Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Start!This is a part of Jesus' farewell discourse. It is an evening of great intimacy with those Jesus cared about deeply, the disciples who had walked and worked with him for three years. One might call these verses an "acted parable" of Philippians 2, as Jesus "empties himself" of the need to be master of the disciples and calls them friend.
The disciples who listened to Jesus' words were likely caught between their joy in being with Jesus and their shock in hearing him say he was leaving them. The people to whom John wrote might well have been caught between their new-found faith in Jesus, and the loss of their Jewish roots, as the Jewish religious leaders began to close the doors to Christians. As we listen to Jesus' words today, the sixth Sunday of Easter, we are caught between the joy of resurrection day and the drudgery of everyday life.
Are these the wonderful words of Jesus that we've always thought they were? In one sentence, Jesus takes down the wall between God and human beings. God is no longer far off but an intimate friend.
As we wrestle with these verses, we might have feelings of being caught between one desire and another. Do we want to be a friend of Jesus? Who wouldn't want to be a friend of Jesus? The term "friend" makes us feel special a bit like a pet lamb of Jesus. Trouble is, this isn't the "fly the friendly skies of United" kind of friendship to which Jesus invites us. Friendship has become a very casual and even superficial relationship in our society or even a lose term for romance. Write the word "friend" into the search engine of the computer, and the result is a list of websites where one can meet a romantic partner.
What Jesus offers us is, rather, a relationship of deep intimacy. Being a friend of Jesus goes beyond even the mutuality that we feel when we spend the day with a friend, shopping, attending a movie or a sports event.
There is little in our experience to help us understand the kind of intimacy that Jesus offers. In our lifetime, there are perhaps one or two people with whom we have the kind of relationship that approximates what Jesus means. They are the friends who go beyond friendship. They can reach into our souls and touch us where bone and marrow meet the ones who know us, who sense what is good for us and give us that, the ones who care about our hurts, failures, losses, and also our joys, our celebrations, our successes. There is a mutual delight in such a relationship, but even this pales in the light of the intimacy to which Jesus calls us. Joseph Campbell once said that we need new metaphors for our day. (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, [The Power of Myth, Apostrophe S Productions, Inc, 1988 and The Parabola Audio Library, Inc., 1990]).
If we consider the term "friend" as a metaphor for intimate relationships, friend has lost its power in our culture. "Soul mate" is a metaphor that is deep enough to hold the bottomless bond, the intimacy of kindred souls that describe the relationship Jesus offers to us. Soul mate is also consistent with the meaning of the original language.
Here the rub begins. To be a soul mate of Jesus means that we are open to allow Jesus to touch us in the place where bone and marrow meet. It means that we love Jesus enough to move beyond being a pet lamb to become the one who takes seriously what Jesus does and thinks. It means wanting and working to live our lives side by side with Jesus, thinking his thoughts and enjoying his presence with us. When Princess Diana died, one of the commentators said that she wrapped herself around her boys in love.
Are we ready for Jesus to wrap himself around us in love? The person who grew up in a loveless home is caught between his/her desire for such intimacy and fear of it. We are all caught between what we are as human beings a mixed bag of good characteristics and not so good qualities, along with the uncertainties and indecisiveness and ambiguities.
If we are ready for this to be wrapped around by Jesus', to be his soul mate, are we ready for what comes along with it?
These verses continue Jesus' teaching of the vine metaphor, even though the lectionary pulls them out to stand-alone. To be a soul mate of Jesus is not an exclusive relationship. We are offered deep intimacy with Jesus, and at the same time put slam-dunk into community. The grapevine twists and turns in and out upon itself. Jesus does not only wrap us around, there are others bound up with us. We are rubbing elbows and knees with each other there is no choice but to live by Jesus' imperative and love one another.
