Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 10, 2015
“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…”
+In the Name of our all loving, all engaging, ever renewing God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“I have called you friends.” The dictionary definition of “friend” includes these two descriptions: A) A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts; and B) A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause.
This Sixth Sunday of Easter is also “Rogation” Sunday from the Latin “rogare” which means to ask or beseech. Traditionally, it was the day to ask God’s blessing for the seed, for the soil, for those who labor in the fields and for all of God’s creation. We also ask God’s blessing on the seeds planted through the ministry and presence of this community as we join in God’s mission and God’s dream for all humanity. I think we can extend that blessing to the unique and wonderful part of creation represented by those with whom we share the bonds of holy friendship.
“I do not call you servants any longer but I have called you friends…” Have you ever had a relationship with someone that changed in the course of your knowing each other? A time when the defined pattern of how you interacted with that person turned into something very different, in a way you might not have expected? I people who taught me or mentored me or whom I have taught or mentored and who eventually became my friends. There was a shift in the former relationship to something new and we began to engage in an altered circumstance.
I think of how the role of student and teacher changed over time and how we related to one another differently because the context of that relationship had changed. There was no longer a dynamic of lesser and greater between us although there would always remain and feeling of deep regard and respect. We were simply friends.
For fans of the series Downton Abbey, there is the example of Matthew Crawley, the middle-class cousin of the aristocratic Crawleys. He is a working attorney, tending to his own needs. When it becomes apparent that there will be no male heir to inherit Downton Abbey, Matthew is summoned to manage the estate. He has to adjust to life as an aristocrat, with servants even assisting him in dressing, a life he finds bizarre.
But he gets used to it, and when he goes off to war, William, one of the servants on the estate who has enlisted, is detailed to serve as his valet. In his previous situation, Matthew would have found this absurd, but he falls into this odd relationship of lord and servant rather quickly. He has grown used to seeing William as his servant, but the relationship shifts once again in the midst of the fighting. When Matthew and William are trapped in a firefight, they struggle as equals once again. And when William is mortally wounded attempting to save Matthew in the battle, it is clear that Matthew does not see him as an expendable servant, but he grieves him as an equal comrade-in-arms. The shifting context affects the shift in their relationship.
Not unlike the context of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. In the three years of his active ministry, he was their Rabbi, Teacher, Mentor and Lord. They are the disciples whom he called to be servants. Then, in quite a change of course, he calls them friends. How must it have felt to hear the announcement of that huge transformation in the relationship? What was going on here? One minute they were subordinates and the next they are on equal footing—from servanthood, actually the original Greek word is “slaves” –to deep friendship.
We all cherish friends. Our lives are enriched by them and they form a fundamental part of our life and its support system. The enduring friends in our lives are our anchors. We are changed by their friendship and they are changed by ours. A real friend needs to speak honestly to us and, when necessary, bring us back to reality.
There was once a priest who was very fussy about the celebration of the Eucharist who became very upset whenever the acolytes did not to their jobs to perfection. In fact, he obsessed over every detail. It happened to be this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and this Gospel text had been read. A precocious little 10-year-old was making her debut as a server. It came time for her to approach the priest to wash his hands but she was too slow for his liking. “Bring me the towel,” he ordered. The feisty little girl remembered the Gospel and shouted right back, “Don’t give me orders, I’m not a servant, I’m a friend.”
Everyone in the chancel laughed—even the priest— who told her that, of course, she was a friend because she had the courage to show him how silly he was being in his obsession for perfection.
Friends can come in surprising ways, in unconventional places. They may come to us in a mansion like Downton Abbey or in a foxhole or on a train or in church. For some of us with small families or not a lot of strong family ties, our friends become our family of choice. That should help us make some sense out of what Jesus means when he says, “I chose you.”
Jesus has chosen you and me. God has given us Jesus so that we can be in relationship and friendship with God because in Jesus—his life, ministry, and teaching—we find the face of God. What the disciples did not fully comprehend when Jesus said, “I call you my friends,” was how radical a shift in their relationship this was for them.
This week we will witness a radical shift in the life of someone we have come to know over the past two years. It will also bring a change in relationship for us. On Thursday evening, Peter Thompson will be ordained into the sacred order of priests in Christ’s holy, catholic, church.
On a very personal note, Peter, I will tell you what a great joy it is for this priest to have been a part of your formation and watched you grow into the new ministry you will soon assume. It is always exciting to extend a call to an ordained person to join our staff but even more exhilarating to invite someone who has come as a seminarian to continue on as our assistant rector. What we’ve all come to learn about you is that you’ve got the goods—the holy goods of priestly craft.
Jesus has chosen you. We have chosen you, a person whom we know, like, and trust; someone with whom we are allied in both cause and struggle to proclaim the good news of God’s radical welcome to all. There will be a radical shift, though, in how we continue in friendship as you become Eucharistic celebrant, baptizer, spiritual leader, and pastor to this community. And, hopefully, you will always understand what the master—or I should say rector—is doing and not be afraid to ask when you don’t. May you take the hand of our friend, the loving Jesus who first chose you, and walk with confidence and without fear, so that you will be true to your calling as servant-leader and as a beloved, chosen one of God.
In the Orthodox liturgy, on the day of my ordination, having laid hands on me and prayed for the infusion of the Holy Spirit—much in the same way as Ian and the presbyters present will do for you—the bishop raised the priestly vestments over me and proclaimed “Axios!” “He is worthy!”
The congregation repeated it with full force. “Axios!” I hope that we will be here in full force this Thursday to show our assent and gratitude for your new ministry. Axios, Indeed!