What a friend we have in Jesus: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2015

How many of you remember that old hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? I grew up singing it, and I’ll bet many of you my age or older, especially if you grew up in Evangelical backgrounds, sang it as well. You might even know it so well that you could sing at least verse from memory:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs he bears.

What a privilege to carry,

Everything to God in prayer.

Oh what peace we often forfeit,

Oh what needless pain we bear

All because we do not carry

Everything to God in prayer.

I don’t want to disparage either the hymn or those who love it. I know that it was a favorite in the church I was raised, and I remember elderly people who asked for us to sing it and sang along, word for word, during visits to nursing homes. It’s powerfully evocative of our trust and dependence on God, and God’s loving care for us. The intimacy expressed by the hymn’s words invite to us to experience Jesus Christ.

When we think of our friends, I wonder what images or ideas come to mind. For some of us, if we’ve lived in the same place for many years or all of our lives, we’re surrounded by friends—often people with whom we grew up, people we’ve known for decades, people about whom we know many things, and they know many things about us.

For others of us, while we may have a few such long-standing relationships, it’s more likely that our friendships are less stable, less longlasting. Corrie and I have lived in Madison for almost six years; that’s the longest we’ve lived in any one place in our entire marriage. And while she and I have friends that go back to graduate school, or even further, in general we’ve lost touch with most of the people with whom we were closest. Facebook of course has changed that to some degree but even there, the people we’ve reconnected with share with us the same things they share with everyone else—there are few deep, abiding relationships.

All this means that we fail to comprehend the full power of Jesus’ words here in John 15 when he says, “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends.” While we get the contrast between friend and servant—the change in status, the change in power dynamic, we probably don’t fully grasp the intimacy implied. For us, “friend” has become something casual—especially in the age of Facebook, when we have “friended” people we don’t know; and we can just as easily and lightly “unfriend” them. Or to return to the hymn, we may be willing to think of Jesus as our friend, without recognizing what it means that he calls us “friend” as well.

In last week’s gospel, verses that immediately precede today’s gospel reading, Jesus began by using the image of a vine and branches. But as he talked, he began to speak of abiding: “Abide in me as I abide in you; As the Father loved me, so I love you, abide in my love.”

“Abide” is a wonderfully old-fashioned word. We hardly use it any more in common conversation—unless you’re a fan of the movie “The Big Lebowski” and know that “the Dude abides.” It’s a particularly rich and recurrent idea in the gospel of John, from the very first chapter. When Jesus calls his first disciples, they ask him, “Where are you staying (or abiding)?” He replies to them, “Come and see.” They went and stayed, abided with him, the whole day.

In this context, when Jesus calls his disciples “friends” he is suggesting that they share with him an intimate, deeply-connected relationship. They abide in one another.

But friendship takes on even deeper meaning as Jesus says, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we haven’t gotten the point earlier, by now it’s clear. The sort of friendship Jesus is talking about is nothing like contemporary notions of friendship. It’s all-encompassing. Of course, we’re meant to think of Jesus’ own love, love expressed on the cross. But we’re also meant to think back to the beginning of this section of John’s gospel, chapter 13, where the gospel begins his account of the Last Supper with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And here, end means both the end of Jesus’ life as well as “to the fullest extent possible.”

That sort of love, the sort of love Jesus showed in his death as well as his life, is incomprehensible to us, even as we experience it. That he might be calling us to the same love is mind-boggling. But we shouldn’t regard it as yet another burden or demand. It is a logical extension of Jesus’ calling us his “friends.”

This is why the image of friendship both in our contemporary usage and in a hymn like “What a friend we have in Jesus” is so inadequate to express the notion of friendship in the gospel of John. John begins with that marvelous hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It goes on to proclaim, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That Word made flesh now calls us “friend.” We are no longer servants or slaves, but friends.” It is a declaration of our shared identity with Christ, not just a relationship, but identity. That identity reaches beyond Jesus Christ to God. The love we share with Christ, that we abide in him and he in us, are reflections, extensions, of the love Jesus and the Father share. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in God.

Among other things, what this means is that we share in God’s mission in the world. We project God’s presence and love in the world. That’s why this commandment to love is so important. It’s not just our obligation; it’s evidence of who we are, of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Today, we will be baptizing two babies. They are being invited to enter into that intimacy with Jesus Christ to love and be loved by him. They are being invited to explore in the course of their life what it means to know and be known by Jesus as a friend. We are witnesses of that, but even more, these baptisms are a reminder to us of who we are and how Jesus calls us. We will all recommit ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human person.

In baptism we become children of God through adoption. As our relationship with Christ develops, as we abide in Christ and he in us, we begin to experience and understand the depth of Christ’s love for us, and we begin to love in the same way. As we come to acknowledge and experience our identity as “friends of Christ” we are able to love one another as he loves us and to know and share that love in the world. As we receive the gift of friendship from God in Christ and as we embody it in the world, our love invites others to Christ’s love, made known on the cross, that the whole world might be drawn to the cross and embraced as friends by the divine love that is revealed there in Jesus Christ.


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