NO LONGER SERVANTS

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Lindley G. DeGarmo
Union Church of Pocantico Hills
May 9, 2021

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Shopping for Mothers’ Day cards this week, one that especially caught my fancy gave thanks for the sender’s good fortune in having a devoted mother who had gone on to become his friend as well. We all have mothers, of course, and we honor them this day, whether they are here among us or in the church triumphant. But how blessed are those who have also come to know their mothers as friends. For true friendship is rare and dear indeed.

Our topic this morning is friendship. Surely one of the most wonderful moments in John’s account of the life of Jesus occurs near the end of Jesus’ life, when he tells the disciples that they are his friends. He had previously called them “servants,” just as he understood himself to be a servant. Together they shared the role of servanthood. They, like he, had been chosen to do the will of God—the will of God, who had sent him. Jesus now explains their roles; they have been servants, but now they are also friends—two different ways of speaking of the divine/human relationship: the word “servant,” evoking the idea of deference and obedience, the word “friend” evoking thoughts of intimacy and camaraderie. I am tempted to say equality, but that would be wrong because Jesus, though he sat with his disciples around the table, though he spoke to them friend to friend, though he loved them and they loved him, remained their Lord, and they remained his disciples.[1]

I like theologian Jörgen Moltmann’s idea of friendship, that it may or may not include equality, but that it always includes affection and respect.[2] Surely, we know this to be the case in our own lives. Think of that teacher whom you admired and whom you looked up to, who made time for you—the older person, friend to the younger, or the mentor who taught you so much in the early years of your professional life, or the older couple in the church who befriends you and cares about you and your children. The disciples were not Jesus’ peers, but they were his friends, and they would remain so even when he departed from them. There was one condition: They were to obey the commandment he had given them, and what an odd thing to command: You are commanded to love one another. As the Father’s love for Jesus was mirrored in Jesus’ love for the disciples, so the disciples would mirror Christ’s love in the way they treated one another in the community of faith, and in the way they embodied his love in the world.

Jesus gave his life as the ultimate expression of divine love, and he commanded those he left behind to continue what God had started in him. You see, love begets love begets love. But notice that he was not speaking about a feeling or an emotion. Emotions can be quite fickle. He was speaking about a way of life that considers the needs of others as much as one considers one’s own needs, a way of life that could sometimes cost you your life. His death on the cross and the subsequent deaths of many of his followers at the hands of the Roman Empire bear witness to the costliness of the love of which Jesus spoke. Of all the things you can say about the crucifixion of our Lord during this season of Easter, the most important thing to say is this—he died for love. That’s it. He died for love. He died for us. When John says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” the whole point is restoration and reconciliation. If the faith community that gathers in Jesus’ name has not love, then it has nothing—that’s the heart of the matter.

Jesus wants his friends to love as God loves. That is not a particularly easy thing to do, but he made it possible. In Jesus Christ, human love and divine love became all mixed up together. He was fully human and fully God, and so when Jesus is talking about love, there’s no way to deconstruct it and say this part of love is divine, and that part is human. It is all mixed up together. It is that crazy, mixed-up love that will go all the way for the sake of the other. Jesus showed us that we ourselves are actually capable of expressing that love in our own lives.

But it’s not easy. Perhaps that is why we are commanded to love. Left to our own devices, we might put it under the category of “optional,” rather than where it belongs, at the top of the list of “essentials.” Remember Jesus’ answer to the young lawyer who wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said, “What’s in the law?”

“The law says to love God with everything you’ve got,” the lawyer replied, “and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the summation of the Jewish law and a great reminder that Christianity is not the sole steward of divine love. What Christianity does is to reveal God’s love in a unique way—a vulnerable, suffering, willing-to-go-all-the-way kind of love. Jesus goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help a stranger in trouble.

Back in the mid-90s, Mother Teresa spoke one year to the National Prayer Breakfast in New York City. The speaker who introduced her said, “I would like you now to hear from the greatest woman in the world.” Mother Teresa, who stood 4 foot 11 inches, came to the podium and said, “If I were the greatest woman in the world, you would think that God would have made me a little taller.” Then she went on to say, “I’ll tell you who I am; I am not a great woman. I am but a tiny pencil in the hand of God, one through whom God writes love letters to the world.”

It is not always easy to love. But that’s why we’re here. God has only us to spread around the love that comes from the heavenly realm. We are God’s pencils.

