Friends of Jesus
A sermon based on John 15:9-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 6, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I have mentioned a few times how a couple of decades ago, on a Sunday morning while walking my dog I stumbled upon a UCC church and saw a respected friend through the church windows singing a hymn with the congregation. I was a lawyer, an agnostic and very anti-Church at the time. I’ve mentioned that sight eventually led me to check out that church, which in turn led to me embracing Christianity . . . and a few years later the ministry. Last week we talked about my finding the “God who is love” in that church. This a a sort of sequel sermon.
I have not mentioned before how on the Sunday that I finally visited that church very dark forces had caused many in that congregation to treat the pastor poorly and that very week boycott and leave the church. My first morning there the pastor stood before us and explained the loss of 30 people including some staff. They left and boycotted the church and worship services because he had prayerfully and lovingly led the church – along with The Creator, Christ and the Holy Spirit– to provide justice and kindness to LGBTQ in the community.
I saw so much light in that darkness that morning.At the time I had long been involved in secular LGBTQ justice work and seeing the light that pastor and that church and the God of love they followed shining in all that darkness led to my returning week after week. At first I went to support the justice stand, then, over time I went to learn about this new-to-me kind of Christian community, one willing to stand firm and band together in love against hate from inside and outside the church. I liked being in that light. And I also went for the friendship and love that grew as I became involved.
Those first visits hooked me on that pastor and that church and the love there, and of course it all led to an incredible transformation in my life and being hooked on church and Jesus and the God of Jesus: Love. Despite the powerful positive for me in finding a pastor and most of a church willing to seek justice and love kindness for oppressed neighbors, it was an immensely negative and painful time for the pastor, a suffering servant, the target of bullying and boycotts of worship and mean and hateful acting out.
The pastor conveyed to me how he and his wife were able to get through the ordeal and stay because of the members who stood with them– many sacrificing long-term friendships, and even business partnerships with those who left. Most of the church stood with the pastor and love and did what they did knowing that acting loving is always right. It’s always right to follow Jesus’ teachings to be love in the world.
Christ’s presence in that church and particularly in the pastor’s “crucifixion” by members and his successful fight for resurrection in the face of the hate and unloving conduct, turned out to be a catalyst for my own salvation from the lesser person I might have been had I not been so moved by the bright light of his love and the love of his friends–and the friends of Christ– that stayed in the church. They led me to become a Christian.
I am, and always will be, so very grateful, for that congregation’s great light in the darkness and particularly for the sacrifices that Rev. Charles Busch and his family made, as well as the light he brought that first day when darkness loomed, and, of course, for light he’s continued to shine in our friendship ever since. I mention all this because our Lectionary text has to do with love and friendship in Christian faith community, and being a friend to Christ.
A few weeks ago when I served on an interfaith “Panel for Peace” at Miami University, I raised the issue of darkness appearing in the light of peace and justice work in the community. The next week I raised it again in an interview with a reporter working on a Washington Post article. I noted the truth in my experience whenever Love of others is put into action evil will raise it’s ugly head, and that while in the end love will win, dealing with evil is hard on those who are putting love into action. I saw that the very first day I walked into a UCC church– the very first day– and I witnessed the congregation and pastor following Jesus’ instructions in our lesson today.
I try to remember that when my work with churches awakens dark forces against love-centered actions that churches and I have been involved in in our ministries together. I’ve encountered darkness taking the form of unloving responses from outside the church including stolen items, defaced property, obscene and angry calls, hostile emails, letters to the editor, social media comments; accusations of being involved with terrorists, even protestors outside of the church. I have been surrounded by much love at this church. This past week that has been especially apparent. If you have not heard already I need to have some heavy duty back surgery at the end of month that is why I am not standing except during the sermon, and already the outpouring of care and support and love has been so touching. I am deeply moved and very grateful. Thank you.
But not all responses in my dozen years of ministry have been so loving. Angry acts from within churches have also occurred. Fortunately I have not seen 30 members act in concert in a sinful manner in my ministries. But I have encountered a handful in faith communities leave, boycott, bully, send mean notes, stop volunteering, stop giving or otherwise lash out because they did not like the way the church and leadership proceeded in seeking justice, loving kindness or walking humbly with God. Sadly, like all families there can be unloving acts in church families.
In such situations – at any church– all of the unloving actors need love and prayer, but so do the church and the leaders and those who remain friendly to, and friends of, the church. All churches need loving prayers and acts that protect mission and ministries, leaders and congregations from anger and hate so they can continue to seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. Like the love I am being shown with my health issues, love needs to be shown to the church and its leaders whenever dark forces cause family members to act out.
