Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 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 that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
A Great Love
As I sat down to write my sermon this week, I realize that I had made a grave mistake. Ok. Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. It was not a grave mistake. More of a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, as I returned to the scriptures late in the week, I began to regret some choices that I made earlier in the week. Let me explain. I've learned that the week's run much more smoothly if I can get worship put together some time on Tuesday. That gives Cyndi time to edit and format the bulletin and Rosalea time to work out what music to play for the processional, the offertory, and at the end of the service. And, it gives me time to work on the sermon later in the week. I'm not sure why I didn't catch it on Tuesday. I read through the scriptures as part of worship prep. I think another part of the passage caught my attention at the time. I think I was interested in the "abide in love" or the "laying down your life" part. Actually, I think I was more interested in the Acts text, where, yet again, a group of people you wouldn't expect becomes part of the early Jesus' movement. Either way, early this week, as I read this scripture, I missed something important. I missed that Jesus began to call his disciples "friends."
There it is plain as day. "I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave does not know that the master is doing; but I have called you friends." Now, on a day when we are reading about the disciples as friends, how great it would have been to sing "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." It is such a lovely hymn, and so many people know it.
"What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
The hymn goes on to speak of the joy that prayer brings to the singer. During times of trial and temptation, the singer is relieved to know that Jesus is always there to offer comfort and share in our sorrows. When we are weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care, Jesus is our refuge and we can go to him in prayer. As the author of the hymn wrote, "In his arm's he'll take and shield you, you wilt find a solace there." This is a hymn that is nearly perfect for singing when you feel burdened and sorrow-filled. It reminds us that we are beloved of God, so close that we may even speak of Jesus as our friend. Yeah, too bad I didn't catch that on Tuesday.
This passage is the only time in the whole book of John that Jesus calls the disciples his friends. It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that he does so in the midst of crisis. Though we are in the Easter season, working to fully embrace the Resurrection, today's reading comes from the period just before Jesus was crucified. In the book of John, Jesus seemed to know that something bad was about to happen. This section of the book of John shows us Jesus trying to comfort and prepare his disciples for what is yet to come. So, he told them that he was the Good Shepherd, reminding them of the work of the Psalmist. They would not need to fear because the shepherd never leaves his sheep. He told them that they were the vines to his branches, and that they had been empowered to bring good fruit to the world. They would bring glory to God through their work on Jesus' behalf. And, in today's reading, Jesus offers his disciples joy, love, mission, and, yes, friendship.
When Jesus speaks of his love, he invites his disciples to "abide" in his love. Scholar Meda Stamper reminds us of something important about this word "abide." In the book of John, this word is often used to indicate more than just the simple act of resting. To abide to make a comfortable home. For example, early in John, Jesus spoke of God has having many mansions for God's people. The word that gets translated as mansions is actually better translated as abiding places. God will provide for people not opulence, but instead, homie-ness, a place to feel safe and comfortable and wanted. So, when we talk about Jesus asking the disciples to abide in his love, he is asking them to make a home in love... to find safety and rest in love. That must have been a comfort for them as they followed him, itinerant and homeless preachers who would be threatened for doing the Gospel work and run out of town. Regardless of their physical home, they could always abide in Jesus' love.
Then, he tells them how to abide in his love. He says that they will abide in his love if they follow his commandments, just as he has abided in God's commandments. Now, as we've talked about before, commandment so often has harsh connotations, as though it will be a burden to follow them. Notice, though, that Jesus does not tell people that the commandment will be hard. He tells them that it will bring joy. He says, "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." And, what commandment will bring people such joy? The commandment to love one another just as Christ has love them. That's right. Loving one another will bring them joy and allow them to make their homes in Christ. And, it is through the act of loving one another that they become friend's of Christ.
Now, up to this point in the passage, Jesus' statements seem to be doing something very similar for his community as the song "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" does for many of us when we hear it. That is, they bring comfort. The song assures us that Jesus will provide us with comfort and care. Jesus offered his friends a home of love and joy and mutual concern. But, this passage does something that the song doesn't do. In John, Jesus demonstrates that there can be a real cost in loving another person. In fact, love of another person can result in death. Or, more clearly, love can provoke a willingness to put one's own life at risk for the people that one loves. Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." In this one sentence, Jesus reminded his followers that love and joy are not saccharine, shallow things. They are deep things, things that abide in the very life and love of Jesus.
