Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins
In the name of God our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. Amen.
A 7-year-old boy came to his father one day proudly exclaiming “I finally know what the Bible means!” Surprised the father replied: “What do you mean, you ‘know’ what the Bible means? What does it mean?” “That’s easy, dad…….It stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Imagine the people who are the most important in your life; those you love the deepest, those with whom you spend the most time, those whose future welfare is intimately tied to your own sense of purpose. Now imagine that you are about to leave those people; no longer to be physically present to them – to see, hear, or touch them. What last word do you want them to have? What is the most important message you have for their hearing … their remembering … the lives they will live? What are the basic instructions you want them to have before leaving earth? That is the context of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse that we continue with from last week, through John’s gospel.
Now, imagine the people who are the most different from you; those with whom you have nothing in common; those you might disdain or even fear; those with whom you cannot imagine being aligned because of ethnic, cultural, economic, or other barriers that you and society have erected. Ant then something happens indicating that they might not be so different from you after all … now, once you have that in mind, see if you can step the scene up another notch, because that is the context in which Peter and those with him find themselves in the story from Acts.
Last week, we heard in the Acts of the Apostles the encounter Philip has with an Ethiopian eunuch – someone most different; perhaps disdained, certainly someone with whom Philip would not have expected an encounter. Today, we hear the tail end of an equally unexpected encounter between Peter and the roman centurion, Cornelius. If we had heard the whole story, we would hear Cornelius described as a God-fearing and devout man; even described as someone well-thought of by the Jews … for a Roman. But, make no mistake here; no matter how God-fearing and devout; not matter how well thought of by the Jews, Cornelius, like Philip’s Ethiopian Eunuch is a gentile; not someone expected to be in close relationship.
Cornelius is in Caeserea when God directs him to seek out Simon Peter, in Joppa. Around the same time, Peter receives a strange vision as he awaits his midday meal –a large cloth being lowered from heaven on which lie all kinds of animals – four-footed creatures along with reptiles and birds. A voice from heaven directs Peter to kill and eat from among these. Mind you, this is not exactly what is meant by the phrase “keeping a kosher kitchen”. When Peter balks – insisting in his righteousness as a Jew – “I’ve never eaten anything profane or unclean” he is directed a second and even a third time by the voice telling him that what God has made clean, Peter must not call profane. In come the gentile servants of Cornelius and Peter is directed to go with them. So, within the course of twenty-four, perhaps thirty-six hours, Peter finds himself, a Jew, in a Gentile household – astonishing …and transformative for it, along with this strange vision, opens Peter’s eyes to all the barriers; all the walls; all the fences erected by him and his culture and his faith traditions.
This is where we pick us the story as Peter delivers his Easter sermon, expressing new-found understanding that God indeed shows no partiality. While Peter was preaching – more astonishment. For the other circumcised believers who had come with Peter are astounded to see the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out even on the Gentiles. And Peter, in what I can only imagine as his own continued astonishment is moved to suggest “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ In response, the newly baptized others invited him to stay for several days.
Peter gives a bold, inclusive word to all within his hearing: because of Christ’s resurrection the barriers, fences, the walls that keep people apart from each other are torn down.
Disparate people called in fellowship – into friendship – with the other. How can such astonishing – culturally taboo – things happen? Let’s circle back to those Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth that Jesus is sharing with the disciples for it provides the answer to how such astonishing things can and do happen.
Remember when this Farewell Discourse is taking place – it is Maundy Thursday and John’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who, before the Passover supper, strips off his tunic to act as servant by washing his disciples’ feet and tells them that they should do likewise for one another – they should act as servants to one another. Yet not too many minutes later, paradoxically, Jesus calls his disciples servants no longer, rather, calls them friends.
The Gospel invites us to explore and consider the notion – and some paradoxes — of friendship and of love. How do we think about friendship and the role of friends these days?
