Friendship: The Ministry of Being With

John 15
May 6 2018
Candidating sermon for Glennon Heights

You’re showing a child, a relative, perhaps even a colleague how to perform a straightforward yet delicate task – threading a needle, untying a knot, even sifting flour. And time after time they make all kinds of daft but exasperating mistakes – the needle ends up on the floor, the knot is somehow tighter than before, the flour’s all over the kitchen counter. You grit your teeth, shake your head and think “Why do I bother? I might as well do it myself!”

I wonder why Jesus bothered. I wonder why Jesus called twelve disciples? Why didn’t he do it all himself. Most of the time the disciples seem to be more trouble than they’re worth. If the whole point of Jesus coming was to get killed and then rise again, he certainly didn’t need the disciples for that. It’s a revealing question. Why did Jesus bother with disciples at all?

At the last supper, in John’s version, Jesus sits his disciples down and says, here’s what it’s all about. I’m only going to say it once. We call these words the Farewell Discourse. They go on for five chapters and fall into seven parts. The central part, part four, is the passage Dawn read today. And here Jesus answers that question – why does he bother with the disciples?

At this most poignant moment, just hours before his gruesome death, Jesus says something rather remarkable, something which shows us the heart of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells his disciples: “You are not my staff, you’re not my servants, you’re not my slaves – you’re my friends.” Here at the center of his farewell discourse, Jesus tells us how he wants us to relate to him from now on. We are not to try to buy his affection or assuage our guilt by acts of service that seek some reward. We are to do what he does, be where he is, and see the way he sees, because we’re his friends. Why does Jesus bother with the disciples? Because Jesus understands that friendship is the greatest aim of human life. It’s what we were created for. And it’s how we experience the joy that God longs for us: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

In our passage, Jesus teaches four things that matter about friendship. Jesus starts with the most important – friendship abides. Three times in today’s gospel, Jesus uses the word “abide.” And in the previous passage, Jesus states its significance even clearer by stating: “Abide in me, as I also abide in you.”

When you think about what distinguishes your closest friends from your other companions, it’s not the time you spend nor the fun you have when you’re together. It’s knowing that when you need them, they will be there, with you, no matter what. I think of my good friend Shawn, whom I rarely get to spend time with these days. But I know, that when I need Shawn most, that he’s always going to pick up the phone or even be on the next plane out, no questions asked. Shawn’s never going to run, never going to turn his back when life does its worst. True friendship is about learning how to abide with someone; it’s about noninvasively journeying into the depths of another’s soul to continuously uncover the quirkiness, diversity, and uniqueness that makes them, them. The gospels often seem like one adventure after another, but if you distribute those adventures over a three year period, Jesus and the disciples spent a lot of time, most of the time, not doing a whole lot. Just abiding. Eating and being, dreaming and sharing life together.

It’s best to think of the next three dimensions of friendship as qualities of good abiding. The second thing Jesus shares is that friendship is about trust. Jesus uses the word “command” or “commandment” five times in today’s passage: “You are my friends if you do what I command.” What Jesus is not saying is that his friends will blindly follow his instructions. The point is that only when people keep the rules they set for themselves can trust truly emerge. And without trust, you haven’t got much hope for friendship. Friendship and trust are what the Law is about from the very beginning. In Exodus chapter 33, when God and Moses are hammering out the commandments on Mt. Sinai, we read: “the Lord [spoke] to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” The Law was created to help Israel discover what it means to be friends with God and friends with one another. To call someone a friend is to say that you expect them to abide within certain parameters beyond what you might expect of a stranger.

If you have ever heard the words, “I thought you were my friend,” then you know how important mutual rules and expectations are for maintaining friendship, even if the rules haven’t been precisely articulated. Similarly, when a married couple divorces and says: “we’ve managed to remain friends,” they are saying that despite their differences, they still have a level of respect for each other. There is still a code of understanding which they can rely upon and take for granted. They can still abide with one another because they still trust each other.

The next thing Jesus teaches is that friendship is about intimacy. Jesus says: “I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what the master is doing. Today I’ve called you friends, because I’ve made known to you everything that I’ve heard from my Father.” Jesus has been around the disciples a long time, he trusts them; and so it’s time to let them in on the whole secret. These are special moments in friendship, when someone bears their soul and unearths what has long been hidden: “I just wanted to tell you that I had a child before I married Bill.” “I guess you should know that my father spent a long time in prison.” Friendship is about knowledge, about sharing the unknown and the fragile and together reaching towards the true and the hopeful. That’s number three: friendship is intimate.

Then the big one. Jesus saves the most difficult for last by teaching that friendship is about sacrifice. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is precisely what Jesus is about to do – even though he’s about to die for friends who don’t really understand why.

Let’s think for a moment about friendship as sacrifice. It’s sacrifice, right, that forms our deepest friendships? Your closest friend is the one who canceled their date in order to rush over with ice cream after a particularly bad day. Or the one who took responsibility for something you did because they knew that they’d get in less trouble. Or the friend who called in sick, so that they’d be with you, holding your hand, both before and after surgery.

What Jesus shares during his farewell discourse is that his death is his ultimate act of friendship. For it shows us the lengths to which God will go to be with us. Friendship is all about sacrifice.

What Jesus shares on this night of his betrayal is the primary reason why he has come. It’s not to die, it’s not to provide us with salvation. Jesus comes to epitomize friendship. To show us that his only motive is to make us, and all creation, his friends forever. Through Jesus, God comes to share Godself – the God who exists forever only in friendship. Is this not what the Trinity teaches us – that friendship is the essence of God? That God is a never-ending relationship, one built around abiding, trust, intimacy, and sacrifice. The reason Jesus comes is the same reason that Jesus calls the disciples – to show us that friendship is the aim of human life. It’s how we participate in paradise, the triune life of God, here and now. And it’s how we experience the joy for which we were created.

