11 May 2015

Not Servants – Friends

Sixth-century icon depicting Jesus and St. Menas (285 – c. 309).
John 15:12-17

6th Sunday after Easter

10th May 2015

Last week’s gospel reading started with the first eleven verses of chapter 15, which contained these well-known words of Jesus, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  We find these words toward the end of John’s gospel, in chapters that recount Jesus’ parting words to his disciples.  They’re commands, to be sure, but we should hear them in the spirit in which Jesus shared them (according to John).  These are words of encouragement given to the disciples, they are words of love, given in love, words that invite his disciples to abide—that is, stay near, remain in, live, dwell, be near—his love.  For when they are near his love, when they stay, remain, live, dwell in his love, when they are “tucked in” to his love, engrafted like a branch to a vine, his disciples will yield in their lives what Jesus yielded in his life, which is, namely, love. It’s the only way.

Here in these next five verses in John 15, Jesus builds upon these ideas and expands them slightly, but the main point is the same.  However, here Jesus becomes even more provocative and bold, even radical.  Here’s why.

What we have here are directives, commands, even, given to his disciples.  Jesus knows that his time with them is short and he wants to make sure that they feel equipped to continue the work to which they were originally called.  So, yes, they are commandments—Jesus says as much. His followers can’t opt out of them.  They are not suggestions.  But we need to remember the nature of the one commanding them.  In other words, who is speaking here?  This is Jesus who embodies the will and work and word of God, who speaks in and with and through God. This is one who commands, but also invites us to this ministry.

Let’s go deeper.  Up until this time in the narrative Jesus is in the role of the teacher and his close followers are students, pupils, disciples.  This is what it means to be a disciple; it means to be a student, a follower.  That’s how it worked in Jesus’ time.  There were great religious leaders, teachers who developed a “school” around their teachings.  Not a school with walls, per se, although they needed a place to learn and discuss what was being taught.  But school as in a particular theological or philosophical school of thought. 

Every great philosopher in Jesus’ age, and long before him, had schools, a band of followers, who learned the tradition in order to pass on his teachings.  In the Greek world there was the school of Socrates (d. c. 399 BC) or Plato (d. 348/347 BC) or Aristotle (382-322 BC). There were pre-Socratic schools centered on the thought of Pythagoras (c. 570c. 495 BC) or Heraclitus (c. 535–475 BC). 

Something similar was at work within Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime. There was the school or house or “academy” of the religious leader Hillel (c. 110 BC – 10), who died when Jesus was around six years old, and there was, later, a competing academy centered on the thought of Shammai (50 BC  30), a contemporary of Jesus.  We can see something comparable in Jesus’ ministry.  We might say that he, too, formed a kind of “school” around him.  In Matthew’s gospel, in particular, we find Jesus depicted as a teacher, as a new Moses.  This is why we hear Jesus saying, only in Matthew’s gospel, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29).  The yoke of my teaching is easy and the burden of my teaching is light. 

 In John’s gospel, Jesus is about to leave his disciples; they are about to graduate from the Jesus Academy, sent into the world to follow him, to pass on his tradition and his teachings.  But what’s so striking here, remarkable really, is that while John’s gospel—the gospel that is, perhaps, the most influenced by Greek philosophy and is, in many ways, throughout, carrying on a conversation with the Greek philosophical tradition—begins his gospel with Jesus as teacher, something shifts.  And we see it here in these new commandments.  We start to get a glimpse of this shift when Jesus uses the vine and branch metaphor, but it becomes more pronounced here, when Jesus expands on his teaching on love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  This is one of those verses that beautifully sums up Jesus’ life and ministry. His life was all about love—not just any kind of love, but the embodiment of God’s love, the God of love, the God who is love.  “For God so loved the world,” the Son was given to us.  “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).  The Jesus’ Academy was a school of love, as it were.  The curriculum was God’s love: agape-love, selfless, sacrificial, other-focused, other-oriented love.  “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:14).  That’s what Love did before their eyes, for the entire world to see: Love offered itself to the world. 