In January I attended the ordination of a seminary classmate. It was made even more joyful because it brought me back in touch with another classmate of ours, someone whose company I had enjoyed during my long-commuter studies. She, in turn, had a friend with her – a stranger to me. We were introduced and had a pleasant conversation for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. The next day, over my Facebook account, I was surprised – pleasantly – to have a message from her, indicating that it had been nice meeting me. Then I noticed that there was also a “friend request”. One introduction, one conversation … and poof – a “friend request.”
My Facebook page tells me that I have 295 friends. Our society, it seems would have us apply that term to almost everyone we’ve ever met making little or no distinction between casual acquaintances and genuinely intimate relationships. How do we think about friendship and the place of friends these days?
Aristotle offers three descriptions of friendship we might consider. He says that first, some people are our friends because of their usefulness to us – perhaps in making business connections or gaining entrance to a particular social circle. A second kind of friendship comes out of pure pleasure – we enjoy someone’s company on occasion – like my seminary classmates, and their friend. The third and, for Aristotle, the best kind of friendship, is the friendship that exists simply for the sake of friendship itself. This kind of friendship has at its core the well-being of the other.
“What is a friend?” says Aristotle, “A single soul in two bodies.” As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; as the Father and I are friends with one another for the very sake of friendship itself, so I call you servants no longer but rather friends.
It is this kind of friendship that God, our mother-father creator, God Incarnate, our redeemer, and God in Spirit, our sustainer enjoy – an intimate Trinity of friendship for the very sake of it and of each other. We might paraphrase Aristotle in our understanding and suggest, “What is ultimate friendship? God, in three persons.”
Friendship for the very sake of it is not something I can have with all of my 295 friends on Facebook. What the gospel suggests to me is that, in fact, I ought only to have it with a select few because what is necessary for this level of friendship is a measure of availability and presence that if offered too broadly could be stretched dangerously thin.
It is this kind of friendship that Jesus was speaking of with his disciples that night before his death. Yet, embedded within the basic instructions before leaving earth that he needed to share with them is again great paradox. In it is described a kind of friendship reserved for a limited, inner circle — not spreading ourselves dangerously thin. Within it, too, is the vehicle by which we continue to be formed more deeply and more closely to the kind of friendship and love that God offers and Jesus modeled. This Basic Instruction for deep, intimate friendship is the vehicle that grafts us more and more securely as branches on the vine of Jesus. The result, paradoxically, is that we then can extend ourselves out from that intimate friendship for friendship’s sake to embrace all of God’s creation, not simply the parts of creation that are most like us.
This is friendship at its most formative; as we are friends to one another loving as God loves, we receive over time the model and the experience that teaches us to love more and more as God loves. So, like Peter, we also boldly proclaim an inclusive word to all within our hearing: because of Christ’s resurrection the barriers, fences, the walls that keep people apart from each other are torn down, for God does not show partiality.
Love like friend is another word that we tend to throw around incautiously. “I love that sweater; where did you get it” – I loved the anthem this morning” “Didn’t you just love that movie”. Love, like Aristotle’s best version of friendship – is most interested in the welfare of the other; it does not attempt to posses or dominate. We might recall that familiar passage in 1 Corinthians that tells us love is patient and kind; it does not insist in its own way; it rejoice in wrongdoing; but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things; it hopes all things; it endures all things; it doesn’t end.
When we love another with the kind of agape friendship Jesus commands, we cannot walk away – even when hurt or disappointed. Retreat momentarily – perhaps … but the love we are called to would lay down our lives before it would have us walk away from the other. Gospel love and gospel friendship are intimately intertwined and both likely should be held more guardedly as a part of our vocabulary. Nuances and downright distinctions of language would serve us better if they were honored more.
