As the Father loved me, I also 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.
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you. These things I command you, that you love one another. (John 15:9-17)
It strikes me as strange that I have never heard a sermon on this text. Stranger still, I myself have not until now prepared a sermon on this text. Who knows why? Here is a passage with depth, with sufficient density to tease the mind of the preacher, with an extraordinary offer to the listener, hiding in plain sight. Maybe it is avoided because its promise is too magnificent and, therefore, too demanding. Some texts are like that. Even Martin Luther found the story of Abraham offering Isaac simply too much for a sermon. Or it could be that John 15:9-17 makes an offer to which the heart feels it must say, “No.” Listen: “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.” (John 15:15) From servant to friend – do you welcome, will you accept, the promotion?
I must acknowledge that my trembling before John 15:15 has an antecedent in a sermon heard almost twenty years ago on a kindred theme: Abraham was called a friend of God (James 2:23). A combination of misfortunes put me in the fortunate position to hear the sermon. A cancelled flight; a last minute reservation in a motel near the airport; a search for a church within walking distance, since the next morning was Sunday; a housekeeper at the motel pointing in the direction of one six blocks away; my arrival at a cinder block building in which a few tired souls had already begun singing gospel songs. The preacher, a large man, made painfully awkward by a number of maladies, including poor eyesight, moved to the pulpit and read in crippled speech his sermon text: James 2:23. His opening words were, “Abraham was a friend of God. I’m sure glad I am not a friend of God.” His sermon was an explanation of why he was pleased not to be a friend of God.
I cannot recall being so engaged in a sermon. His delivery was without animation; his physical condition denied him that. His speech was a bit halting, but each word was clear and pronounced with respect. All of us in the small congregation were helping him preach by our total silence and attention to what he said. He recalled the story of Abraham, pilgrim and wanderer, who after years of homelessness, died and was buried in a land not his own. “Abraham was a friend of God,” he said; “I’m glad I’m not.” He then spoke of others who had been called friends of God, faithful in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. He concluded with a story of Teresa of Avila, remembered by the church as a friend of God. He recalled her begging in public to raise funds for an orphanage. After a series of setbacks – flood, storm, and fire repeatedly destroying the orphanage – Teresa in her evening prayers said to God, “So this is how you treat your friends; no wonder you have so few.” The sermon closed with counsel: if you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you. But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.
Because of that extraordinary sermon in that little church (I do not remember its name, nor that of the preacher), I am somewhat prepared to hear Jesus’s words, “I do not call you servants any longer. . . but I have called you friends.”
No longer servants but friends: it sounds like a promotion. One could make a case for such a reading. Had not Jesus, in that very room, on that very night, dramatically impressed upon the disciples the posture and action of a servant by washing their feet? Had he not said plainly that they were to wash one another’s feet? Had he not reminded them of a fact not to be overlooked in the life of a disciple: “Servants are not greater than their master”? (13:14-16) “Servant” is the operative word to speak of our relation to Christ and to the community of faith. Nothing strikes us as so unbecoming a follower of Christ as arrogance, as the pursuit of position and power, as the desire to be served rather than to serve. Such living is a stark contradiction of the teaching and the example of Jesus. Of course, we sing with feeling, “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” but who among us would say, “What a friend Jesus has in me”? None of us would or should claim that position.
Now, suddenly and shockingly, Jesus bestows the title that no one among us could claim: friend. It feels like a title; but, in fact, the word describes a relationship. It implies love and mutuality. Even if it is not a title, it still feels like a title. If you have been all your life a servant of Jesus; if you have chosen that role; if being a servant of Jesus faithful in word and deed has been the total definition of who you are, then to be called by Jesus his friend is an overwhelming gift. “Jesus has called me his friend”; who can pronounce the words? It is too much.
Of course, “friend” is heard as a promotion. No longer servant but friend – receive it for what it obviously is, a promotion from one station to another. Think of it: out of the cabin into the big house; off the back porch to the patio; off the bench up to the dining hall; out of the field onto the lawn; off the floor and into the big bed. No more, “Tote that barge, lift that bale”; instead, “Come, friend, let us walk together.” Can there be in all God’s kingdom a delight greater than this? No, absolutely not; it is impossible.
Jesus continues: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing.” That’s the truth; the whole of my life was to do what I was told. Plough, plant, weed, harvest; that is what I did when told to do it. I did not know what went on in the big house; I did not know what went on in the master’s head. Deals, trades, profit and loss: these were his responsibilities, not mine. His lamp burned late, not mine. When my day’s work was done, it was done. After that, it was bread and bed for me. Don’t ask me any questions about my master’s business; I don’t know. I mind my own business.