And to whom did Love offer his life? Did you hear it? Love gives its life for friends. As the disciples discovered, Love laid down his life for them, for these disciples, the ones he called: friends.

Here is the shift I talked about earlier.  This is something radically new and different, provocative.  Jesus calls his disciples friends. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14), and what we’re commanded to do is love as he loves.  Jesus isn’t saying to them:  I am the Teacher and I command you to be my students forever.  He’s not looking to them to be a “slave” to his teaching.  He’s not the Master Teacher who expects his disciples to serve him submissively.  That’s not how Jesus organizes his “school;” in fact, Jesus didn’t organize a school or house or academy.  Jesus was not a philosopher.  The one who loves as Jesus loves is not a slave to his teaching, but friend.  The one who loves as Jesus loves he calls not servant, or even follower, but friend.

What we need to remember is that the designation of friend was only reserved for someone very close.  Our use of the word “friend” has lost a lot of its original meaning.  We define it loosely.  Any acquaintance quickly becomes “friend.” The prevalence of social networking, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, others, is changing the definition of “friend” even more.  For example, I have close to 1300 “friends” on my Facebook page.  That’s what Facebook calls them, “friends.”  I know most of them personally (I really do), there are some I’ve never met face-to-face, but we move in similar circles, sharing concerns and interests. The number of close friends, who live near my heart, however, is significantly smaller. 

Facebook’s definition of “friend” is a far cry from what Jesus is talking about here. The designation of “friend” in Jesus’ world, especially within the Greek philosophical tradition, was reserved for someone very, very close to you, an intimate, someone with whom you share all aspects of your life. Aristotle, for example, who wrote one of the most profound essays on the meaning of friendship, said, “Friends live together.”[1]  Friends share space.  Friends share a life.

Going back to Jesus, this is a remarkable statement for Jesus to make here, saying that these disciples are about to become his friends.  “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” (John 15:15).  Friends share space. Friends share a life.  Friends share what they know and love and hope for and care about and suffer through.  Jesus didn’t hold anything back from them and so he pulled them into his life and invited them to share in his life in God. What was true for them is true for us and because Jesus shares in the life of God means we, too, have been welcomed into the very life of God! We’re now friends with God, through him.  Not Facebook friends—real friends, close, intimate, people who are now privy to the deep life of God, people who share their lives with one another in God. This is unlike the philosophical schools or religious academies of Jesus’ day.  He invited them, invites us, into a different kind of relationship, defined by mutuality, into a different arrangement, into what eventually became known as an ekklesia, a church, not made of “members” but friends that share a space, friends that share a life, the life of Christ.

So close is this relationship with Jesus, we soon discover, that we draw our life from remaining, dwelling, abiding in him, like a branch engrafted into the vine draws forth its life and bears fruit.  That’s how we bear fruit.  He’s so close to us that we are free to live and serve and act in his name because he’s with us, close to us, abiding in us.  And then he sends us out into the world, because he trusts us.  We stop being followers and become something else. We become friends.  Like perfect friends, secrets are shared, burdens are shared, and joys are shared.  This is the life to which Jesus is calling them, calling us.

I love the way Gerard Sloyan, a contemporary scholar of John, paraphrases these verses in John 15, beautifully capturing the feeling of Jesus’ remarks:  “We shall be friends, you and I.  No more of this I up here and you down there, you the object of my affection and I the subject of your veneration.  We are both subjects undergoing the passion and pain of love.”[2] 

What a sentence: We are both subjects undergoing the passion and pain of love. This is the life I share with you, Jesus says; this is the life you share with me: the passion and pain of love.  This is the life that we share with one another in the ekklesia, the church, and with a world in need.  Jesus called them and, therefore, calls us into an infinitely richer way of being in the world. This is what it means for Jesus to call us friend; this is what it means for us to say we have a friend in Jesus; this is what it means for us to be friends.

This was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1929-1968) point, writing more than fifty years ago from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama.  If we’re ever going to truly be a post-racial society—if not a post-racial society, then at least a post-racial church—we need to see that Christ is always drawing us into deeper friendships with his friends in order that, together, we may share in the life of God.  King said it so well, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. [We are all] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

When we abide him Christ, as branches to the vine, when we stay close to him, when we love, then it can be said of us that we are his friends. It will also mean that we will have a much larger network of friends because we discover that we are sharing in a much richer life, sharing in the “passion and pain of love.”