An example — a church youth group had grown over the years and in its increasing numbers some cliques had begun to develop – at first, benignly, but then with increasing potential to fracture the cohesiveness and effectiveness of their life together. Various options were discussed, including dividing the group into two or even three smaller ones, perhaps along age lines. One wise leader saw, however, that this would only serve to affirm the clique-ness that was growing and sought instead to bring the group together to talk through the situation. As they sat in the large circle, the leader asked the group to talk about what caused them to withdraw from one another and form closed circles of friendship. No one spoke. After several minutes of silence, the leader took a marker and wrote a single word on a sheet of newsprint in their midst … Love… and sat down. More silence, followed by some nervous fidgeting. Finally one of the teenagers blurted out, “How can we love each other? We don’t even like one another!” To this honest response, the wise leader responded, “Who said you had to like each other? All you have to do is love one another. To like someone is based upon feelings. To love someone like Jesus commanded means that we respect and honor each other as a fellow child of God, chosen and loved by God.”
One gift of that wise leader was to point out important nuances and downright distinctions in our vocabulary. Love – as the Gospel gives it to us – is different than “like”. The Good News that wise leader imparted in telling the group of young people that they weren’t called to like everyone in sight is a certain freedom and release of burden on the one hand. On the other hand, there are certainly implications to mine. American author Mark Twain once said of the Bible “Most people are bothered by those passages which they cannot understand, but as for me, I’ve always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those that I do understand.”
We might not have to like everyone, but we do have to love one another, respecting and honoring each other as a fellow child of God, chosen and loved by God.
These words are reminiscent of the promises we witness at every baptism and promises repeated in the form of the Creed – our Baptismal Covenant – at Confirmation yesterday. Twenty-six teens and adults from St. Matthew’s, Wilton and St. Paul’s gathered with Bishop Coleridge here, in this space, to take another intentional step in their journey to be grafted more strongly and securely onto the metaphorical vine – Taylor, Billy and Steve, among them. The words they – and those gathered with them – spoke in renewing their Baptismal Covenant are both potentially freeing and troubling, not because we do not understand what they mean or imply, but more to that point because, like Twain, we do.
Each time we renew our promise to seek and serve Christ in every human being, to work for peace and justice, and to respect the dignity of every human being we may be freed from liking everyone, but we are bound to love them. We are bound to live in such a way that we are grafted more securely onto Jesus’ metaphorical vine, as a branch seeking to bear good fruit.
An implication of all this lies in the question of where and with whom do we cultivate a friendship for the very sake of it? And an answer is that we seek to cultivate our most intimate friendships in community. This, too, is evident in the other two promises reaffirmed yesterday. We promise at each baptism and each confirmation to continue in the apostles’ fellowship and teaching, in prayer, at table, and to repent and seek forgiveness whenever necessary.
A great gift of community is that within it most readily may be found those whose example we want to emulate; who exhibit to us that they are on the path to embracing Jesus’ basic instructions before leaving earth. It is also in community that we begin to recognize that there are friends seeking us out who see something within us they wish to emulate.
Often during announcements, we are reminded of our so-called “three minute rule” of hospitality exercised weekly during coffee time. That is, we area asked to spend the first three minutes seeking out and talking with someone we either do not know or don’t know well. It is more than a quaint exercise to welcome newcomers. It is an exercise that has the potential to expose each of us to people with whom we might enter into the kind of abiding friendship that Jesus gave as his basic instructions. It can connect us to other sojourners whose characteristics emulating God’s love might rub off on us over time – and ours on them.
This mutuality of relationships – reciprocal love and friendship – rests squarely in God having chosen us and offered it to us, first. We can risk choosing friendship with each other for the very sake of friendship because God Incarnate first chose us to be in intimate relationship, abiding in and with one another, just as he abides through the Holy Spirit with God. We can risk keeping the circles of friendship open and permeable so that we can move in and out of the growing circles of this community as the Holy Spirit directs so that we don’t risk the experience of that fictional youth group.
For three years, Jesus emphasized the importance of deep, spiritual friendship, modeled in intimate and expansive community. No wonder then that his Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth would be succinct … As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. …This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.
Imagine the people who are the most important in your life; those you love the deepest, those with whom you spend the most time, those whose future welfare is intimately tied to your own sense of purpose. What lasting example do you want to leave them? What are the basic instructions you want them to have before you leaving earth?