Let us pause for a moment to give thanks to God in prayer:
God of mysterious encounter, you meet us
in places and times where we least expect to find you.
Your sacred presence appears to us in forms and ways
that challenge our views of ourselves and our world.
Help us to recognize, and respond in love, to your presence.
Give us eyes to see and ears to hear.
Give us hearts and wills receptive to your call.
This we ask through Jesus Christ,
in whose name we gather this day.
(Living Covenant, pg. 6 by Sandra Severs)
Today’s scripture reading, from John’s Gospel, is part of a much larger section commonly known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. (John 14:1-16:33) The setting of this discourse is the last gathering Jesus has with his followers on the night of his arrest. At this gathering, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet as an example of loving and caring service to others. Jesus gives his followers a new commandment to love one another that is reiterated in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus also comforts and prepares his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them in person. He encourages them not to be troubled but to remember that they will always be connected like a vine is to it’s branches. Jesus blesses them with peace and promises that the Holy Spirit will be with them forever.
There are many important themes in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Love is the undergirding theme that Jesus proclaims, exemplifies and encourages his disciples to embrace and share. Jesus has shared God’s love with them and has revealed to them the joy of being united in a counter-cultural kind of community based on love and service. He commissions them to take this love into the wider community so it will bear fruit that will transform the world.
One particular theme in today’s reading that I’ve been pondering this week is Jesus’ use of the word friends to describe his disciples. At the Garden View Bible Study Group we spent some time talking about what the word, friend, means to us. We all agreed that a friend is much more than an acquaintance with whom you might have a superficial relationship. A true friend, to our way of thinking, is someone who loves you unconditionally and forgives your shortcomings and with whom you can share personal concerns without fear of judgment. It is someone who may or may not live close-by but is someone who will be there for you through the joys and sorrows of life; someone you can always count on.
Some biblical scholars note the Greek word, philos, which is translated as friend in the New Revised Standard Bible, should more accurately be translated as “loved one”. In the context of today’s scripture reading in which Jesus encourages his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, it gives us a better idea of the depth of feeling and commitment that Jesus is communicating when he tells them, “You are my friends”; you are my loved ones. (John 15:15)
Jesus has formed an equalitarian community based on inclusivity and loving relationships. One commentary that I read this week notes that,
“In John’s time, one was connected through kinship networks or institutional relationships like master/slave. Friendship as we know it, which [means that] we can be friends across gender, class and ethnicity, did not exist. But the aim of God to love, the call to us to love one another, moves us into new ways of relating. It is a call to organize our world where we care for all, even those who are outside our familiar networks. It is to be friends in Christ.” (The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, www.georgehermanson.com , May 16, 2009)
It is helpful to be reminded that the communities of faith that Jesus created were completely new and radically different than the rest of the surrounding social and religious cultures of that time and place. To be inclusive, to base decisions on love for others, and to have one’s actions informed by considering what was in the best interest of those who were vulnerable and marginalized, was a radical and dangerous challenge to the status quo. To make the commitment to be a friend of Jesus and to be a member of this new way of life was transformative and challenging.
It is this commitment of friendship with Jesus, based on today’s reading from John’s Gospel, which inspired the name and religious ethic of The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers or Friends.
The Society of Friends was founded in England in the mid-seventeenth century by George Fox. Fox believed that all are capable of experiencing the promise of Christ enabling all to live in Christ’s love. This belief influenced their position on the equality of women, a unique characteristic within Christianity at the time. Friends’ principles include religious toleration, concern for social justice, and pacifism. (http://www.patheos.com/Library/Society-of-Friends-(Quakers).html)
In 1962, a member of the Society of Friends, Bernard Canter, said that,
“To find religion itself, you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it and don’t know what it is they have. God is their guest…Living with God is not an apparition but a wordless and endless sureness. Like the silence of two friends together.” (http://www.religioustolerance.org/quaker1.html)
In the twenty-first century the word, friend, has often been trivialized. The use of the word in social media, specifically Facebook, where everyone on your contact list is named as friend no matter how close the relationship, doesn’t do justice to the meaning of the word, friend, as Jesus understood it. To be able to delete someone from your contact list, to “un-friend” them is anathema to Jesus’ commitment to meaningful and reciprocal relationships.
While I was thinking about this I began to reflect on an example of true friendship that grew from an offering of service into a mutually sustaining relationship that has stood the test of time and changing circumstances. When my father was receiving palliative care, I contacted the local Hospice organization. A Hospice volunteer, named Linda, began visiting Dad once a week until his death. During the six months of his illness, Linda got to know our family quite well and particularly enjoyed my mother’s company. Linda developed a fondness for Mom that developed into a mutual friendship that has been a blessing for both of them. For the past ten years, other than times away for holidays, Linda has faithfully visited Mom every Thursday afternoon. Through many ups and downs in Mom’s health, and in Linda’s life, their dedication to each other has never wavered and they continue to be a source of love and strength for one another today.
In an online biblical commentary, called Join the Feast, Barry Chance says that,
“Friends give generously, trust and are open with each other, and help each other live meaningful lives. Friends tell the legislature when the laws aren’t working, say enough when someone is overmedicated, log many miles in the car getting people to church, share the details of their lives, let others pray for them, and help each other discover and use the gifts that God has given them.” (http://jointhefeast.blogspot.ca/2009/04/may-17-2009-john-159-17-barry-chance.html)
So how do we, in our community of faith, emulate Jesus’ example of friendship; of love for one another? One very important way is by our faithfulness, our commitment to sticking together through good times and challenging times. We offer and receive emotional and spiritual support, we work together with unity and equality, we share our doubts, our questions and our affirmations and encouragement. We know that we are blessed to be part of a caring community. We know that it is challenging to follow Jesus’ example of faith-filled living and compassionate service but we do our best daily to show our love and commitment in the actions of our lives.
Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote that one of the best ways to habituate oneself in a particular virtue is to emulate those who already embody it. “We are known by the company we keep; in fact, we are very likely to become the company we keep.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg. 500, David S. Cunningham, 2008)
I think this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34b-35)
It is love that holds us together – the love of God, the love of Christ, and the love of one another. Our commitment as a community of faith is to love boldly and to act generously in response to God’s blessings and God’s love for the world.
And so, quoting the United Church’s Song of Faith I’ll close with these words of faith, hope, and commitment:
We sing of a church
seeking to continue the story of Jesus
by embodying Christ’s presence in the world.
We are called together by Christ
as a community of…hopeful believers,
loving what he loved,
living what he taught,
striving to be faithful servants of God
in our time and place.
With love and faith we pray this may be so.