Once again, we are caught between the tension of what we desire and the reality of daily life in the community of faith. We really want to love one another. We seek peace as we live together. All too often we find ourselves nose to nose, not wanting to know the soul of that other person, but rather, trying to show him/her that our opinions are what really count. There are so many difficult people wrapped up in this vine with us. How do we love them? How do we love the disabled and demanding one who throws her walker at us when she is angry?
He wraps himself around us, the whole of us. We are his community. Jesus says nothing about our differences of opinion, our meanness, and the unlovable among us. He says, "Love one another." We find the intimacy and the community that Jesus has given us come true, little by little, as we abide in Jesus' love. We think of abiding as a static situation. It is rather, a bit like a dance. We move toward Jesus. We find ourselves afraid, we step back and Christ woos us back to himself, and we know him more deeply than ever. We wander from the path, and Jesus brings us back. We try to break away from the ties that bind, we become bitter, or angry and frustrated, we refuse to love the unlovable. The voice of Jesus continues to call us back to be wrapped in his love and to love one another. It may take a lifetime and more of dancing back and forth towards Jesus and towards each other. But at each step we will find ourselves coming closer to the love Jesus offers to each of us.
Becoming someone’s friend means we wish to totally try and understand them. How awesome would it be to really be Jesus’ friend?
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
One of the reasons we fail to love other people is that we do not fully appreciate the troubles they face in their lives. Last fall twenty families in Denmark volunteered to subsist on the same rations that famine-stricken residents of southern Africa receive as part of the Red Cross's emergency food aid in that region. For the one-week experiment, each family received a packet containing 4.4 pounds of flour, 4.4 pounds of pasta, 17.5 ounces of beans, two packs of powdered yeast, a quart of cooking oil, 5.25 ounces of sugar, and 1.75 ounces of salt. Each packet cost $6.60.
In Open Secrets, Richard Lischer tells about his early pastoral experiences in the rural Midwest. He explains that an aerial photographer once showed him how paths are quite visible from the air, crisscrossing pastures and fields among the farms where neighbors have trudged back and forth to visit each other and to help in times of need. Lischer suggests that those lines of connection are similar to the connectedness within the Godhead, between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
While Jesus invites us into intimacy with him, intimacy is not prevalent in American society. If anything, Americans are tending toward isolation rather than closeness with one another. One indication of that is found in the low voter turnout during elections, where usually less than half the populace bothers to show up at the polls and fulfill their civic duty. In a similar way, home schooling is showing a booming increase. Although there are a number of factors that enter into that phenomenon, one issue is the desire of some families to want to dissociate themselves from the surrounding culture, which they often view as being detrimental to their children's well-being.
Togetherness is usually a good thing. A new TV show in England, however, calls that assumption into question. Sick Day premiered on British television last year. The basic premise is that five people were brought together to live in one house. The winner of the reality show was the one who was able to contract the greatest number of diseases within two months. All sicknesses counted: flu, venereal diseases, warts, etc. A doctor was stationed nearby so that no one got so sick that they died. Media experts anticipate that a similar program will eventually air in the United States.
Rather than merely focusing on doing what we think is best for ourselves, Jesus commands us to focus on what is best for the entire community of faith. Most denominations and local congregations tend to make decisions by popular vote—the majority rules. The result of such democracy, however, is that there is often a lack of love directed toward those who vote in the opposite way. The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches is attempting to change that. Instead of reaching difficult decisions that leave some on the winning side and others on the losing side, the body has decided to partially abandon Robert's Rules of Order in favor of governing themselves by the principle of consensus. A consensus is deemed to be reached by the Council when one of these five criteria is met: 1) All are in agreement; 2) Most are in agreement and those who disagree are content that the discussion has been full and fair, thereby they willingly offer their consent to the decision; 3) The body agrees that there are a variety of opinions on the matter, and all these are included in the body of the report; 4) The body agrees to postpone the matter; and 5) The body agrees that no decision is able to be reached. The Central Committee, though, will continue to use regular voting for such matters as the election of staff and key budget decisions. The shift to the consensus model of decision-making came primarily at the request of various Orthodox church bodies.
