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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Easter 05/06/2018

Jesus was a notorious boundary crosser; it’s part of what got him in trouble, especially with the religious leaders, as he interacted with people a good Jew wasn’t supposed to interact with. At first glance, today’s gospel reading doesn’t seem to be that kind of story. Instead it takes us back to Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and with that, it reminds us of the new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.”

This reading from John is part of what’s known as Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples as he prepares them for his death and his return to the Father. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown has called the final discourse “one of the greatest compositions in religious literature” but…he also cautions that it’s best understood as the subject of prayerful meditation, going slowly, verse by verse, image by image as opposed to using the usual methods of biblical interpretation and analysis. In other words, it’s best approached poetically and imaginatively instead of critically and analytically. These are verses and chapters that take time and invite us into a mystery. Adding to the mystery of it, in the way that John structures this discourse, it’s as if Jesus is not at that last supper with his disciples but instead it’s the Risen Christ speaking outside of time from heaven, as if all that is yet to happen has already happened.

I tend to agree with Raymond Brown that these are verses that are best approached meditatively, but I also think they uncover some things that are worth talking about, things that one could perhaps turn into a sermon. Specifically, I think there is boundary crossing worth talking about in this text but it’s boundary crossing of a different kind.

Right after Jesus gives the new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you,” he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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 I have heard from my Father.” In calling his disciples friends, Jesus crosses a boundary. As their teacher and master, he’s violating the rules. Masters aren’t supposed to be friends with those under them because it jeopardizes the relationship. It’s just like in our world, the boss isn’t supposed to be too buddy-buddy with those under his or her supervision; the commanding officer doesn’t fraternize with the troops; it can create problems.

It’s true of pastors too. We attend boundaries workshops, there was one week before last that I didn’t go to but over the years I’ve been to quite a few, and one of the boundaries has to do with friends in the congregation. You can’t help but become friendly with parishioners, it would be kind of weird and lonely if you didn’t. But the caution has to do with getting too close so that a healthy and appropriate pastoral relationship becomes unhealthy and inappropriate. A proper boundary should be maintained.

And yet, Jesus crosses the boundary and calls his disciples his friends. This comes later in the same chapter that has the vine and branches imagery which, as I said last week, represents an invitation into a close relationship. But even with that closeness, there is a distinction; Jesus is the vine, we’re the branches. With friends though, you don’t tend to think about distinctions; equality and mutuality are implied.

What does it mean then, to be Jesus’ friends? What a Friend We Have in Jesus is a much loved hymn, we’ll sing it in a few minutes, but in thinking of our relationship with Jesus that way, do we cross a boundary that makes things a little too cozy? Do we lose a sense of awe and wonder that should be part of a divine/human relationship. Are we really meant to be Jesus’ friends?

As is often the case, a lot I think has to do with how a word is defined and Jesus does have a particular way that he uses the word “friend.” It’s interesting in that he puts conditions on it which is not really the way we think about our friends. If you watch the Big Bang show, which I still do even though it’s not as funny as it used to be, but if you’re familiar with it, you know that Sheldon is fond of drawing up contracts, roommate agreements, relationship agreements, things like that. Well, that’s kind of what Jesus does here. There is an “if” clause when he talks about friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

If someone said to any of us, “I’ll be your friend if you do this that or the other thing,” I think we’d find that rather off putting. On the other hand, when you think about it, friendship is never totally unconditional. It comes with expectations on both sides, mostly unstated but still understood by both parties, and the friendship is threatened if those expectations are violated. We might think that understanding Jesus as an agent of grace, the friendship he talks about would be unconditional; but it’s not. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

What I’m doing here though as I examine what Jesus might mean by the term “friend” is exactly what Raymond Brown said not to do with this part of John. I’d go even further than that and say it’s what not to do with most of John. At this point then it’s perhaps best to back off and just consider some of the images and rather than trying to figure them out just think about where they take us.

Following the vine/branch imagery, an image that represents an invitation into a close relationship, these verses take it even further. With our without conditions, to be called a friend of Jesus is humbling. “We’re not worthy,” we want to say. I don’t think any of us hears “friend” as a term that exalts us and makes us equal to Jesus. Instead, we want to honor the fact that he calls us his friends by doing what we can to help and serve him and he tells us how: if you do what I command you. And what does he command? That we love one another as he has loved us. Then, in a sense, we do become Jesus’ equals. We live as he would have us live, extending love and care and forgiveness and sacrifice as he modeled in his own life. By grace we grow into his likeness as his friends. If we just follow the image, that’s where it takes us. Being called Jesus friends helps us to imagine the relationship differently.

Sometimes it’s good for us to be reminded that we are Christians and to think about what that means. Many of us tend to be hesitant to make exclusive claims for Christianity because we want to honor and respect the faith of others rather than saying we’re right and you’re wrong and then imagining them burning for eternity in a lake of fire. You also hear sometimes that all religions are pretty much the same, or you hear that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re a good person. However, the exclusive claim that we can make for Christianity is that as Christians we imagine God differently than any other religion. Because of the Incarnation of Jesus and God becoming human we don’t just view God as distant and impersonal, a God before whom we can only be in reverence and awe. The God we proclaim as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is worthy of our reverence and awe but it’s also a God who invites us into the kind of close relationship described by the vine and branch imagery, a relationship in which Jesus does call us friends.

In taking on our humanity, Jesus opens new possibilities for us, opening us to a different kind of relationship with God, a relationship where we can even be called friends. But besides changing the relationship, God taking on humanity also changes us; our humanity is changed. By becoming human, Christ who is the Son of God by nature, makes us sons of God, children of God by grace. St. Athanasius, one of the early church fathers said that Jesus takes on our humanity so that we can share in his divinity; that’s something worth taking time to contemplate.

We’re still human; we don’t become gods and it’s important to make that distinction clear, but our humanity is changed; we have the potential to become more God like as another boundary is crossed. We participate in the divine life of Jesus as we love one another as he has loved us, as we do what he commands us and as we participate in the life and sacraments of the church. Other religions may have insights that commend them, but no other religion extends an invitation like this. It is an exclusive claim of Christianity.

The author of John is known as St. John the Theologian because of the depth and beauty of his insights and as Raymond Brown said, it is material best appreciated slowly and meditatively. If you spend time with John’s images and with the words he comes back to over and over again, the Risen Christ we celebrate during this Easter season becomes real. In and through him, we are changed and, as we love one another as he has loved us, boundaries are crossed; we become Jesus’ friends so that we are changed and…through him, the world is also changed.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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