Monday, June 19, 2017

6-18-17 in "The Summer of Love" Series, "The ACT of Love"

6-18-17 Sermon “The ACT of Love” in “Summer of Love” series

   What does it mean to be a friend these days?
When we were kids friendship seemed so much simpler, didn’t it? Oh, it had its ups and downs, sure, and maybe I’m just romanticizing the idea of friendship, but it just didn’t seem so complicated back then. I had lots of kids I hung around with in my neighborhood as a kid who were my friends at that point in my life - but we’re not friends now and haven’t been for 50 years. So, were we friends then or just acquaintances?

   In the era of Facebook we’ve both broadened and, I think perhaps, cheapened what it means to be a friend. On FB we can be “friends” with people we’ve never even met; we can be friends with people we don’t even really like! In fact, I have interactions with some Facebook friends that are more congenial than those I have with other “friends” that I’ve known or been acquainted with for decades - so what exactly does it mean to be a friend?
   And what does all this say about the nature of “friendship?” I have a clergy friend, or should I call her a colleague since we don’t generally get together outside of clergy or church gatherings…whatever, but her husband limits himself to 40 Facebook friends at a time.He won’t have more. If he feels pressure to add someone as a Friend then he feels compelled to go through his list of existing friends and delete someone.

   Depending on how you think about it you might have many friends, or just a few. I have some long time old friends, I have some really close friends, I’ve had friends I was close with for a season in my life but that I haven’t seen or interacted with in years - are we still friends or did we just know each other for a period of time long ago? One of the benefits of Facebook, I will say, is that allows us to reconnect with some of those people in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. I’ve had close, personal friendships with people who later threw me under the bus, and with others where I’ve done the same to them. 

   Friendship is messy business. And then we come along to today’s scripture and hear Jesus define “friendship” as being a willingness to lay down one’s life for another. In fact, more than friendship, this is how Jesus defines love, and then goes on to say that he considers the disciples his friends and that “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” 
And that should give us pause…
   Indeed friends are one of life’s greatest gifts. They accept us, care for us, make us laugh, challenge us, listen to us, steady us, help us pick up the pieces, and even inspire us to be better. They represent some of life’s best relationships. Yet Jesus didn’t lightly say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.” What is the purpose of friendship in the Christian life? What is the significance of Jesus, on his last night, no longer calling his disciples servants but calling them friends?

   Jesus directs his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” The passage begins and ends with this instruction. While modern conversation about love and friendship can tend toward being cozy and sentimental, Jesus issues a radical call. It’s perhaps the most radical call of the gospel, because his words indicate that the kind of love Jesus embodied is to be reproduced by Jesus’ followers: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is, with a love that goes all the way. It gives all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It doesn’t necessarily go looking to lose one’s life, but if that’s what love requires, it doesn’t flinch. This is love in action and is not unique to Jesus, but is to be characteristic of all of Jesus’ friends. 

   Now, often when we think of friendship with Christ, we focus on how good a friend Jesus is to us. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” we sing. John goes rapidly to the flip side: to being a friend of Jesus and to the fruit that friendship with Christ bears. Jesus’ proclamation of friendship is a call to action. As we have come to understand, I hope, throughout this series, love is an action, and in this passage - a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die - not for your child or your spouse, but for the fellow follower of Christ. If we bring this down to the most personal and individual of levels, if we look around the congregation, for whom would we be willing to die? For what reason would we die for a fellow follower of Christ? This is how Jesus describes an expression of friendship: to give up everything for the other. For Jesus, in this text, friendship is obedient action, the obedience of Jesus to God first, and in response, our obedience to Christ. “Do what I tell you,” Jesus says, which is altogether different from what our contemporary ears would hear in the offer of friendship, and is perhaps more than what we would be willing to take on.