Are you intimidated by the scope of the task? Let me suggest three things that might make the practice of love less daunting. First, stop trying to make yourself feel a certain way. I’ll never forget when the father of a soon-to-be bride came to see me and allowed as how he didn’t have much use for his soon-to-be son-in-law. “I don’t know what to do, pastor. I can’t make myself like him.”

I answered, “No, you can’t. No one can make oneself like somebody else, but you can love someone else even if you don’t like them. You can treat them with respect and civility.” Stop worrying about how you feel.

Secondly, take some baby steps. Just a baby steps. If, if you can’t go all the way, if you are not called go all the way, to give your life for the sake of others, then can you please maybe give an hour, a morning out of your week? Find a place to volunteer that needs your help. Maybe you can’t love your next-door neighbor whose dogs bark all the time, but you don’t have to be mean. Do something to lessen the tension in your own home. Stop being so busy and give the loved ones in your life more of yourself. I have told you before the story of the mother who was explaining to her little girl why her dad was never around. She said, “Your dad, he really has to work hard; he is working late again tonight. I’m sorry honey, but he’s behind in his work.”

The daughter said, “Maybe they could put Daddy in a slower group.”

The third thing to do is to keep practicing. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, act loving. Curb your tongue. Every single one of us has the God-given capacity to love with a Christ-like love, every single one of us. And no, none of us is likely to turn into Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa any time soon. But we can get the hang of it, because the impulse to love that God put in us and that Christ renewed in us cannot be completely stamped out. If you kill it, it will come back. We were created and then recreated for and by love.

Jesus said, “I’m not going to call you servants any longer. I am going to call you friends. I will let you in on everything that the Father has shared with me.” How wonderful! How open, how generous he was with the unique knowledge he had about infinitely important things. He knows the secret that lies at the heart of everything, and he shares it completely.

And how wide was his embrace! Oh, that got him into a lot of trouble. What did they say about him? That he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” He showed up at the dinner tables of people that other people had said were unclean. He welcomed women and children. In the society in which he functioned, neither the society nor the synagogue thought that women or children were worth the time of day. You remember when the children tried to come to him, even the disciples tried to get them away from him. What did he say? “Let the little children come to me, because of such is the kingdom of God.”

When Jesus called his disciples “friends,” he was not setting up a separate, little exclusive fraternity. He was inviting them into the great, wide network of God’s expansive love. I find it a bracing spiritual discipline to remember that God cares for the person with whom I get along least in this world just as much as God cares for me.

Let me not put rose-colored glasses on any of this. If somebody asks you today, “What did Lindley preach about?”, you might say, “Love and friendship.” Everybody will yawn, but this is the real world, and love is costly in this real world. Jesus’ friends were anything but unblemished lambs. His friend Judas turned him over to the authorities for the grand sum of 30 pieces of silver. His friend Peter denied him three times before the cock crowed. If any of you have ever been betrayed by a friend—and I am guessing there is more than one—it might be comforting to know that Jesus walked that particular valley before you.

And yet on the night that he was betrayed, knowing all that was going to happen, predicting it in fact, he embraced every one of his friends with special care, welcoming them, if you will, into the community of the holy Trinity. Later, when he offered his life, that sealed it, and God became friend forever with the world.[3]

I finish with a word about the church, and how we have an obligation to offer a counterpoint to the world’s idea that really nobody needs anybody anymore for anything. It’s every man or woman for him or herself these days. No, no, no. The Quakers say it beautifully; we are a Society of Friends. I love that, connected to each other through God’s initiative, needing one another to keep each other human and humble, and encouraged by one another when life gets tough. I hope that Union Church will always be a place where you encounter and connect with other people and see one another through the good times and bad times, celebrating weddings and births, helping people endure breast cancer, divorce, career disappointments. It’s a gift, isn’t it, that we can laugh together and cry together, compare our various ailments, and remember one another in our prayers. Life doesn’t get any better than that.

Listen, to be a friend of Jesus is not all that complicated. What you have to do is love one another, just as he told us to. That’s it.

All authority and power and dominion to the name that is above all names—Jesus Christ our Lord—now and in the age to come. Amen.

[1] B.A. Gerrish, The Pilgrim Road (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 128.

[2] Jörgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 225.

[3] Moltmann.