Sermon for Sunday, 9 May 2021 Easter 6
By Revd George Mwaura
Psalm 98 and John 15: 9–17
Christ, who calls us friends, speak to us in the silence of this space, and teach us to befriend those who seek and hunger for true friendship.
If someone were to ask you to describe your best friend, or the qualities that makes someone a true friend, what words would you use? Several years ago, a leading tabloid offered a prize for the best definition of a friend. Among the thousands of answers received were these three: ‘A friend is one who multiplies joys, shares your grief, and whose honesty is unquestionable.’ ‘A friend is that unique person who asks how you are and stays around long enough to hear the answer.’ ‘A friend is one who understands our silence.’ I liked the winning entry, which read: ‘A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.,
Julius Caesar’s famous last words, ‘Et tu, Brute?’, meaning, ‘You too, Brutus?’, have become a byword for betrayal by a friend. Although, having checked the Greek translation of this phrase, I think what Caesar asks Brutus is ‘καὶ σὺ, τέκνον?’ meaning, ‘Even you, my child?’ It is, of course, rumoured that Brutus was Caesar’s son by a mistress. But whether he was his son or not is beside the point. My point is this: at the hour of his desperate need, Caesar could not rely on any of his friends. Not even Brutus, who went ahead and plunged a dagger into his defenceless body. I do not know how many friends you have, but I have no more than a handful who I think will come in day or night when the rest of the world has gone out. And perhaps the only one, I can count on without a shadow of doubt or hesitation is Christine.
But we all need friends, don’t we? We need people we can trust and who can trust us. We need people we can rely on and who can rely on us; people who can hold us accountable and vice versa. People who can tell us the truth no matter how painful that truth is. In other words, we need friends. I think that is why one of the most popular sitcoms of all times was Friends. I still watch the occasional episode on Sky and my favourite characters are Joey and Phoebe. Friends was aired for ten seasons and through every idiotic situation, every successful and failed relationship or job they stuck together. They were there for each other. Yes, they fought, yes, they argued and yes, they disagreed and got angry, but they hung together because that is what true friends do. We all need that kind of relationship in our lives.
In our passage this morning, Jesus tells his disciples – which includes you and me – ‘I no longer call you servants, now I call you friends’. But you might ask: ‘So what, George? What difference does it make whether we are called Servants or Friends?’ Oh, a lot of difference. You see, the words used to refer to us influence how we look at ourselves and how we respond to the friendship God offers us through Christ. A friend is invited to discuss what needs to be done, but a servant is told what to do. A friend is invited to sit at table and eat, but a servant is asked to wait on tables. A servant is paid his/her worth in money, but a friend is invited to a priceless relationship.
Clearly servants and friends have different roles in any relationship, and while I am glad to be nothing more than a servant in the ministry of God, Jesus says: ‘I no longer call you servant … now I call you friend.’ That is mindboggling! Imagine being friends with the Son of God! Can I hear Amen! And the remarkable thing about this friendship that is offered by Jesus is that it begins with God. It is wholly unmerited and unconditional. Jesus chooses us as his friends and not the other way round. He said in verse16: ‘I chose you; you did not choose me.’ But even though we have been chosen to be friends of Jesus, it is our choice whether to accept that relationship or not. If we choose to, we can remain servants. But why would we want to be a servant when we can be a friend? I cannot begin to describe how awesome and humbling that the son of God would want you and me as his friend. It is a concept almost too big for my feeble mind to come to terms with. But while my mind cannot comprehend this generous offer of friendship, my heart fully understands it.
But there is a caveat. This is a risky relationship. When we accept this relationship, it confronts and challenges us. It confronts us with the knowledge that while our friend Jesus promises to accompany us wherever we go, this is a mutual relationship. And in mutual relationships sometimes friends invite and lead us to accompany them to places we have never been before. Jesus’ radical friendship and love for tax collectors, lepers, gentiles, sinners, and others on the margin of the society took him to places where his society and disciples had never ventured before. And that ultimately cost him his life. If we accept his friendship, we too must be prepared to be radical in our friendship with those whom our society has marginalised and ostracised: those whom our churches consider to be wild grapes. We must be prepared to enter uncharted territory and love those whom Christ loves selflessly. This friendship with Christ also challenges us to love others in the same way as he does, because his love, teachings, compassion and grace are needed more today than ever before.
Not too long before she died, Mother Teresa spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. She was introduced to that gathering as the greatest woman in the world. But when she stood up, she dismissed that introduction saying: ‘I am nothing close to being the greatest woman in the world, but I will tell you the greatest thing about my life. I have been exceedingly lucky to be a tiny pencil in the hands of God: someone through whom God writes love letters to the world.’ When we accept Jesus as our Saviour and accept the friendship he offers, every one of us becomes a tiny pencil through which God can write letters to a hurting world. Letters of love, justice, peace, reconciliation, care and forgiveness. That is what it means, ladies and gentlemen, to be called friends of Jesus.
The American president Abraham Lincoln was riding home from church one Sunday afternoon. As he rode, he discussed the sermon he had just heard, based on the same passage we have been reflecting on today. And then he turned to his daughter riding beside him and said: ‘The preacher was well prepared, he had a thoughtfully constructed sermon, but it lacked its most important ingredient.’ ‘And what was that?’ the daughter asked. Lincoln said: ‘The preacher never challenged us to go and do something great.’ Friends, I am not going to make the same mistake. Today, I am going to ask you to go and do something great. In your community, either physical or virtual, go and practice what Jesus has commanded us: Love one another; reach out to those on the margins, be kind and considerate to planet earth, offer the gift of friendship to someone who is lonely in Jesus name.