Being a Friend of Jesus
Scripture - John 15:9-17
Like an innocent child wandering alone into a kitchen & turning the knobs that could set the house on fire, some biblical passages have been taken out of their context & used in ways that would have horrified the author. This passage is one that has exactly that history.
No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus says in v. 13. This is true; for Christians it is most certainly true. In fact, Jesus was on his way to his own execution as the most dramatic example of the point. Our text comes from the ‘final discourse’ – John 14-17 – spoken on the evening of the Last Supper in the upper room with his disciples. The cross is clearly in view, when Jesus says that laying down your life for your friends is the highest form of love, & then he adds: You are my friends.
But during WW I, this text was used again & again, in sermons & lectures, set to music & sung by
great choirs, with one single meaning: therefore you, young man - & they were mostly young men – must go off to the front line, do what you are told, & if necessary, die for your country.
And they did. By the tens of thousands. Now hear me: I believe God honors the self-sacrifice & dedication of those who sincerely believed they were doing their duty. But I also believe God judges those who use texts like this as a convenient rhetorical trick to put moral pressure on other people, when what they needed was a bit more pressure on themselves to ask: Why are we doing this at all? If we must have a war, is this really the best way of fighting it? Are these ‘sacrifices’ – a very convenient religious word – the best way of winning the war & of preparing ourselves for the world that will need rebuilding after the war is over? During times of war, people often speak of ‘the ultimate sacrifice,’ seemingly forgetting that in the Bible human sacrifice is condemned over & over again.
Another issue: The easy identification of ‘our’ side as being God’s side has been a major problem ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. Ironically, as Western Europe has become less & less Christian in matters of practice, its leaders seem to have made Christianity its identification more & more, so that both sides in both world wars of the 20th century were supported by Christian chaplains praying for victory.
This usage of Scripture goes completely against a passage like we have read today, where the focus is love, not war. In a world of danger & wickedness, it will not do for everyone to pretend that there are no hard decisions to be made. But one of the great dangers, & great wicked nesses, of the world is the quite common belief that fighting is an acceptable thing, that conflict is a useful way of settling disputes, & that, to put it crudely, might is right. (And yes, I am including the current events we see happening these days in our own nation as well as around the world.) One of the reasons that civilization has struggled to promote justice is the recognition that things are not that easy. And justice, often times, may only have a negative function: to clear away the troublemakers & then open up the world for people to love one another.
We cannot legislate love; but God, through Jesus, can command us to love. Discovering the difference between what the law cannot achieve & what God can & does achieve is one of the great attributes of being human, & certainly of being Christian. In today’s text we are given the secret of it all.
The command to love is given by the One who has himself done everything that love can do. When a mother loves a child, she creates an environment in which the child is free to love her in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, & when this is shown through clearly generous & warm-hearted actions, he or she creates an environment in which the subjects can & will love them in return. The parody of this is shown with crystal clarity in George Orwell’s book 1984. The totalitarian ruler, Big Brother, who has done nothing but oppress & terrify his subjects, nevertheless orders them to love him. And the devastating climax, after the initially resistant subjects have been brainwashed, is that it works. At the end of the book, the hero is, in a way, happy. “He loved Big Brother.” And the reader knows that at this moment the hero has ceased to be fully human.
Jesus, however, issues the command that we are to love one another, & to remain in his love, because he has acted it out, & will act it out, through the greatest thing that love can do. He has come to make us more human, not less. He has come to give us freedom & joy, not slavery & put us in a semi-conscious stupor. He has come so that we can bear fruit that will last, whether that is a single life changed because we loved someone as Jesus loved us, or it is a single decision we had to make, or a single task we had to perform, through which, though we could not see it at the time, the world became a better place. Love makes both the lover & the beloved more fully human.
Fred Craddock told this story: “Once I preached in Blue Ridge, the little town near where I live & where I get my mail. I actually live at Cherry Log, but I go into Blue Ridge for the mail because, well, we have a post office at Cherry Log, but the mule died, & the mail is just hand-delivered now, so it takes longer. So, I preached in Blue Ridge while the minister was away, & I preached on the lectionary text for that Sunday, which was the prodigal son. My sermon was on the prodigal son. A man after the service said, ‘I really didn’t care much for that.’
Fred asked, “Why?” He said, “Well, I guess it wasn’t your sermon. I just don’t like the story.” “What don’t you like about it?” He said, “It is not morally responsible.” Fred said, “What do you mean by that?” “Forgiving that boy.” Fred said, “Well, what would you have done?” The man said, “I think when he came home, he should have been arrested.”
The man was serious. He is an attorney! Fred continues: “I thought he was going to tell me a joke. But he was really serious. He belonged to this unofficial worldwide organization. It never has any meetings & does not have a name, but it is an extraordinarily strong network that I call ‘quality control people.’ They are the moral police. Mandatory sentences, no parole, & mind you, executions.”
Fred asked, “What would you have given the prodigal?” The man said, “6 years.”
You see friends, at the heart of Jesus’ command is the humility that comes from knowing who is in charge. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, reads v. 16. Bishop Tom Wright of the Church of England was once asked on a radio show which religion he would choose if he could. He quickly pointed out that the idea of ‘choosing your religion’ was a mistaken notion. Religion are not items on the market shelf that we can pick & choose, he said, though many today try to live their lives that way. Or, he said, if they are, then following Jesus is not a ‘religion.’ Christianity is instead a personal relationship of love & loyalty to the One who has loved us more that we can ever begin to imagine. And the test of our love & loyalty remains the simple, profound, dangerous, & difficult command: love each other.
< Reread vv. 9-12 >
Let us pray. Remain in us, Holy Spirit. Remain in us with your love. Remain in us with your power. Remain in us, that we may love one another as you love us. Abide through us, that we may love your world as you love the world. In your love & grace, we pray. Amen.