So much rides on how we perceive ourselves and ourselves in relation to God, which then shapes how we live in the world. Our image of God informs how we see ourselves and both of these images then shape the way we “image” the world.

Not servants—friends. Is this your image of God, as friend?  Can you hear him calling you his friend?  Not a “buddy,” but something more. 

Try this: imagine Jesus saying this to you, no longer servant, but friend.  Imagine Jesus sitting there beside you, right now.  Imagine him putting his arm around your shoulder, pulling you close.  And then imagine him saying your name and hearing these words: “We shall be friends, you and I.  No more of this I up here and you down there, you the object of my affection and I the subject of your veneration.  We are both subjects undergoing the passion and pain of love.”

“And now [my friend,] I appoint you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:16).  Go. Bear fruit that will last.  Go, for I trust you.



Image: Sixth-century icon depicting Jesus and St. Menas (285 – c. 309) from the Monastery of Bawit in Egypt. It's one of the earliest known icons in existence. Note that Jesus' right arm is wrapped around the shoulder of St. Menas.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
[2] Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 180.

03 May 2015

The Fields of Mondawmin

John 15:1-11

Fifth Sunday after Easter
3rd May 2015

Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

The story goes that one day the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1855) arrived in Baltimore to visit his friend Dr. Patrick Macaulay (1795-1849), physician, city councilman, B & O Railroad director, patron of the arts. He lived on a seventy-three acre plantation, purchased in 1827, situated on the hills above Baltimore harbor.  Dr. Macaulay had yet to come up with a name for his “estate” and so he asked Longfellow to suggest one. Looking around and seeing field upon field of corn growing everywhere, Longfellow replied, “Why not Mondamin, after the Indian corn god?” Mapmakers eventually added a “w” to the name. That’s how we know it today.  After the events of this week in Baltimore, that’s how people all around the nation, indeed the world know it today.  Perhaps you’ve never heard of Mondawmin or never driven past the shopping mall named for the neighborhood or never shopped there (I know it well and shop there often), but we all know where it is now.

Nothing is left of the plantation house, which was known as "the pink house."  As a footnote, Mondawnin was sold, after Macaulay’s death, in 1850, to George Brown (1787-1859), chairman of Alex Brown and Sons, the first investment bank in the United States, who preserved the plantation. He was a Presbyterian.  Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill was dedicated in memory of him in 1870.  The last private owner of the Mondawmin estate was Alexander Brown, who died there in 1949.

Baltimore’s first urban mall opened in Mondawmin in 1956.  Its coffee shop, called The White Coffee Pot, did not serve blacks.[1] By 1957 the area was already changing and after the 1968 riots the neighborhood, along with the mall, seriously declined. 

The Mondawmin neighborhood is bounded by Longwood Street and Hilton Parkway to the west, Liberty Heights Avenue and Druid Park Drive to the north, Druid Hill Park and Fulton Avenue to the east, and North Avenue to the south.  These have become familiar street names to the wider world: Fulton Street, North Avenue.  North Avenue and Pennsylvania, the epicenter of this week’s protests and police presence, is just on the edge of the Mondawmin neighborhood as it flows into the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood to the south. Drive south on Fulton Street and it eventually crosses Presstman Street, the location of the Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was arrested.

Longfellow tells us in The Song of Hiawatha that the god Manito was intent on helping Hiawatha care for the needs of his people. And so Manito sent help. “Who are you?” Hiawatha whispered. "I am Mondamin," the young man answered. "Manito has sent me to answer your prayers. He wants you to know your people will always have food. But they must work hard for it. And now you must work. You must wrestle with me."  After wrestling with him seven times Mondamin fell and was buried in the ground.  He became one with the ground and from his ashes new growth, corn stalks rose from the ground to feed the people. Hence, Mondamin became known as the corn god.

