When I say to you, “What do you love?”—what comes to mind?
Maybe you see the faces of your children or grandchildren. Possibly even great-grandchildren. You might be thinking about your spouse…Maybe you are remembering a favorite scripture…You are possibly picturing a place that you love to travel. Maybe you see the town you grew up in….On this mother’s day, maybe we are thinking of our mothers, our children. Those women in our lives who have been like mothers to us.
And perhaps you also love some things that aren’t quite so admirable…maybe you LOVE chocolate pie or peach cobbler. Perhaps you love The Atlanta Braves, specifically, you LOVE Chipper Jones.
I love my family, the book of Isaiah, …I don’t have children, but I do love my miniature poodle, Charlie. I love my iphone (sometimes I worry that I make an idol out of it) and Jane Austen novels.
Lots of various things, places, people, and food come to mind when we think of the word “love”. We describe everything from our closest relationships to our favorite movies with the word “love”. You probably don’t love peach cobbler as much as you love your grandchild (at least I hope not…), but we use the same word. We say it so much that it loses its meaning. It’s easy to forget just how precious, and challenging, love should be.
Of course, love is the theme of our message this morning from John. We’re still in the season of Easter, and journeying with Jesus as he makes resurrection appearances to his disciples. He wants to be sure that before he leaves them, they truly know and receive the Gospel. The Gospel of love: 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 love is far greater than the love for fresh peaches….this love is the kind that comes from God. The very same way God loved Jesus, Jesus loves us. With unconditional love, merciful forgiveness, abundant grace. Love that gives the gift of eternal life! We are to abide…to live and move and have our being…in this love. This love is not to be taken lightly….but just as it’s serious, it brings us great joy. When the joy of Jesus is within us, our joy is complete.
What good news! There’s no greater gift Jesus could leave his disciples, leave us, than this love….But it gets even better…He continues:
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. Jesus is no longer our teacher, our master, our rabbi….Jesus is our friend. This is a radical, powerful statement. For being a servant of Jesus meant that he had the power, the control, the inside knowledge….being his friend means the relationship is now mutual. He has kept nothing from us. The truth of revelation is ours….the love is reciprocal. Being friends with Jesus means that we are on the receiving end of abundant grace and joy. It also means that we are called to share it with him and share it with others. Love one another as he, our friend, has loved us. Just as we are friends with Jesus, we are to be friends with the world.
When I think about friendship, especially in the context of Christian love, I am grateful for my close group of friends from seminary. We’re seven women, who met seven years ago while studying at Candler School of Theology. All of us now work in United Methodist churches in various capacities and ministries; we’re spread out, living in 5 states. Despite the distance, we are intentional to take time out each year for a Sabbath vacation with one another, where we check-in and catch-up on one another’s lives, rest, reflect, eat, laugh, cook, and eat some more. In between we stay connected through phone calls, e-mails, in person visits. We’ve become a kind of Christian community for one another; our own little church—complete with rituals to mark our lives together. As young women in ministry, we’re able to support each other and understand each other in ways that not many other people can (stats??). We’ve guided one another through first-funerals, relationships between associate and senior ministers, the ordination process. Our connection has been a lifeline in a profession that can often be isolating.
We also are there for each other as a sympathetic sounding board for the inappropriate or surprising or funny situations that come from being a young woman in ministry. To a person, we have received comments from church members criticizing the color of our toe nail polish. When a church member yelled at my friend for wearing pants instead of a skirt on a Sunday morning, telling her God was disappointed in her, she could call us and vent. Another friend had a church member put an “anonymous” postcard for a plastic surgeon in her church mailbox.
We’ve been through much together….engagements, marriages, heartbreaks. A call from a friend that her adoption was falling through and she wasn’t going to take the baby home from the hospital that she had named, had a nursery and home for; to rejoicing with the same friend upon the birth of her baby boy. Supporting a friend through the suicide of a family member when she was expected to plan the service and deliver the eulogy. The wedding I went to a few weekends ago was for one of those friends…describe stole….We’re not perfect by any means, and we have our disagreements and misunderstandings, times when we need to forgive one another. But it is a community of mutual love and care that I can’t imagine my life without. On this day when we celebrate women, particularly grateful for these women in my life. When I hear Jesus talk about friendship, I think of these women.