Is there some way we could hasten our knowledge of God? In The Universe in a Nutshell, physicist Stephen Hawking predicts that in the not-so-distant future neural implants will make it possible to absorb vast amounts of knowledge within an extremely short span of time. He believes that such implants will enable humans to achieve an intimate knowledge of books, and even foreign languages, in a mere matter of minutes. Those enhanced human beings, he says, will have little in common with humanity as we know it today.
Think of the great friendships that we all know of: Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy; Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Hawkeye Pierce and B. J. Hunnicut on M*A*S*H; Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes, George Costanza, and Kosmo Kramer on Seinfeld; Richie Cunningham and Arthur Fonzerelli on Happy Days; and Laverne DiFazio and Shirley Feeney on Laverne and Shirley.
International Friendship Day occurs on the first Sunday of August each year. In a way, every Sunday is an opportunity for us to celebrate our friendship with Jesus.
Things often do not become real to us until we are able to assign a name to them. A Tiger comic strip featured Tiger reading to his friend from a book, "It says here that oxygen was discovered in the 1700s." His pal responds, "Gee, I wonder what people breathed before that?" Oxygen, of course, existed and gave life to people even before people were able to name what it was. In like manner, Jesus' love exists and gives life to us even before we're able to identify it with a name. But Jesus came to offer us the opportunity to be his friends, so that we might come to recognize and appreciate the love that is all around us.
Albert Einstein once remarked, "The only thing incomprehensible thing about the universe is that is it comprehensible." In other words, Einstein marveled at the way that it is possible for us to enter into an intimate knowledge of the surrounding cosmos. Similarly, Jesus offers us the means for intimate knowledge of God.
When it comes to love, Christians often fail to see how that aspect of their faith should play a role in their daily occupations. Dorothy Sayers commented, "In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments."
Jonathan Swift commented that we have "just enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love one another."
"If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God" (Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary).
"Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family—but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything" (Willa Cather).
"It is not so much our friends' help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us" (Epicurus).
"Tell me what company thou keepest, and I'll tell thee what thou art" (Miguel de Cervantes).
""Friendship "constellates"…one's universe of meaning and value. One shares with a friend a unique way of looking at life and experiencing it, and so our friendships perform a kind of astrology of the soul, opening planetary worlds for us, to give our lives culture and articulation."" (Thomas Moore, Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship [New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1994], p.93.
A friendship doesn't require compatibility. The soul can reach out and make its connections through and in spite of differences….Friendship is the container of soul, not the process of weaving compatible companionships. (Thomas Moore, Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship [New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1994], p. 95.
In a small town of rural Colorado, a man and a woman had been married 68 years. The years had taken their toll. She could no longer hear well. He was her ears and reported all conversations in a voice that she could hear. His memory was failing. She reminded him of the past and the things that he had forgotten and kept him up to date regarding recent happenings.
One day, she was taken to the hospital with a burst aneurysm. It was leaking slowly, but she was in great pain. It was clear that she was dying. The family was gathered around. Her husband sat at her bedside. The pastor, who was called to be with the family as the deathbed, asked the husband if he had any final words to say to his wife of so many years.
The man's response: "We don't need to say any words. We are communicating as I sit here and hold her hand."
"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born." (Anais Nin, The Friendship Page, www.friendship.com.au/quotes/quofri.html), p.1.
"A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words." (Donna Roberts, The Friendship Page, www.friendship.com.au/quotes/quofri.html), p.1.
"What is a friend? A single soul in two bodies." (Aristotle, The Friendship Page, www.friendship.com.au/quotes/quofri.html), p .5.