   21st century readers can’t help but read the language of love and friendship psychologically. We’ve been steeped in the language of individual psychology to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine there is any definition of love other than a warm and fuzzy feeling, or friendship as companionship and compatibility. 
   More difficult still for the modern mind is the notion that God’s love for us through Christ is not a feeling, at least not a feeling to which we mere creatures can have access. The definition of God’s love is found in God’s actions. In the beginning, God does not think or feel, God creates. So it is with God’s love: it’s defined for us by what it does. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him.” 
   So doesn’t God, we wonder, in God’s very being, feel tenderly toward us? That’s an interesting question, and when we consider that we are made in God’s image then it might logically follow that the way we love must be the way God loves. But we also must consider that in thinking of God’s love in human ways, we might actually be trying to remake God in our image. We assume that God’s love takes the form of what we want it to be, what we humans have come to call “love” in the present; but in reality, the definition of God’s love that we have access to are results: it creates, it redeems, it bears fruit, it lays down its life.

   Let’s be clear: mandating physical death as the mark of love is problematic and I don’t think that’s what Jesus is calling us to. But it does present us with a challenge. If we agree that the potential for abuse of this equation are unacceptable, what does that mean for us? Good news and bad news. The good news is that we don’t have to feel any particular way to get on with the practice of friendship. This is good news, because if we would, say, look around the congregation, there are probably very few people about whom any of us feel warm and fuzzy enough to give our life for, but for whom we can and certainly do practice friendship. 
   The bad news is the same, but with a different emphasis: we’re to get on with the business of friendship without waiting to feel or expecting to feel anything in particular for one another. It’s almost the “fake it until you make it” idea. It’s in the “actions” of friendship, the giving, the doing, the sharing, that love is shown to another, and maybe even grown with the other, even if the warm and fuzzies feelings aren’t apparent at first. That is, friendship can grow out of simple relationship. 

   If you follow Christ, you’re ready to die for him, as God in Christ died for us. “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.” To lay down one’s life might well be speaking of physical death, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that understanding. It could mean our dying to a way of being. Or it could be allowing an attitude or fear of another to die, to allow to die a feeling, a memory, or a bit of guilt, that keeps us from acting in love. Forget about laying down one’s physical life for a moment - who would you give a kidney to? Who would you serve a meal to? Who would you do yard work for? Who would you give a ride to? Who would you be willing to pray with? It’s not about whether you feel love for them, if you even like them, or think they deserve it! But those are the actions of love, for God and for neighbor that Jesus calls us to. Those are marks of friendship, and I daresay, discipleship, at it’s core, with our brothers and sisters, and with Jesus Christ. “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”

   In the twenty-first century, there is anxiety about friendship. Once upon a time, friendships were a staple of American popular culture - but not so anymore. The late 20th century bridge clubs, bowling leagues, and TV shows like Friends, and Seinfeld have given way to slot machines, mobile phone video games, music listened to with ear buds, bowling alone, and shows about modern angst, reality TV, and various ways to lose weight or become a millionaire. As workers log longer hours, as people relocate, and as technology changes the contours of relationships, deep meaningful friendship is often among the first things to be sacrificed. There are lonely people out there who live with feelings of failure when it comes to friendship. Others do not grasp what they are missing.

   Friendship is one of life’s greatest gifts. Friendships go far beyond being a blessing and sign of how much God loves us, though. Friendships serve as training grounds. Our best friendships teach us how to love. 
Day by day and year after year, enduring friendships are places in which we practice patience forgiveness, kindness, and justice. Friendships can be where we learn hospitality, mercy, generosity, and compassion. 
To be sure, not all friendship accomplish such lofty goals, but it is often through friendship that we learn to love and that we catch glimpses of what it means to radiate the goodness and holiness of God in the world.

   In telling his disciples that he no longer calls them servants but friends, Jesus is suggesting that even as he leaves, relationship matters and friendship is a primary setting in which we love one another and grow in the skills needed to transform the world with our way of life. Jesus as friend models the best of human love, not in how he feels or makes us feel, but in what he does, and what he calls us to do as friends. Amen. 

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