The End of Loneliness:  Part Two

John 15: 12-17

The Reverend Phillip Blackburn

January 17, 2016

Do you remember your very first best friend?  Think about it for a minute.  Who were they?  Where did you meet?  What was your relationship like?  What made them special?  Over the course of our lifetimes many of us will develop numerous close friendships but there is something special about that first best friend.  For me, there was one thing that set apart my first true best friend from the rest.  I’d had other friends with whom I shared common interests, or with whom I had fun.   For me the thing that set my friend apart, and his name is Joseph, was that Joseph stuck around when things weren’t fun.  I’d had other friends before but they were, shall we say, not too loyal. When the going got tough, as it always does in life at some point, they took off.  But not Joseph.  I remember that if Joseph wanted to do something like play basketball or go to a movie, but I had chores, he would come over and help me get them done so we could go.  And then there was the ultimate act of loyalty.  When we were choosing up sides in basketball and Joseph was a captain, which he often was because he was good, he would choose me first even though I was no good and we would often lose.  Although now I think maybe he just chose me to make it more of a challenge for him, but that’s beside the point.  Anyway, you get the idea.  The thing that, for me, set him and future close friends apart is that they didn’t go away when things were hard.

As important as friendship is to all of us in our lives, and as much as it is the antidote to loneliness, our faith doesn’t appear to have much to say about it.  There aren’t a ton of Christian books about friendship.  The Bible doesn’t go into it in great detail.  We don’t often frame our friendships in faith language.  And we can be certain that the disciples likely did not see Jesus as a friend.   Did they see him as a teacher?  Absolutely.  A master?  Of course.  The messiah?  Sometimes.  But a friend?  Not really.  If they did, we certainly don’t get much record of it.  There are no stories of them playing jokes on him or working hard to make his life easier, or for that matter sticking with him when times got tough.  When Jesus needed them to stay awake while he prayed, they fell asleep.  When he was taken away to be crucified, they headed for the hills.  They were not great friends.

And yet the Gospel of John tells us that, at the end, Jesus saw them as friends.  It is the only overt reference to friendship in the Gospels and it is important.  In this passage, which is a part of the greater farewell dialogue, Jesus tells them that their relationship is changing.   No longer are they master and servants.  Now they are friends.  And what marks a friendship?  Sacrifice, Jesus says.  To be precise he says this, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus makes clear that it is the world for which he is sacrificing himself but also his friends, this little group of people who have been with him since the beginning.  And he goes on.

One of the important things to remember about the Gospels is that their purpose is not just to offer a historical accounting of Jesus’ life but also to shape communities.  Each Gospel was written with a community of faith in mind and the Gospel writer wanted to make sure that the culture of the community would be informed by specific aspects of Jesus’ ministry.  John wanted to make sure that his community understood the relationship between friendship and discipleship.  So Jesus makes it clear.  He says in verse 17: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”  The disciples, and by connection the community of faith itself, should love another as friends.  And not just as casual friends, but as friends who stick with each other, friends who sacrifice for one another.  Friends who are loyal to one another.

I asked you earlier if you remembered your first friend;  well, let me now ask you this: do you remember what life was like in the schoolyard?  Do you remember that?  I know all of you spent time in the schoolyard as kids, I’ve seen Little House on the Prairie before, so I know it.  The schoolyard could be a tough place and, for me at least, was my first realization in life that no one is an island.  On the schoolyard, as in prison, you need friends.  Even before I met Joseph, I went to the schoolyard for recess every day and I can remember the comfort that came from knowing who I would be playing with.  Nobody wanted to be that kid wandering around alone, picking dandelions and talking to himself.  That was a bad scene.  No, you need friends on the schoolyard and you need them not just to look bad but because it could be tough out there.  The schoolyard specializes in human suffering.  There were bullies and gangs who would be all too happy to assault your body and then the roving bands of girls who were always wise to an opportunity to destroy your self- esteem.  It was a tough place.

And what we realize as we get older is that we still live on the schoolyard in many ways. The rules change, the context changes, but the realities of human society, friends and enemies, caregivers and con-artists, builders and destroyers, these things don’t change.  All of us have learned to rely on our friends when we enter the world, but there is a problem.  We have become awful at making and keeping good friends.  The truth is that more people are lonely today than at any other time of human history.  This is easy enough to explain in that we move around much more, live farther from family and spend far less time talking than we used to.  But it doesn’t change the facts.  We are a lonely people.  Nothing speaks to this more than the explosion of social media.  Products like Facebook and Twitter and many others speak to the epidemic of loneliness in our society but even these things are tinged with loneliness.  A study was released recently stating that the more time you spend on Facebook the more likely you are to experience feelings of depression.  And why not?  If you spend your day looking at fun pictures people have taken, videos of cats, and the political rants of friends, how can you not be depressed?  But don’t be distracted.  This is not about Facebook, this is about the symptom to which it and other things like it speak.  We are a lonely people.  We have virtual relationships and we are admonished to not speak about things like religion or politics in public, which are two of the most personal and interesting topics we could cover.  So that’s it. We live far from old friends and family.  We aren’t supposed to talk about personal beliefs and issues, and we relate to each other through screens.  That’s not good.

See, I have a theory.  The reason we have become so lonely and the reason we are so bad at friendship is because we have forgotten these words from Jesus.  Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you.”  Notice he did not say receive love from others as you have received love from me. No.  He changed our orientation.  Instead of the naval gazing that is so tempting to us, he orients us outward, toward others, into deep and authentic friendship and community.  The reason we are so lonely, I believe, and the reason that the schoolyard of life can still be such a tough place, is because we have come to think that friendship is all about us, whether our friends are nice, and good and loyal to us.  We have not spent nearly as much time considering how we can go into the world with true love on our hearts.  We don’t get on Facebook very often wondering how we can express love to others.  No we get on like voyeurs and then we feel sad because more people haven’t liked our latest post.  No wonder we are depressed.

And what of the church?  It is vital that we recognize the state of people when they come here.  They are coming in from that schoolyard, from jobs that are tough, relationships that are battered, faith that is stressed.  People come in here just as we all do, seeking an encounter with God and with Jesus’ people.  And our hallmark should be that outward looking love of which Jesus spoke. We have an opportunity in the church, and we are reminded weekly, of the power we have to show love to other people.  Jesus sees you as his friend.  Jesus laid down his life for you and he calls you, in this moment, to have that same love for one another.  The people of this world are bruised and battered and broken, and the only antidote is love.  Love one another as Jesus has loved you.  You can’t do anything greater with your life than that.  Amen.