We are not simple creatures. Each one of us have inner conflicts, personality traits and experiences which sometimes keep us from declaring ourselves on one side or another of an issue or decision. In the novel, Unless, heroine Reta Winters discovers an invitation to a baby shower addressed to "Mrs. McGinn", the former owner of Reta's home. As she goes about her chores, Reta daydreams; trying to imagine what Mrs. McGinn was like. Reta concludes that Mrs. McGinn was a woman "adrift between generations “_a woman caught between Betty Crocker and the women's movement of the sixties. (Carol Shields, Unless, [London and New York: Fourth Estate, 2002], p. 39).
"…too often people ignore a hand outstretched in friendship; they're not courageous enough to take that hand. They ignore love when it is offered, because they are not courageous enough to accept love or at least examine the love that is being offered." (Maya Angelou, quoted in Maya Angelou's holiday spirit: The beloved poet on hope, courage, and Christmas [Good Housekeeping, December 2002], p. 283).
Annie Dilliard writes about a childhood Christmas when Santa Claus, played by a neighbor, Miss White, came to stand in the doorway, looking for her. Annie's response was fear, because she thought Santa Claus was God. She ran upstairs to hide.
Reflecting upon that memory, Annie says, "Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running…from…that love from which there is no refuge…. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid." (Annie Dillard, "God in the Doorway", Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions And Encounters [Harper & Row, Publishers: New York, 1982], pp.139-141).
A PBS documentary on the life of Thomas Jefferson pointed out the inconsistencies in his character. Though he wrote in the declaration of independence that all people are created equal, he was the largest slaveholder in the country, and never freed his slaves. Jefferson was defined as "the conceiving spirit of our country", and "still the essence of who we are". On the other hand, Jefferson disliked John Adams to the point he called Adams "a shadow man". Jefferson was considered "a puzzle to those who knew him best." (Ken Burns, Thomas Jefferson, 1997. Ossie Davis, Narrator, and Sam Waterston, voice. KPBS, San Diego, October 27, 2002).
The wine of spiritual presence is poured into the chipped glass of everyday life. (Donna Sinclair, A Woman's Book of Days [Northstone, 1997], quoted in Aha!, May 28, 2000), p.44).
Over dinner, the discussion moved to mutual friends who could not come, a couple that were rather difficult people. She didn't like the soft chairs when she came to visit. He was grumpy and negative, all the time. On a previous occasion, when dinner was about to be served on the patio picnic table, she ignored the work the hostess had done to set things up, and said, "Why don't we just eat right here where we are?" When the group attended the fair, he got angry and stomped off to go to another exhibit. People were asking why they put up with such offensive behavior. Maybe this couple should no longer be invited to group affairs.
One man's response moved the conversation in another direction: "These are our friends. They may be weird and complain all the time, but they are our friends. We need to include them. That's just the way it is."
"…there is only one measure of one's place in the faith community to love as Jesus has loved….Were the church to shape itself [accordingly], it would be a community in which decisions…would be made in the light of the radical egalitarian love of the vine image." (Leander E. Keck, Ed., The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume IX, Luke, John [Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1995], p.760.
"The Law of Love then is not a law commanding that we wallow in sentimental consolation or in condescending official benevolence. It is a command to commit ourselves to the use of this deep power that is in us…even in situations where the power does not go into action instinctively." (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander [New York, et al: Doubleday, First Image Edition, 1968] p.122).
In response to the scandal that has arisen in the Catholic Church over the sexual misconduct of priests, and ensuing cover-up, a group of former "couch potato" Catholics began to meet at St. John the Evangelist in Wellesley, Massachusetts. They call themselves Voice of the Faithful or VOTF (pronounced "votive"). The group has quickly grown through the Internet to include groups around the country. VOTF's motto is "Keep the Faith, Change the Church." As the group grows, VOTF leaders "follow the path of uncertainty" rather than go back to the old ways of the church. There are heated discussions among themselves, and the victims of abuse often challenge their purpose and their motives. One survivor asks, "Whose needs are being served?"