And I want to be clear that dissent and disagreement and constructive criticism within the process are not a dark forces when done with love and care. Nor are unintentional missteps or mistakes or irritable snapping. Dissent is a part of the process, missteps and mistakes –even irritability– are too, but lashing out with an intent to hurt the church or its leadership or oppressed people is not an acceptable part of the process or Jesus’ Way. Lashing out to hurt is not friendly toward the church, its leadership, God’s people, Christ or God. It is a lack-love. The theological word for it is “sinful”–which means to miss the mark God aims us at.
Efforts taken to stop or hinder or hurt faithful actions that seek justice and love kindness– are dark and unloving. They are hard on the church and hard on the soul of its leaders and members. I saw an example of that sin in Oregon when church members who did not get their way on the issue of opposing the oppression of people lashed out. Thank God I also saw the awesome church members that stayed, abided in love, making that church all the more powerful. Even bringing agnostic anti-Christian me to Christ and the ministry. Love won. But the dark force of evil did have its day.
It is sad when love in action causes unloving action by anyone. but it is profoundly sad when that unloving action comes from within a faith community. We rightly focus a lot of our conversations and actions on love for others outside the church because there is a human tendency to at least try to love those who are close, those of the same family, but not those outside the family. Jesus’ life and ministry especially emphasized a broad scope of love, so broad it included not just family and neighbors, but enemies.
What Jesus added to the mix of the Hebrew Scriptures commandment to love our neighbor was just that, the commandment that we have to love every one. “Love your enemies” is Old Testament law taken to it’s logical conclusion. So there really is no doubt – at least in the Bible– that those of us who follow Jesus are supposed to love those outside our church tribe, our church family. But today’s text does not look out beyond the church family. It looks directly at those in the church. It’s a lesson for church people about church people by the ultimate church leader, Jesus.
Most Americans have this idea that church people all just get along and agree on everything or must do so, and folks are mad or disappointed when they discover that churches like every other human organization with more than one member have disagreement and conflict at times.
The Bible evidences God’s people have had the normal group dynamic of conflict since the start. We understand ourselves as family– real family. And families have differences to work with and through and sometimes just agree to live with. We know this– or we ought to know it. Jesus and his early followers knew it, and so did John’s community. Which is why The Gospel of John reports in our lesson today that Jesus gave a speech containing commandments on how HIS followers are to behave in HIS faith communities toward one another.
See, unlike other types of communities Christian communities are commanded to love one another, not just others, but also each other.Social and political groups, fraternities and sororities, clubs and sports’ team fans do not have that edict. But it is the rule we are supposed to play by– always. Not only that, it is THE overriding primary rule! Here is how Jesus put it:
“As the Father has loved me, so I 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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Three Bible resources that I commonly use are pretty much in accord on what our lesson means.
The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary points out that becoming friends with Christ:
is not simply appealing to the noble idea of friendship . . . but to an understanding of friendship wholly grounded in Jesus’ particular love . . . 1
The Interpretation commentary notes that becoming friends with Christ is about:
taking seriously what the friend takes seriously . . . In emulating [Jesus] one loves not only those deserving love but all in the company, lovable or not. 2
The Feasting on the Word commentary states that we participate in God’s love by grace and that the love at issue in our Lectionary text is:
primarily interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. It does not attempt to possess or dominate the other. Nor is it limited by . . . time and place: one can have a few good friends and fewer lovers but one can have agape for all. 3
Agape is the Greek word for this all encompassing love. The Feasting on the Word commentary points out the pattern for such love:
is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime. As Jesus observes, this love should be so deeply woven into our lives that we might even find ourselves called to die for it. 4
As I prayed and reflected on the text today and this sermon I thought about how much this sort of love is literally a communion. Communion has a number of closely related meanings. Communion can be “an act or instance of sharing.” It can be “intimate fellowship or rapport.” It can also mean “a body of Christians having a common faith and discipline. ” But, of course, communion also means the Christian Sacrament we are about to partake of this morning. 5.
The Last Supper is in and of itself precious and meaningful because it certainly represents Jesus’ living and giving and dying and rising for each of us individually. Jesus’ act of sharing for you and me, along with our intimate fellowship and rapport with Him is lovely. But what is equally meaningful and lovely– or should be– is that Christians are supposed to have communion with one another all the time, not just at this table or in worship on Sundays, but in every sense of the word, all the time. We commune with each other as acts and instances of sharing. We commune with intimate fellowship and rapport. We commune as a body of Christians with common faith and discipline.
Communion is at this table for sure but also together as family always everyday, everywhere. We can agree, and we can disagree, like all human groups of two or more do. But when two or more gather in Jesus’ name we will know the gathered are in earnest they abide by HIS commandment to love one another whether they agree or disagree, and in sickness and in health. Our friendship with Christ depends upon it.
May we all learn to love . . . love . . . love one another as Jesus loves us. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for the love and support you have shown to me. It is a blessing my dear friends and friends of Jesus.
1. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX, p. 758.
2 The Interpretation Bible Commentary Series on John, p. 189
3 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2. p 498
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