It’s there, in the former fields of Mondawmin, that we see the yield of seeds sown by of our racist, segregationist past.  Today, growing in the fields or living in the streets and alleys of Mondawmin, the City of Baltimore is reaping what it has sown for decades, generations. It’s complex, extremely complex. 

There isn’t one core problem, but many, a rat’s nest of problems that seem to coalesce around one central issue: economic disparity.  The deep sin of racism cannot be overlooked. Antero Pietela’s book, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry shaped a Great American City, tells the sordid story of Baltimore’s segregationist and anti-Semitic history (which are linked).  Racism permeates everything, but it doesn’t explain everything that we have witnessed this week.  While we must in no way condone the violence of this week, it is our responsibility as Christians, as people called to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15), to act with empathy and compassion as we try to place ourselves in the life of someone who lives in Sandtown in order to understand the rage.

If you’ve never driven through that part of the city, I encourage you to do so—not at this moment, of course, but soon.  There’s block after block of urban blight.  There are “16,000 vacant houses” in Baltimore and “roughly 14,000 empty lots” in the city. “The area that saw the worst rioting this week is far more intact than some neighborhoods, where whole blocks of rowhouses are dead but not gone.”[2]  The families that live there are “trapped…some of the poorest in the country, where low tax revenue means less money for schools, which means poor education, which leads to few or no good jobs, which leads to alternative and often illegal ways to put food on the table, which leads to prison, which leads to broken homes, which begins the cycle of desperation all over again.”  This is how James Parks, vice-moderator of Baltimore Presbytery, very helpfully summarized the situation at the prayer vigil on Friday.

Close to 100 Presbyterians gathered on Friday afternoon, outdoors on an empty lot beside Trinity Presbyterian Church, an African-American church near Walbrook Junction, about a mile west of Mondawmin Mall.  It was a diverse crowd.  We gathered to sing, pray, light candles for justice and peace.  And we prayed for everyone.  Petition after petition was lifted up for everyone: from the innocent children to parents to school teachers to store owners; and we prayed for those now out of work because of the destruction, the poor living conditions in the city, the inequality, the urban blight, the police officers and national guard members, firemen, care providers, the city council, the mayor, the state’s attorney, the governor, victims of violence and brutality, people on the edge of it all who don’t understand or won’t try to understand.  We prayed for justice, peace, healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness.  The presbytery promised that the service on Friday would not be an isolated event. There are churches in the city that have heard all of these prayers and expressions of concern from predominantly white Presbyterians before, for decades. We vowed that this would not be a one-off event, but the start of something new, different.

It was a marvelous expression of the church of Jesus Christ being the church.  We were sowing seeds of hope, I believe, hope for something new to yield in the fields of Mondawmin. Jesus said people will be able to identify his followers by the fruit that they bear, by the yield. We’re supposed to bear fruit, yield something with our lives. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  And God is glorified when we, as God’s children, bear fruit—not some fruit, “much fruit.”  And the essential fruit that we are called to yield is love (John 15:9).  That is the sign that we abide in Jesus and that he abides in us. 

And sometimes for love to be enacted, for a branch to yield new growth it needs to be pruned.  I’m not sure if the actual act of pruning hurts the vine. Can the vine “feel” it?  I don’t know.  It certainly sounds painful.  But, as we all know, there’s no growth without pruning.  I would like to think that the events of this week will become a kind of pruning for all of us, white and black, rich and poor, city and county dweller, most notably the church of Jesus Christ, both the so-called “liberal” and “conservative” church, alike.  It’s been said that one of the roles of the church, one of the tasks of preaching is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”  We’re not called to afflict the comforted just to be mean to them or to judge.  It’s offered in love.  It’s a kind of pruning, which wakes people up, quickens one’s conscience, opens up one’s heart and mind, which then gives us the capacity to listen—really listen—for what the Spirit is calling us to be and do, calling us to really love. We all need pruning at times.

As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, with the images of this past week still fresh and raw, and in light of those events, here are two questions to consider: what fruit will you bear in your personal lives? And as for the church, what will be our yield?

[1] Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), 122.
[2] See Eugene Robinson’s opinion piece in The Washington Post, April 30, 2015.