you’ve got a friend

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My sermon this week was based on John 15:11-17, a passage where Jesus tells his disciples they are his friends. That set me wondering . . .

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Many years ago I was in a worship service in Texas where a visiting minister from Zambia was preaching. He began his sermon by talking about some of the differences he had noticed between his home country and the United States; some were obvious, some were humorous. Then he said, “We use our words differently. You have printed at the top of your order of service, ‘There are no strangers here, only friends.’ In Zambia, friend is a much more serious word. We would say, ‘There are no strangers here, only acquaintances. Friend means something different.”

He was on to something. When it comes to friendship, we don’t have enough words.

We use the word friend to try and define a number of different kinds of relationships. Facebook has even turned it into a verb: we friend each other, though I’m not sure any of us understand how friendship and social media work together. But what—or perhaps I should say who—is a friend? What do we mean when we use that word?

I have known my friend Burt since September 1976, when we met at college. We were in a club together, we played guitars and sang together, we went to seminary together and even shared a house there. I officiated at his wedding. I stayed with him and Julie, his wife, as both of my parents were dying. We still talk regularly. I tell him he is my most enduring friend.

For the past four years or so, I have had coffee with a group of men in Guilford and Madison who meet at 6:30 every Saturday morning. We mostly talk about what we are going to do during the day, or tell what work was like. The conversations are not intimate, necessarily. What matters most is we show up. I don’t talk to them during the week as a rule, but we all make a point to show up on Saturday. When I speak of them, I say, “I meet friends for coffee on Saturday morning.”

I had the sacred privilege of being with someone in Guilford this week as she entered hospice after a difficult struggle with lung and brain cancer. She and I had coffee together about two weeks ago before she began her last round of chemotherapy. We met through someone we mutually know a few years back and found we had a lot in common. Even though we did not spend a lot of time together, we found great resonance. I feel like my friend is dying.

I ask questions about what the word friend means not to doubt the importance of any of those relationships but to ponder how one word could apply to everyone I have described. We need more words for friend, just like we need more words for love, because how we picture a friend helps to shape Jesus’ statement to those he loved: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Jesus used the word as though they would understand. I couldn’t find much that talked about the nature of friendship in his time, but we can learn from the context of his statement. Remember that these verses follow Jesus’ words about being the vine and the branches, and that our section ends with him saying, “Remember the root command: love one another,” as he spoke to those he loved, realizing his time with them was short.

“You are my friend” is a profound way to say, “I love you.”

Any act of friendship, large or small, is an act of love—another word with multiple meanings. I say I love Ginger, the Red Sox, our Schnauzers, and ice cream. The word means something different each time. Being friends is an affirmation that we are connected, that we need each other. Friendship is significant because it is intentional. We decide to be friends. We invest in our friendships. We choose our friends.

Jesus was saying, “I chose you, now choose one another.”

When it comes to our relationship with God, the predominant metaphor of our faith is probably family. A healthy family. (Once again, the word may not mean the same thing to everyone.) We talk about being God’s children. The metaphor most often used when people talk about God as our parent. Jesus could have said, “You are my children,” or even, “You are my family,” as a way to express his love for his followers.

In 1 Corinthians 13—what we call the “love chapter”—the apostle Paul talks about love as something that matures and deepens.

When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am grown my childish speech and feeling and thought have no further significance for me.

Jesus was inviting his disciples to grow up, to mature in the love of God, to move beyond childhood dependency. H3e called them friends—those whom he had chosen and had chosen him—because a key part of friendship is the mutuality. Both sides give and both sides receive. To say, “You are my friend,” is not only to say, “I love you,” but also to say, “I need you.”

And then Jesus called them to love and be loved by each other as well.

If we match up the calendars in the Gospels as best we can, Jesus said these words on the same night he washed the disciples’ feet and then served their last supper together, the meal that we commemorate as we gather at the Communion table.

We have talked before about hearing Jesus’ call to remember as a call to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name: to clear the air, to offer forgiveness, to befriend one another, to live into the root command to love one another. We come to this table to love one another as Christ has loved us.

The relationships in this very room cover a wide range of definitions, when it comes to friendship. Some of you have known each other for a lifetime, others are new to the mix. Our call is less about defining our relationships and more about living into Jesus call to love one another: to take responsibility for one another, to listen to one another, to attend to one another, to ask of one another, to choose to be together week after week after week.

May we take seriously Jesus’ call to friendship as we share the meal. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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