Jesus loved loudly, proclaiming healing to the broken and justice to the oppressed. He took joy in the healing work he did. But, his love and joy did not lead him to safe places. It lead him into dangerous conflicts with the ruling elites and to bedsides of the sick and dying. His friendship with the disciples, a relationship that defined by mutual responsibility and common goals, and his love of humanity, put him at risk. But, I guess love always puts us at risk. There is always a danger is loving one another as Christ loved us. Inside the joy of the Gospel also dwells the potential for deep pain when the Beloved people of God are wounded. But, friendship with Christ, and love for one another, calls us to move towards that possible pain, knowing that Christ's ultimate joy and our beloved friends can help carry us through it.
This way of being a friend of Jesus sounds pretty different than the hymn we sang together. That doesn't mean that the hymn is useless to us or untrue. But, it does mean that we may need to supplement it with some other stories that show not just how Jesus' tends to our needs but how we also tend to the needs of our beloved friends in Christ. Let me share two stories from Love Wins Ministry, a ministry of presence and pastoral care for homeless and at-risk populations in Raleigh, North Carolina. Hugh, a pastor in the ministry, wrote a letter in where he answered a question about why their hospitality house, a place where people can go for support, is only open four days per week. This is his response:
"But no matter who asks it, I always tell them the truth. 'Because that is all we can handle.'
Because, quite simply, this work is hard. Not hard, like I dug a ditch all day today, hard. But hard, like I want to go home and crawl under my bed and weep until someone slides a tray of comfort food under the bed and leaves, hard.
Take just two samples from this week:
Two different couples in our community learned they were pregnant. Of course, they are barely housed. Of course, they can’t afford to feed themselves. Of course, they have no income or prospects for a job. And of course, they are so excited that they did this thing that other people on the planet do all the time, this normalizing thing that proves they are human and that gives them hope.
And of course, we will celebrate the birth of these kids, and of course we will hope for the best, and of course we will mourn with them when the state takes these kids away from them, just like they took their last kids. And you can look forward into the future and see how this will play out as clearly as you can see the sunrise.
Or take my friend Jeff, who is back in jail, for violating the terms of his probation. That Jeff is a registered sex offender makes this no less complicated. That Jeff is a devoted member of our worshiping community and a far better Bible scholar than I am complicates if further. And that I will go see Jeff and pray with him is never in doubt.
The reality is, we are tired. All the time."
This is what it is to abide in Christ's love. This is what it is to love your friend as Christ loves you. Hugh loves the people of his worshiping community and this love has split him wide open. He worries about the people who struggle with mental health and addiction. He fears for those who can't find jobs because they have prior felony convictions. He tries to help the impoverished find the resources they need to rise out of poverty. He even risks arrest to feed people in a public park because the city he lives in has decided there's something wrong with feeding hungry people in public parks. Even with the threat of arrest looming, he feeds people anyway. He's been called to love his friends, and his joy will be complete when all of his friends have a community that loves and welcomes them. He dies a little everyday to the unjust world around him. And, yet, he knows the joy of Christ as he worships, and he has found abiding love in his friends. Here's one more story he shared. It's about a man named Ron:
"One of the tasks Ron has assumed is taking the trash to the curb on Thursdays. When he doesn’t do it, we often forget, and then the trash piles up. But Ron doesn’t forget.
He also, like a lot of members of our community, has bad teeth. Dental care is hard for our folks, with all the carbs and sugar everyone wants to push on them, and the lack of free or low-cost dental clinics. But strings were pulled and sources were hunted for and finally, Ron had a much needed oral surgery.
Yesterday morning, the phone rang. I was in the office, and Elizabeth answered the phone. She shifts from professional voice to casual register, and chats for a minute. Then she hangs up.
'That was Ron,' she said. 'He wanted us to know he made it through surgery and is doing fine. He also said to remind everyone that the trash needs to be taken to the curb today.'
And there you have it. Community in action. Calling not because he needed something, but because a) he knew we would want to know he is okay and b) because he wanted to make sure the community continued to function, even when he wasn’t here."
Now, if that's not a little bit of Resurrection on a regular afternoon in Raleigh, I don't know what it. May we all be broken open by this kind of love. May we all find an abiding place in Christ, take our we take our prayer to Christ while we remember to take our trash out to the curb.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
For the stories about some hard days, read Hugh Hollowell's post, "We Are Tired. All The Time": http://www.lovewinsministries.org/2014/08/we-are-tired-all-the-time/
For the story about a good day, read Hugh Hollowell's post, "Sometimes This Stuff Works": http://www.lovewinsministries.org/2015/04/sometimes-this-stuff-works/
Meda's stampers comentaries: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2435 and https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2434
Kathy Huey at Sermon Seeds: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_may_10_2015
Karoline Lewis, "Choose Joy": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3608
Fred B. Craddock, "Being a Friend of Jesus, " in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 189-193.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.