inward, loving God (of course) and one another, and concentrating on their own survival.

Instead, Jesus lays on them a different ethic, one that will transform the world rather than judge or run away from it. In a sense, this love is "tough." Bernard Brandon Scott uses last week's image of pruning to describe how this works: "The Johannine image is not one of quietism but one of ethics and action that knit or prune humanity back together in love." Instead of thinking about who gets pruned away (judged and rejected), we're called to let God, through us, "prune humanity back together in love."

The true test: being rooted in love

Jesus' commandment to love provides a clear, comprehensive framework for forming values in every age and every situation, no matter how different our cultures, our technologies, our sophistication. We might ask ourselves about every decision and choice and plan and vision: Is this rooted in love? Does this bear fruit for the kingdom of God? That's the true test.

Love, of course, doesn't mean the romantic, ephemeral (also known as "mushy") feeling that may fuel our popular music, our films, and all too often, our personal quest. Being other-centered rather than self-centered, even to the point of giving up our lives (suddenly or over a lifetime) fulfills the law of Christ. Purity codes and legalisms fall away.

How well we know the challenge of being other-centered: in our culture, with mobility, career pressure, distractions, and overloaded calendars, it's difficult even to make room for friendship. We don't stay long enough to get to know one another, let alone to care about one another. And yet this Gospel keeps talking about staying, about abiding, about making our home in God, in the Body of Christ.

Loving the way Jesus loves

I remember the day during my first semester in seminary when our professor quoted Henri Nouwen as saying that we're called to "love Jesus, and love the way Jesus loved." In his beautiful little book, In the Name of Jesus, Nouwen provides a lens through which to read this passage: "Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing." Nouwen was writing about ministry, and of course we're all called to be ministers of the gospel, so his words tell us what it means that Jesus has chosen us to love the world: "The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."
This is a lofty ideal, and we might wonder what this kind of love would look like. Love is definitely more than nice words and warm affection. Carmelo Alvarez reminds us that "communion, or koinonia, includes the sharing of human resources, material goods, and communal fellowship....a commitment of solidarity toward unity as a witness in a broken and divided world." He uses Archbishop Oscar Romero as an example of this love, as one who knew how to be both prophet to the rich and pastor to the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador.

A faithful love

Once a comfortable and respected son of the institutional church, Romero went to the margins (a dangerous place) to champion those who suffered there. Alvarez says that Romero didn't turn away from the setting in which he preached, or the people who needed a word of hope about their lives, then and there, not simply "pie in the sky" promises of heaven while their loved ones were disappearing into the violent machinery of a corrupt state. In exquisite faithfulness to the love of which Jesus speaks in this passage, Romero ultimately laid down his life for those he loved.

Alvarez challenges churches to live out this text by "strengthening communities of solidarity, affirming diversity, promoting healthy relationships in families and communities, embracing strangers, and promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogues." (I recommend the movie, "Romero," a powerful re-telling of his story.)

In each generation, a word of reassurance

The earliest disciples faced impending loss and grief, the Johannine community faced persecution and marginalization, and the people of El Salvador faced (and continue to face) violence and injustice. If we read this text in its own setting, we see that in the very next verse, Jesus' words are about the opposition--even hatred--that his followers will face: "If the world hates you," he says, "be aware that it hated me before it hated you" (v. 18).

Erik Heen connects the reassurance of this verse to the promise in verse 16: "And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name." Heen emphasizes the importance of reading this week's passage with the verses that surround it, because Jesus is teaching us what we need to know about prayer, that when we ask for it we will receive not a laundry list of requests but "the power to love the world even though the world responds to that love with hatred."

Jesus knew it wasn't going to be easy for his little band of disciples, or for the church that followed them, for the Romeros of this world and for each one of us, struggling to live out our faith in the face of everything that challenges it. In this farewell address, he reassures us that we face these things not as servants, but as his friends, as the ones in his circle who have been let in on the big picture, that is, the reign of God, and given our role in bringing it in.

