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Friends and Lovers (May 6, 2018)

I have a friend who has a friend … Tim is a Lutheran pastor who freely admits that he is a liturgical, theological and musical snob. His favourite rant was about the hymn, “In the Garden.” He hated it; it is a mawkish and sentimental little ditty. He really didn’t like it.

One night, Tim was called to the hospital. An elderly parishioner was in his last hours of life. The family surrounded the bed, said the final prayers commending him to the care of God. Tim says that the dear old salt–of–the–earth farmer looked up, smiled and said, “I love every one of you. I’m ready to go. And I love Pastor Tim too and I love his voice and I know he’s going to sing ‘In the Garden’ for you at my funeral.” At that very moment, he died.

Tim says, “This is how you know God has a sense of humour.” He continues, “Last words are sacred, holy ground. I was trumped by love and the power of last words.”

We’ve been reading some of Jesus’ last words in the gospel of John over the last few weeks. It begins just after Jesus and the disciples finish the last supper. Jesus grabs a towel, acts like a slave and washes his disciples’ feet. He gives them a new commandment—“Love one another. Just as I loved you, so you must love one another.”

This is the heart of Jesus’ last words: love one another. If we accept the notion that last words are important, then here is the heart of the gospel for John: love one another. This is the key to abundant life—love one another. “If you love me,” says Jesus, “show it by doing what I’ve told you. This is how you abide in me. Love me by loving each other.”

Last week, Jesus used the image of vine and branches to describe our relationship. We receive abundant life by remaining deeply connected to Jesus. We discover what it means to be truly alive as we abide in Jesus.

And when we are truly alive, we become a fruitful people. And the fruit which God desires above all else is this:

  • make yourselves so much at home in the love of God that it spills over into loving one another
  • love each other, love all creatures, love this whole creation—that is God’s heartfelt desire for us and for this world.

And when we do that, when we bear that kind of fruit, Jesus says something that takes my breath away—when you love each other that fully, then you will no longer be my servants. You will be my friends.

Imagine that.

Friends of God.

Being friends these days is not such a big deal. We friend each other on facebook without a second thought. People talk about their acquaintances as if they were friends.

But in the ancient world, friendship was a much bigger deal. Friendship implied the deepest kind of intimacy and trust. Friends open their hearts to each other. Friends speak face to face, and keep no secrets from each other.

You are my friends. I want a deep and intimate relationship with you. I want to know your heart, and I want you to know my heart. I want to be with you, spend time with you, talk deeply with you. I want to be open with you, and you with me.

This is how deeply God loves us. Don’t just show up once a week. Walk with me day by day, minute by minute. Love me as I love you.

That’s why we’re here. We experience God’s love … don’t we? We know deep in our souls that God chooses us … don’t we? We long to respond to God’s love in the way we live … don’t we?

God chooses us. God’s love lifts us. God’s love gives us hope. In the midst of the pain of this life, God’s love holds us so we can see a farther horizon of joy and grace.

That doesn’t mean that life will always be easy. It won’t. As St Teresa of Avila once prayed, “Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

On the day before his marriage, Joseph Scriven’s fiancée died in a tragic drowning accident. Heartbroken, he sailed from Ireland to start a new life in Canada. There, he fell in love again. But once again, his fiancée Eliza fell ill and died before the marriage. Around the same time, Joseph received word that his mother was ill. He could not go to be with her, so he wrote her a letter of comfort and enclosed a poem. Years later, the poem was discovered and set to music—“What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Faith doesn’t take the pain of life away. It helps us persevere through it. Faith simply says that we don’t walk alone. Faith tells us that our life has value and purpose, that God walks with us, that the love of God surrounds us. Life, in all its abundance, comes to us as sheer gift and grace. We are loved, deeply and passionately loved—you, me, all people, all creatures, all creation.

And that love of God for us in turn inspires our own love for others. As God befriends us, so we befriend others. As God loves us, so we love others.

It strikes me that we need love so desperately these days. In the words of the old song, “What the World Needs Now … is Love”. We all need to be loved. We need to feel love. We need to express love. I believe that is at the heart of what it means to be human. And I believe also that’s why God made us, why God chooses us, why God longs to be in relationship with us. I believe this is why Jesus commands us to love.

Bishop Jim Cruickshank used to say, “There is nothing you can do which will make me love you any more. There is nothing you can do which will make me love you any less.”

When we live in love, then we live without any conditions. There are no tests. No achievements. No competition. No judgment. No self–improvement projects.

That’s the nature of God’s love for us.

That’s the way Jesus calls us to live.

The really hard line in this reading is when Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus invites us to a life lived for others. Sometimes it may cost us our life. Normally, however, we don’t pay with our lives. We show our love for others by giving time … or money … or energy … or compassion.

Let me suggest this as a way of understanding Jesus’ words: “There is no greater unconditional love than when someone gets their own needs and their own ego out of the way for another person.”

No greater love than to get out of the way in the service of another.

As we live in love, we transform the world. As we live in love, we change our church and our culture. We gather here week by week as a community of God’s people. We are not all the same. We all do things differently. But we are God’s people together. We are a community bound together in our baptism, and bound together as we gather for eucharist.

In love, we gather around this altar where all our distinctions are washed away. In love, we gather around this altar to be renewed in God’s love together. In love we are renewed so that we continue our worship in the world as we reach out in love to our neighbours all around us.

When we understand that, then we also see that Christian faith calls us to be real. Church is not meant to be fake. Life’s too short for fake.

Being friends of Jesus in this way is about as real as it gets. Being loved this deeply by God is about as real as it gets. Learning to love others in this way is about as real as it gets.

Psalm 98 urges us to sing to God, who is doing a new ting. This is it. God makes us friends … and lovers. Love levels the playing field. We are servants no longer; now we are friends of God. And because we are friends of God, we are also friends to one another. We are joined together in community, in that kind of deep fellowship which seeks the good of the other.

That’s the life of the gospel. It’s the life to which we are called. This is abundant life, a life of joy, compassion, grace and love.

Friends of God, and lovers of one another.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

May 6, 2018 (6th Sunday of Easter)

John 15: 9–17

1 John 5: 1–6

Acts 10: 44–48