Jesus continues: “But I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.” In other words, a friend of Jesus shares in the knowledge of God’s operation in the world, what God is doing and how God is doing it. God is creating a community of love that is to embrace everyone. A friend has this love and extends it toward others, but it carries a price. The world that does not know God will hate the friend of Jesus as it hated Jesus for practicing this love. Jesus paid the full price for so loving, laying down his life for those he loves. We have no reason to assume a friend of Jesus would be exempt from the same. Through knowing what Jesus heard from God, the friend of Jesus shares in the responsibility of that knowledge. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” is a pleasant and encouraging thought, but, “What a friend Jesus has in me,” is beginning to feel burdensome. I am beginning to wonder if the move from servant to friend is really a promotion.
It is true the servant does not know what the master is doing, but that has its bright side. The servant doesn’t take his work home with him. For him the day ends when he puts aside the shovel and the hoe. But sometimes the master is up all night, pacing and worrying. If the servant becomes the friend of the master, then the master’s burdens become the servant’s own. It seems friends of Jesus are never completely free of the duty to bear the fruit and to pay the price of love.
“Because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.” But really, who wants to know? Most of us carry within us large areas of deliberate ignorance. From childhood we carry the warm and inspiring image of General George Washington with his troops in the biting snow at Valley Forge. Who wants the picture spoiled by the information that Washington was quartered in a large and comfortable farmhouse nearby? From English literature class we embrace William Wordsworth as the tender and sensitive poet. Why enroll in a graduate course on Wordsworth and be disillusioned by his practice of using a knife already smeared with butter and preserves to cut apart the pages of books newly arrived at the home of his host? Who wants to hear a poor child say, “Mommy, I’m hungry,” and to read a marquee announcing “All You Can Eat, $7.95,” all on the same evening? Comfort demands avoiding those rallies where passionate and informed speakers assail our ears with the news: 13 million children in America go to bed hungry every night; over 9 million have no health insurance; every 30 minutes a child is shot to death in the United States. There is a lot of information that I prefer not to know.
Is this what it means to be a friend of Jesus, to be told the uncomfortable truth that carries unavoidable duty, the duty to love, to love as God loves, to lay down one’s life if need be? The life of the servant is looking better all the time. I recall the first time I saw the inside of a pulpit. The church of my upbringing had a beautiful pulpit with a succession of most attractive tapestries. I admired them every Sunday from my seat near the back pew. The pulpit was awesome. Then I was called to be a minister. On a Christmas break from school, I was asked to preach. It was a trembling experience. Among my memories of that day is the unforgettable image of the contents of the pulpit. Piled inside on two shelves were old bulletins, a scum covered glass of water, a baseball cap, a faded stole, a coverless hymnal, an old Bible, a few sheets of music, pages of handwritten notes, a broken alarm clock, and a burned-to-the-base candle. Needless to say, the view from the pew was much more pleasant. I did not at the time feel I had been given a promotion. In fact, there are plenty of days when being a servant has stronger appeal than being a friend. The old cabin out back looks more attractive than the big house.
I will never forget the first time I was invited as a friend to spend the night in the big house, God’s house. I was, of course, excited as a new friend of Jesus and a first-time visitor to the House of Many Rooms. Angels showed me around and answered my endless questions. The food was heavenly and at bedtime I was shown to a room of my own. With a, “Goodnight, sleep well,” I was left alone. The excitement of the day finally resolved into weariness and weariness into rest. My bed was a cloud. To the soft sound of music coming from everywhere, I drifted into sleep.
Sometime during the night my sleep was interrupted by sounds from the next room. I did not know who was in that room, but somebody was having a bad night. The noise was not snoring, nor did it seem to be sleep talking. I listened more carefully; maybe it was groaning or moaning accompanied by tossing and turning. I thought once to knock on the door, but was afraid to do so. I dared not call out lest I add to that person’s discomfort and perhaps wake others. So I tolerated it till morning, catching only snatches of sleep.
At daybreak I heard the person next door move about the room and then step out into the hall. I did the same, wanting to see who it was, and, if appropriate, express regret that the night was so restless.
It was God. I was shocked; God restless and unable to sleep, the God who blesses with peace beyond understanding, the God who hushes even a whimpering child? I was speechless.
God said, “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children down there.”
What did that, “I don’t remember his name,” preacher in that, “whatever it was,” church say to the congregation? “If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you. But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.”