Ironically, there are times when the world seems to go ahead of the church in bringing in a reign of justice and peace. Think of women's rights, for example, or LGBTQ rights; the church is often far behind the wider society in recognizing the full humanity, considerable gifts, and rights of all people. And so, studies indicate that a growing number of young (and not-so-young) people, alas, think of the church as hateful, judgmental, and hypocritical. Granted, these are hard words to read, especially for those of us who love the church and experience it differently.

"Spiritual but not religious"

It's also not surprising that a growing number of people do not claim any religious affiliation at all, even though they think of themselves as "spiritual." This is a call to reflection and humble self-examination for the church, not just lament and certainly not criticism or complaint about those we have lost, or alienated, or failed to attract. Indeed, we need to understand why the world hates us, before we take comfort in these words of Jesus, in order to avoid self-righteousness. A thorny question that one sermon can't resolve!

We don't have to be the kind of hero Oscar Romero was called to be. It's hard enough to give our lives slowly, day by day, in love for the world. We live in a country that continues to debate its identity as a "Christian nation" (regardless, it seems, of the separation of church and state, or the guarantee of freedom of religion to all, including non-Christians). Perhaps we should ask why so many Christians cry "Socialism!" every time our nation moves toward greater sharing with one another, and tries to alleviate the suffering of those on the margins, just as Jesus commanded us to do.

A contemporary challenge to Christians

One of the most haunting stories I've ever read is from Jim Wallis, in his book, Call to Conversion. Wallis describes something that happened at a conference in New York City on social justice that included religious leaders of all kinds. "At one point," he recalls, "a Native American stood up, looked out over the mostly white audience, and said, 'Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community.' He paused for a moment and then continued: 'Let's pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family.' His eyes were piercing as he asked, 'Why don't you do that? Why don't you live that way?'"

Let's pretend we are all Christians. What would that look like, in this world? How might it be different from the way we live today? Nowadays, it seems that many people see church membership as something we choose, much as we shop for other needs in our lives. And yet Jesus says here that we did not choose him, rather, he chose us. Doesn't our "chosen-ness," our being chosen by Jesus, up-end this consumerist approach to being Christians?

Rather than expecting a church to fill our needs, are we called instead to seek to fill the needs of others and in so doing, find our own deepest needs met? How does being a member of the church afford us the possibility of both space and time for friendship, for caring about one another? Is your church a safe space where you can be known and cared about? Have you ever experienced another person or a community being "for" you?

Are we "captured by the story"?

In what ways do you feel you have been assured by God that everything is going to turn out well, in the end? In what ways has your church been assured? Do you feel that Jesus, then, is your friend who tells you what is going on, rather than a master who doesn't bother to inform the servants about what is planned? What is your understanding of "the plan" that Jesus has shared with you?

Charles Cousar suggests that being "friends of Jesus" means "being captured by the story, following the sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing plot that leads to the cross and the empty tomb, and finding in it the light to guide their way in the world." Are you and your church "captured by the story"? Where is the light taking you? In what ways do you experience Jesus calling you "friends," not just "servants"?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection

Fred Rogers, 20th century
"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

Henri-FrÈdÈric Amiel, Amiel's Journal, 19th century
"Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."

Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"In this life we are to become heaven so that God might find a home here."

Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
"We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden."

Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.E.
"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage."

Abraham Kuyper, 20th century
"He is your friend who pushes you nearer to God."

Charles Cousar, 21st century
"What makes people friends of Jesus is their being captured by the story, following the sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing plot that leads to the cross and the empty tomb, and finding in it the light to guide their way in the world."

The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is not just a dream, but a necessity. We are dependent on each other in so many ways that we can no longer live in isolated communities and ignore what is happening outside those communities."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity."

Dr. James Forbes, Whose Gospel?, 21st century
"The progressive spirituality I believe in is deeply rooted in the conviction of Dr. King that God's dream of the Beloved Community sets the agenda for the church."

Jane Austen, 19th century, Northanger Abbey
"There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature."

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