“I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I
have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. “
– John 15:15
My Dear Friends in Christ,
“Jesus is our friend” is not some sappy kindergarten notion but a realistic view of what God wants and a comprehensible way to understand and achieve it. We know what it means to be and to have a true friend. Even in the abstract we know that friendship is comfort, support, guidance, joy, excitement, challenge. Friendship is built up in time spent with the other and all of the hallmarks and requirements of any earthly friendship offer us insights into what God wants. In our message series, Meeting Jesus, we have been examining the images Jesus uses for Himself to understand better what God wants. And what God wants FOR us is a whole lot more than what God wants FROM us. That’s why it is so important not only that we MEET Jesus but also that we come to KNOW Jesus.
Jesus uses many images for Himself: I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Vine. I call you friends. These are not mere accidents, not throw-away descriptions; they offer us a peek into the mind and the heart of God. God wants us close, not to keep us under the thumb but as a sheep is to a shepherd, as the branch is to the vine, as friends are to one another. These are the ways that Jesus seeks to welcome us (and allow us to welcome Him), to encounter us (and to allow us to encounter Him), to accompany us (and to allow us to accompany Him) and transform us (and allow us to transform others). Each of these images establishes a relationship where God sacrifices on our behalf, to offer us grace. The GOOD shepherd knows his sheep, spends time with them, takes care of them, feeds and waters them and, ultimately, lays down his life for them. The vine offers life to the branch, keeps the branch alive, pours its very essence into the branch. Friends look out for one another, care for one another, have fun together, sacrifice for the other.
Our gospel today is taken from the Last Supper as recorded by John. Jesus knows He doesn’t have much time. In fact, this is His final encounter with the Apostles before His betrayal, torture and murder. He tells them of their new situation, born of His having chosen and loved them. Jesus loves without limit, laying down his life for them despite the fact that they are still locked in their ignorance, one of them is a betrayer, and another will deny him. With Jesus, their past and even future failures will not be held against them. Jesus doesn’t condemn them; He loves them.
This is the commandment of Jesus, the way they are to live and love. Jesus’ love establishes a new relationship of the disciples with God. Through no act of the will or physical effort on their part, the disciples have been drawn into a new relationship. They are not slaves, dependent on the whim of a master, but friends, intimate associates of Jesus who loves them without limit. A slave is valued for utility, what he or she can do. A friend is valued for who he or she is.
Jesus has chosen them out of love, friended them (and not only on Facebook), raised them to the dignity of friends and now commissions them, the Father giving all they need. Jesus concludes with a restatement of the commandment essential for their new status. The quality of their love will mark them out as disciples, indeed as friends of Jesus.
But what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? It sounds more like a slogan for a crusade rather than something that defines my life. I spent some time with our young people recently and they reminded me, with an idealism to be celebrated and appreciated of what it means to be a friend. Throughout my time with young people, whether in confession, in preparation for Confirmation, in counseling or just in listening to them, I think the essence of friendship boils down to three major elements: Vulnerability; Generosity; Joy.
Let’s look briefly at each one and then see what they mean for the friendship Jesus has given us and reminds us today to take up again. Vulnerability: With my friend I can be myself. I don’t have to dress up or dumb my problems down. I don’t have to put on airs nor hide my gifts or talents. I can be who I am, where I am, without mask or fear, without reprisal. I can be awkward, don’t need to pretend I have all the answers. I can lack confidence. I don’t need makeup. And I’m still ok. My friend doesn’t care about any of that. My friend is a comforting place, a safe harbor that I can sail into whenever I need supplies of comfort, consolation, guidance, support. I can be open, honest, comfortable, vulnerable. I even want to be vulnerable with my friend.
Generosity: I like being with my friend, even if we’re just quiet together, shooting hoops, having coffee. I want to give to my friend, share with my friend, spend time with my friend. Without overwhelming me, or pushing me, my friend calls me to be more than I am by myself, and I want to offer the best of myself to my friend, not because I HAVE to but because I WANT to. My friend doesn’t demand anything of me but sure appreciates whatever time I spend, whatever gifts I offer. I like looking out for my friend, helping him, doing for her, I understand that I have a responsibility for my friend. But I’m not a slave with a duty to perform or an obligation, a chore that wears me out. No, I love my friend. When he calls, I go. When she needs me, I’m there. Not because I have to but because I want to, even and especially when it is inconvenient. I love what my friend gives me, and I want to return that, not keeping up a bargain or making a deal, but simply being generous with my friend.
Joy: My friend makes me happy. Whether in small things or in large moment, I can share with my friend and I am not alone. My friend can pull me out of the mire when I get bogged down, whether it’s lifting me out of the weeds or pulling my head out of the clouds, and all with gentleness, and compassion, even when I’m an idiot. It’s not that everything is necessarily easier, but that, together with my friend, I can face it, and not just face it but blow it out of the water. Joy is not just happiness or contentment. Joy is a larger perspective that somehow things will be alright, that someone is on my side looking out for me, that I am not alone. I can be joyful with my friend, even in sorrow, struggle and challenge. My friend increases my joy.