Jesus continues to be radical about friendship in this passage….For if he has taught us everything revealed to him by the Father and so is now our friend, we are now friends with God. What does it mean to be friends with God? To know what God reveals to us through Jesus Christ, to be so gifted with abundant love that we are filled to the brim with the divine. And the best news is we don’t have to do anything to make this happen…indeed, God has already chosen us as God’s beloved, as God’s friends in the world….we are simply called to receive this love and know that we are chosen. For Jesus concludes this passage by saying:
16You 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.17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. Of course, with this knowledge comes great responsibility. Because we are chosen, we must go forth and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Loving one another is about making tangible God’s love in the world. Realizing the truth that we are filled up with divine love and helping others do the same. For Christian friendship is about mutual love and care. But it’s also about sharing the fruits of the Spirit with one another and the world. They are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. And when we dare to love as Jesus loves, as God loves, as the Spirit empowers us to do, friendship becomes radical and risky. But ultimately rewarding. For No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Talk about love.
Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero knows this truth. He lived and ministered in El Salvador for nearly 40 years. As a young boy he was healed of a life-threatening illness and decided to devote his life to God.
Many priests, especially those committed to liberation theology and care of the poor, were upset by his appointment as Archbishop in February of 1977—in his career, Romero had not shown a particular passion for liberation.
But something changed in March when one of his good friends and a fellow priest was killed by the government. Killed for his commitment to the poor. Romero knew that his faith was calling him to extend Christian love to others. To be a Christian friend to those in his country. His friend’s death led Romero to take up the cause of liberation—he spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. The significance of the government, of the nation-state, was taking on a kind of religious meaning for some in his country. People were worshipping the state and its power instead of God. He knew that the order of the government was not the order of God and he so he lived his life devoted to God’s way, God’s love, being God’s friend.
As the government was oppressing the poor, Romero moved the masses he held, which were mostly for poor workers, outside into the streets. He publicly gave thanks to God in the center of the city, undercutting the government. The state was trying to give religious meaning to its power and oppression, but Romero, by worshipping God publicly, showed the world real religious meaning. He was unashamed to give thanks to God and a public witness that the poor and the religious wouldn’t disappear. That God was to be praised, not the oppressive government. That he was in solidarity, in radical friendship, with all people, especially the oppressed.
For his work on behalf of justice and love he was recognized internationally as he spoke out against the corrupt government in El Salvador. On March 23, 1980, he gave a sermon calling on Salvadorian soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order of love. To listen to God’s voice instead of the voice of the government. Called on Christian soldiers to stop carrying out the government’s oppression and violation of human rights. The next day he was celebrating Mass, presiding over the communion table. He was in the middle of the Eucharistic liturgy—and as he raised the chalice up to God, he was shot. Killed by a death squad whose job it was to orchestrate politically motivated assassinations. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Despite his untimely and tragic death, Romero’s faith in God, his love for everybody, his willingness to live in radical friendship, is a testament to Jesus’ power. His statue resides on the wall of 20th century martyrs at Westminster Abbey, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonheoffer. He knew what it meant to be friends with God, by being a radical, loving, friend to his neighbors, in solidarity with their plight.
What does this mean for us? We’re not all called to live lives like Archbishop Romero….but we are all called, indeed chosen, as God’s friends. And by doing so to be the best friends we can to our neighbors….The Gospel of John is actually written three decades after Jesus’ death….the community in this context is trying to figure out how to live as the body of Christ. What does it mean to be brothers and sisters, neighbors, indeed, friends as the church? In the midst of disagreements and debates, varying passions, different political and theological and ideological frameworks? What does it mean to love somebody when we don’t like them very much?
Jesus’ word for the Christian community is that we are to remember that we are chosen by God and to see this chosenness in others. To love others as he has loved us. By bearing the fruits of the Spirit. It’s a good word for us, as a church community, who live with one another in Christian community, through good times and bad, hard and easy, disagreements and unity. No matter, we are to love one another and keep God’s love at the center. When we do this, our joy will be complete.
For Jesus’ love is about the willingness to die, to lay down one’s life. But it is also about the great power of resurrection that always follows death….Christian friendship, Christian love, that reflects the new life we have in God. It doesn’t mean that as the body of Christ we will always agree, or should keep silent about our differences. It means that we are to love through them and keep love at the center. So that we are open and willing to bear the fruits that the Spirit is already producing in us:
Love, joy, the peace of Christ that passes all understanding, kindness in our conversation, generosity in our listening, faithfulness in our relationships, gentleness in our speech, and self-control in our community. Knowing and believing that ultimately God is in control. And God is love. Abundant new life will spring forth when we live in community with love. New life, resurrection that is beyond our wildest imaginings.
My prayer is that all of us will know this great truth that God chooses us as friends, for reciprocal love. That God’s gift of love for Jesus Christ is ours: grace, mercy, forgiveness, eternal life. May we embrace this love as ours and share it widely with others, sharing Christian friendship with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.