Mary Scanlon Calcaterra, a trustee of VOTF, replied: "We are a ground swell of people who are bleeding for you. I can't stand it that you are in pain…. But we're a young organization. We're figuring this out as we go along." (Judith Gaines, Divine or Devil? Yankee Magazine, December 2002), pp.57-62.
Quoting George MacLeod's statement, "We are to become to others what Christ has been to us", Michael Jinkins says, "Now, what Christ has been toward me has been one who surprises me. One who is so incredibly self-emptying as to disarm me. And I think that one of the problems for us as Christians is we would rather hold to faith in Christ than follow Christ and be like Christ." (An interview with Michael Jinkins, Toleration as a Starting Point, Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary, Fall, 2002, p. 15.)
Artist John August Swanson's work entitled Celebration depicts a community dance. The dancers clad in vibrant colors of red, orange, yellow, purple, magenta and teal, dance on bare feet on tiles painted of equally dazzling hues. Each dancer carries a lit candle, so the faces and robes of all are illuminated. In the background, one can see people coming from far off to join the dance. Dancers move from the circle to open the doors, and to welcome those arriving, and our imagination moves us to see the circle of dancers enlarging, including all who come. (John August Swanson, Celebration, a serigraph, 1997).
A large and prosperous New England church learned the centrality of community to its life and mission when one of the poorer families in the church had a year when everything that could go wrong for them did go wrong. The father of the family discovered he would need an organ transplant to stay alive. The small business owned by the mother and her mother burned to the ground. They had an automobile accident, and one of their cars was totaled. A child was discovered to have learning disabilities. A pet died. The family began to feel, as they put it, like they were cursed, and they came to the pastor asking what could be done to lift this feeling. The pastor invited several members of the church to come together one Sunday afternoon to bless the home of this family and the family itself, to offer intercessions in each room for those who dwelt there. As the afternoon progressed, prayers were said and candles were lit, and the community held hands with the family and walked with them in love. Not all of the family's troubles disappeared in an instant, but the community created that day gave them such strength that they had a whole new attitude with which to face their problems—and a new set of people to use as resources to get the help they needed.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!
People: It was by the power of the Lord's hand that Jesus arose fromthe grave!
Leader: God's right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
People: Through God's love for the world Christ has triumphed over sin and death!
Leader: The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
People: O death, where is your sting; O grave, where is your victory?
All: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Gracious God, through your Son you call us into a relationship of intimacy, but we often flee from this. We are like the ancestral pair who hid from you in the garden, lest their disobedience of your command be found out. There are things we have thought, said and done, of which we are ashamed that either you, or those close to us in family and church, might discover. Thus, we shut out loved ones as well and build walls around ourselves. Forgive us of all that we have thought or done that is contrary to your will and help us to become more willing to enter into that intimacy described by your Son when he called his disciples "friends" and declared that we are to be as close to him as a branch is to the vine. We ask this in his holy name. Amen.
Christ is the vine; we are the branches, O God. Because we seek to abide in him we bring these gifts, the fruit of our labors and dedicate them to Christ's work of love and reconciliation. Amen.
Gracious and loving God, you are like a vine dresser carefully watching over the vineyard, lovingly nurturing and pruning it that it might bear much fruit. Like branches we return to you on this Lord's day, seeking the source of our faith, hope and love, and even of life itself. We know that we cannot do anything lasting unless it comes from you and your Son and is sustained by your Spirit. As we have heard your word again, so may we go forth from here to live and share it. We thank you for the presence of fellow branches of the vine, which you have called us to serve, not in isolation, but as members of a loving fellowship. We are grateful for sisters and brothers in Christ, for the talents which they bring, and the energy and imagination that they add to our Easter fellowship. We pray for this congregation, and for all churches that seek to embody the teachings of Christ. May we welcome all who come to us, and may we continue to work and worship together across all lines that others will see the unity to which you call the whole world. Grant peace and justice to our shores and to the whole world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Friend and still our Lord. Amen. (EM)