This is why I’m convinced that the church’s primary task, really its only task, is to help one another become better friends, friends with God, friends with each other, and friends with the world. This is a heavy task. Sometimes I wish Jesus had called us servants, because service is so much safer than friendship. To serve someone means you don’t have to be their friend. You don’t have to abide, you don’t have to trust, you don’t have to be intimate, you don’t have to sacrifice – you can just do your piece and walk away unscathed. But Jesus calls us to be friends because friendship is the very life of God. And that means participating in relationships which are likely to go on for a long time. Reciprocal relationships with rules that are mutually agreed upon. Intimate relationships where we open ourselves up to be changed or even hurt. And relationships where we aren’t afraid to abandon ourselves, to give ourselves completely over to love.

Now I thought it’d be helpful to take a moment explaining how this understanding of friendship as the core of the church affects my vision of ministry. I think it’s only fair for y’all to hear what you’re getting into if you call me as your next pastor. The way I see it, there are four different models of engagement which the church continually reenacts. I don’t want to spend much time on the first two because these are the established models which govern contemporary society. Unfortunately, they also sum up the spirit of modern Christianity. These two ways of relating are what we might call “being for” and “working for.”

Working for means using one’s resources and skills to address another’s problems on their behalf. Being for is orientating one’s life towards the well-being of others, without making any direct contact with the others. So much can be said about both these way of relating. But the problem with both centers around the short word for. We cook for, we buy presents for, we give charity for. All these gestures are generous, and kind, and in some cases sacrificial and noble. But somehow for gestures never go to the heart of the problem. And that’s because for gestures allow you to maintain the position of power. They perpetuate relationships of inequality. And instead of nurturing relationships of mutuality and trust, for gestures allow one to abide at a distance. You can do “for” without a conversation, without a real relationship, without a genuine shaping of your life to accommodate and incorporate the other. In other words, both “being for” and “working for” prefer the much safer path of service over friendship.

The last thing anyone needs is white male pastors who speak, act, or work for someone else. We’ve eaten enough of the rotten fruit produced from the trees of being and working for. And most importantly, these settle for something far less than the model of friendship which Jesus embodied.

This brings us to our third model – “working with.” As Mennonites, we are well acquainted with “working with.” It’s one of the things which drew me to the Mennonite church. This belief that we are all priests. That God has blessed us all with gifts which we need to use together if we want to be God’s faithful body. Many of the educators and organizations which shape my imagination minister out of this space of working with – Industrial Areas Foundation, Paolo Freire, Yunus’ Grameen Bank. They have shown me how working with can inspire agency, can create unity, while also ushering in societal transformation. I’m committed to a ministry that gathers and empowers all stakeholders, one that inspires an agency that is only possible when a multitude of diverse voices work together. Because there can be no real transformation without agency.

But while I greatly enjoy working with, working with is not the core of the church nor my ministry. Because working with doesn’t prioritize friendship, even though diverse friendships often are formed in the process of working with. No, working with prioritizes results. It tends to see everything within the trajectory of problem and solution; for this reason it presupposes a world of violence where we are caught up in a never-ending contest of defeating and overcoming.

This brings us to our final model: the one which vivifies the heart of God – being with. Being with isn’t so interested in solving problems. Instead, it’s much more interested in enjoying people for their own sake. It’s about delighting in and celebrating the uniqueness of others. Being with is staying still, listening, being silent, not having the answers, sharing the struggle, praying together, singing songs and hymns, taking time over meals, and recalling stories.

Being with, that’s the heart of the church and the heart of how I understand ministry. I’m committed to embodying a presence of friendship that says, in word and in gesture, in kindness and in humor, in patience and in faithfulness: “I’m here because I want to learn from you. I’m here because I want to share with you.” I’m not constantly going to direct the conversation to the places where we disagree, but neither am I going to change the subject when such topics naturally arise. I’m going to wonder about your life, your dreams, longings, and disappointments. I’m going to look fearlessly at your tender memories and your unresolved anxieties and I’m going to be prepared to disclose mine to you in return. I don’t have the answer to every question you might have; my faith gives me no superiority over you, no reason to judge you, no right to patronize you. I’m fascinated to know what
you think when you gaze into the blue sky yonder, the wide sea afar, the depths of your own soul and mine. I’m interested in knowing how you want people to remember you, what injustices keep you up at night and where it is that you find peace.

Being with, with each other, with God, and with our neighbors and our city – that must be the essence of all that the church does. And that’s because being with is the heart of God. The reason I’m committed to peacemaking, nonviolence, reconciliation, and forgiveness, is because they are all necessary if we are committed to the ministry of being with. And this is always why I believe that all the work the church does together must spring forth from our living into God’s essence which is being with. It comes from the conversations in people’s homes, from the sharing of our dreams and desires, from listening to and learning from our neighbors. And most importantly, the goal of working with should always be to empower us to be better friends with each other and the world.

And that’s because being with is paradise. Friendship is how we experience eternal life, here and now. What Jesus showed us is that God’s life is shaped never to be, except to be with us. Christmas embodies that. The cross proves it.

This morning, Jesus proclaims the same words which he shared with his disciples just hours before his death: “Today, I call you friends.” In all that we do, may we seek to imitate and emulate the life of God that is friendship. And as we delight in one another, as we abide intimately, honestly, and sacrificially, let us know that this is how we encounter the kingdom of God.

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