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.