And all this that we know of our earthly friendships, Jesus takes up into our faith: I call you friends.Jesus has been vulnerable, generous and joyful with us. Lavishly so as we hear in our first reading. God promised to take care of the Israelites and God has done that in Jesus Christ. But as Peter and Cornelius and the others find out, it’s a whole lot bigger than that. And in our second reading, John reminds us that Jesus allows us the opportunity to be a friend with Him. Our friendship with Jesus is not essentially any different from our other friendships. I can be myself with Jesus, I can spend time with Him, not just reciting prayers or telling Him what I need but time that allows me to get to know Him and Him to get to know me. I can be who I am with Jesus, on a good hair day and a bad one, when I’m at the top of my game and when I’m not.
Jesus has given me everything that I have and everything I am, all of my talents, gifts, likes, desires. Jesus appreciates what I give in return, not because I have to but because I want to share, not from obligation or duty but from love, to give of myself, to bring my fears, my confusion, as well as my hopes and joys. Jesus wants to know all of it, to be with us in everything. Not a Facebook friend but one actively with us. And Jesus makes my joy complete because I am never alone with Him, I can come back to him.
The love Jesus has for us and the friendship Jesus offers is no less real than what He gave to those first disciples. Jesus gives us a new situation as He did them, based only on the command to love others as He loved us. It’s not because we’re worthy or because we deserve it or even because we might be good at it. It’s because He loved us, because He chose us, because He wants to be my friend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Superheroes lately. I’ve spoken often about these super men and women. These are myths of our day, ordinary men and women, the unprepared, the less than optimal transformed to make use of gifts they already have. Bruce Wayne uses his intelligence and his wealth. Diana Prince has her past and her heritage. The Black Panther has his Vibranium and the desire to use it for the good. Tony Stark has his practical inventiveness, the perseverance to focus on a problem and the wealth to finance it all. More simply, Dr. Bruce Banner has only rage against evil. All that these require is a transformation and these gifts that are hidden or latent or undeveloped come to the fore. For some it is a suit of armor, either literal or figurative. For others, a shedding of meekness and timidity and fear.
But once that transformation occurs, LOOK OUT! It’s no wonder why these myths get reinvented in every age, including our own, because they speak not just of who I am but of who I can be, an unlimited power, a great strength of heart and mind as well as body. Ultimately, they also tell the tale of our gospel. Jesus allows us an even greater transformation than seen in Clark Kent or Diana Prince.
But that transformation doesn’t happen in an instant for us, not in a phone booth (remember those?) not in a bat cave or a penthouse. No. Our transformation comes in our friendship with Jesus Christ, how we meet Him, how we spend time with Him. Time is the only way we can recognize God’s presence and grow a friendship with Jesus. It’s painfully simple but also so painfully difficult and challenging. As with all of our true friendships, there’s no other way to become or to be a friend of Jesus than offering time. To become and to remain a friend of Jesus, we must do the same things we talked about for the last two weeks, the ways we can train our ear to hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, the way we remain connected to the vine.
- Read sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels.
- Become familiar with the rich teachings of the Church, not just a part here or there, looking for that which supports my own agenda, but the whole and rich body of teachings that allow us to meet Jesus.
- Reflect in quiet prayer on what you learn.
4. Celebrate in public worship. Who you meet and what you learn. And lastly…
5. Serve others. Give to others of your time, talent and treasure. See how you can help another meet Christ.
Again, as in the last two weeks, these points bring out a paradox: we can only train our ear for the voice of the Good Shepherd, we can only remain connected to the vine, we can only be a friend to Jesus when we give of ourselves. Only then, that God can call me and I follow; only then that God can bear fruit in and through me, only then that I can be a friend. So simple to understand, yet so difficult to mete out those minutes in the face of routine or, worse yet, problems that arise to interrupt routine.
Jesus has chosen us, because he loves us, each of us, not because we’re perfect, but because He wants me as a friend. He wants to pour out into me His love, not in some namby-pamby, pietistic, theological way but in the day to day, down and gritty of our lives. Jesus sees in me gifts and talents I may not yet know I have. But when vulnerable, Jesus can help us to unpack them. These are not the gifts of vast wealth, or the ability to fly or build bat computers or become stronger than a locomotive. No, ours are perhaps more simple, even mundane: Using the talents and gifts we already have, that Jesus has already given us, through His love, by His choice, he transforms us not into Superheroes but into friends, friends of Jesus Christ.
A special shout out to our Moms on this Mother’s Day. Moms are all about vulnerability, generosity, and joy. The older I get, the more I learn from my Mom (even though she went home to the Lord in 2006). I learn from her unconditional love, her kindness, her generosity, her patience (needed much more for my sister and brothers than for her “perfect little Robbie!”). A truly gentle soul, but if someone even thought something bad about her children (or, more strongly about her GRANDchildren) she became a lioness, ready to shred to pieces anyone who would hurt or even malign her children! I learn also as I watch our mothers of all ages here in the pastorate, caring for, protecting, providing for their children. My mother, our mothers, are for me an image of God. Certainly, I do not hesitate to call God “Father,” but I also see God as maternal, caring, tender, gentle. Not that these aren’t also traits of a good father but, in my family, were much more characteristic of my mother.
Make some time for your mom today. If she is still with us on earth, then visit. If you can’t visit, then call. If things are tense, patch them over. If it’s been a long time, swallow your pride. But make contact, express gratitude, share love. And, if your Mom has gone home to the Lord, then pray for her. Pray that she rest in Christ. Pray with her, asking her to continue with you and for you with the help she gave you on earth. Our Moms not only give us life but are one of the most profound ways we can meet Jesus Christ.