“I Call You Friends”
John 15: 12-17
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
May 3, 2020
There was a fight happening in my hallway one time. It wasn’t particularly violent, but it was loud. This was some years ago, when Calum and Alena were younger, and they were going at it. Who can say what happened? Perhaps someone went into someone else’s room without permission, perhaps a toy was broken, perhaps harsh words were uttered. Who knows? But the fight was pretty hot by Blackburn standards. There is a reason that the phrase “sibling rivalry” is a thing. Brothers and sisters can really get after each other. As a semi-only child, I only had step-siblings, I cannot say that I fully understood why siblings would go after each other until I lived with a pair of them. My kids are pretty much always together. They live across the hall. They share a bathroom. They compete for the pets’ affection. It is a recipe for conflict. So the fact that fights happen shouldn’t be surprising.
Perhaps it would have been helpful had the sibling relationship been considered more carefully before it was tossed around so haphazardly in Scripture. Sibling language is used frequently in reference to Christians. Jesus often addressed crowds as “brothers” which our NRSV helpfully translates as “brothers and sisters.” So, given that we have been cast as siblings should it be a surprise that Christians are always fighting with each other? Over the course of history, we Christians have gone at it like cats and dogs, like brothers and sisters. There are 2 billion of us, give or take, in the world and sometimes you would think we all shared a bathroom. We do not get along well at all.
The Gospel of John is a different sort of book. It exists outside the orbit of the other 3 Gospels. It is unique, different, interesting. As we find Jesus here, in chapter 15, we are in the midst of a lot of talk. If you have one of those red-letter bibles, where Jesus’ words are highlighted in red, you will find no Gospel has more red than this one. Anyway, Jesus is doing a lot of talking. We encounter him in the midst of it. And all this talk is in the context of the last supper. There are two acts which bookend these chapters of talk. On the front end, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. On the back end, he is betrayed and handed over to the authorities. So, the context for this is the Lord’s Supper, and it is a serious, somber time.
Jesus tries to explain, once more, to the disciples who he is, but he also wants them to understand the consequences for this in their lives. I think we should understand that as we read these words it is perfectly acceptable for us to place ourselves in their shoes. We should hear him speaking to us. So anyway, he is explaining things to the disciples/us as his betrayal and death lingers over his head. It’s a serious time. Just before this he talks about being the true vine, the source of nourishment and goodness in the world.
Then he gives them a commandment, and this is where the rubber meets the road for our conversation this morning. He tells the disciples to love one another as he has loved them. He tells them that if they want to be his friend then they need to be friends to one another. Then he tells them again at the end, this is a command, love one another. Now at first blush we think of this as a sweet sort of passage. The temptation, of course, is to say “ah, look how perfect things were in the beginning. Look how much they loved each other. There was so much love.” But this would be, I believe, a misreading of the situation. Let me ask you this, how many times have you in your life issued a command or a commandment, or heard such an edict issued? In all those times was it issued because it was something people did naturally? No. Commands are issued because people don’t do things naturally.
Let’s go back to the fight in the Blackburn hallway for a moment to help us capture the tone of what Jesus asks here. So I heard the argument and decided it was bad enough to warrant parental intervention. On this occasion, I decided to change tactics. I separated the Blackburn children and then made them stand in front of each other. I made them say outrageously nice things about each other, something along the lines of “Alena, you are the greatest sister ever,” or, “Calum, you are the best.” I made them look directly at the other as they said it. Then I made them hug each other. There was significant resistance at first, but as we progressed the resistance gave way to laughing and then the final, grudging hug. I don’t have a lot of examples of good parenting on my part to share, but this is one I feel good about to this day. And I suspect this is more what Jesus was going for in his, “love each other” commandment. It was not warm and fuzzy. On the contrary, he was trying to disrupt conflict.
The disciples, in all likelihood and from the scant stories we have about them directly, were not behaving well at all toward each other. They were jockeying for position. They were jealous of each other. They were comparing who had sacrificed the most. They were, in short, behaving like siblings. Jesus was trying to change their relationship with each other at the last moment. He was trying to get them to love one another, and perhaps if he could change them from siblings to friends then that would do the trick.
So what does this mean for us? Well, I think it is pretty simple to affirm a couple of things. First, we should just admit that living in community is hard. I feel like often times we have high expectations for the behavior of people in the Church. We are surprised when someone is rude or selfishness or dismissive. On the one hand, we are right to be upset about bad behavior in the Church. On the other hand, passages like this remind us that living in community is really hard, and it doesn’t come naturally to us. It is hard when it is siblings in a house and it is hard when it is brothers and sisters in Christ in a church. It is hard. As much as all of us love and rely on other people, we are also infuriated by them. As much as we try to care for others we also have certain degrees of selfishness. Community is really, really hard.
Second, and this is the key, loving others as Jesus loved us is absolutely indispensable to following Jesus. We cannot follow Jesus faithfully by ourselves. Scripture reinforces this over and over again. And here, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus does it again. Love one another as I have loved you, he commands. And how has he loved us? He has healed us, taught us, encouraged us and shaped us. He has washed our feet and he has died for us. Jesus’ love is all-encompassing and complete, and it is something we are commanded, commanded mind you, to embody toward one another. It’s just not acceptable to throw up our hands and dismiss poor behavior in Christian community. Jesus never gives up on the disciples’ relationship with one another, so we should not give up on our relationship with each other.
A Christian community which takes this commandment to heart will be transformed. Loving one another with that degree of selflessness, to that degree of completeness, would look unlike almost any other body in the world. It would look like the Body of Christ. It is particularly useful, I think, to ponder this while we are separated. Right now, I believe we can best appreciate what we have in one another as First Presbyterian Church. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone, they say. So perhaps in our isolation we can ponder what it would mean for us to embody this commandment when we come back together. Perhaps we can resolve to think of each other as both siblings AND friends. Perhaps, we can love each other as Jesus has loved us. Amen.