Sunday, May 5, 2024

Sixth Sunday in Easter

First Reading (1 John 5:1-6, NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (John 15:9-17, NRSVUE)

“Love One Another” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

In 1949 the legendary comedian Groucho Marx decided to relinquish his membership in New York’s prestigious Friars’ Club. As the story goes, Groucho’s resignation letter was both short and kind of funny; supposedly, it read simply as follows: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”

I can’t help but think that Jesus’ followers might have felt kind of the same way right here in the middle of the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel. At the very least, they had to be wondering what they be getting themselves into by joining the Disciples’ Club.

I mean ever since that fateful day way back at the beginning of the story, when the first of them decided to drop their fishing nets on the sand and follow Jesus, the terms of their relationship had been quite clear: they were Jesus’s servants and he was their master. But now, out of nowhere, Jesus drops the F-word on them (and by that I mean “friend”), doing so three times in the span just three sentences:

“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. I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father,” is what Jesus says to them here.

On the one hand, this had to be nice for these disciples to hear. After all they’ve been through together, Jesus now thinks of them as his friends. I mean they probably thought they’d gotten some sort of promotion. This jump from “Servant of Jesus” to “Friend of Jesus” didn’t get them a pay increase, stock options, or a company car, but it was a big deal nonetheless. And for a group that was always clamoring for status, wondering aloud who was the greatest among them, this probably felt pretty darned good.

On the other hand, though, once the initial shine had faded from Jesus’ touching declaration of friendship, the reality of what it meant must have started to sink in for the disciples. It had to be apparent to them that being Jesus’s friend was going to be a complicated endeavor. At the very least, they’d need to take on a lot more responsibility. It was a change in status, for sure, but it probably wasn’t quite what they’d bargained for. And so I wonder: did they really want to be part of the club in which Jesus had just invited them to be members?

Jesus’ single criterion for friendship sounds so simple in theory: “love one another as I have loved you.” It is, as we know, not so easy in practice. But Jesus commitment to this idea is unwavering — indeed, this is the exact same thing that Jesus calls them to do two chapters earlier in John’s Gospel. Jesus is certainly not above repeating himself to make an important point.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us one bit that Jesus uses the word “love” and its variants nine times in the eight verses that constitute our reading for today. “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you.” The command, of course, is “to love one another as I have loved you.” Like I said, it sounds so simple in theory.

While love may be a many splendored thing, the love about which Jesus speaks here is a very specific kind of love — and an incredibly challenging one at that. In English, we use the word “love” to mean a lot of different things but, in Greek, the opposite is true — there are many different words for love; and the one used consistently throughout today’s reading is agape. This word translates into Latin as caritas, which, in turn, is the source of the English word charity.

In other words, the love that Jesus talks about here is not at all concerned with one’s own interest or status, but exclusively with the well-being of another. It’s the kind of love that, as Jesus says, may require one “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It’s the kind of love that makes demands on us without the expectation of us getting anything in return.

But as specific as this kind of love may be in one sense, it is also very general in another. Jesus isn’t talking here about the love we have for our own parents or our own children; nor is he referring to romantic love between two people. Jesus is talking about the love we could and should have for anyone and everyone — the love he has for us, the love that compels him to give of himself on our behalf. This is the love that Jesus, if we are his friends, expects us to have for all people — and friendship grounded in this kind of love is definitely not easy.

As Jesus had by this point expended considerable time and effort explaining the meaning of scripture to his disciples, I can’t help but think that their minds raced backwards, looking to the Bible for other examples of divine-human friendship and how it actually works; and they are, of course, there. Exodus tells us that, “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And the Isaiah’s prophecy quotes God referring to “the offspring of Abraham, my friend.” But if you could ask Moses or Abraham about how easy it was to be God’s friend, what kind of answer do you think you’d get?

And if the consequences of being Jesus’s friend — of being God’s friend — are even remotely in doubt, then go have a look at the section of John’s Gospel that directly follows ours for today. There Jesus talks quite candidly about what being his friend might really mean for the disciples — and for us. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you,” he tells them. That sounds appealing, doesn’t it?

But in case it still wasn’t clear, Jesus uses variants of the word “hate” eight times in this passage to bring the point home. Love each other as I have loved you, but recognize that, in so doing, you will be as unwelcome and as unappreciated in this world as I have been. That’s what it means to be my friend. And this shouldn’t be too surprising because the world has always had a hard time understanding those who are willing and able to think and act unselfishly.

You want me to be your friend, Jesus? Thanks, but I really don’t deserve it; it’s a responsibility I’m not sure I’m up for. I appreciate being asked, Jesus — it is an honor just to be nominated — but I don’t know if this is really the club for me. The excuses abound.

And yet, the invitation still stands (Jesus, it is important to note, picked his disciples, not the other way around). And yet, being asked to be a friend of Jesus is not something that we earn, and it is definitely not something that we deserve.

Because this is the case, it is probably strange to our ears that Jesus seems to couch his invitation to friendship in conditional terms: “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” he says. On the surface, this sounds kind of like a three year-old saying to their parent, “If you loved me then you’d let me eat cake for breakfast.” But it’s not about that at all.

“As the father loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love,” Jesus tells his disciples. God chose Jesus, and so Jesus chooses us. Jesus responds to God’s love for him by showing love for God by, in turn, showing love for us — and he does so without the expectation of receiving any benefit in return. He answers God’s call to love, purely out of love. And we, as Jesus’ disciples — as Jesus’ friends – are called to do the same.

There is simply no room at all for a “what’s in it for me” kind of attitude in this kind of friendship. When Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” he is not telling us how to earn our way into heaven; he is not telling us what we need to do to receive his good grace — he’s already given us that. That’s the whole point.

Jesus is saying that we show our love for him when we show love to others — even to those we might not view as worthy of that love, because being Jesus’ friend is based upon this one simple premise: showing love is the only appropriate response to being shown love.

It is a simple premise, but by no means an easy one. And I dare say that no one understands this better than Jesus.

But the invitation to be a friend of Jesus still stands. It always stands. And if you feel compelled to accept it, to truly be a part of this club that would actually have you as a member, then you better keep your strength up, because you are definitely going to need it.

I mean no one ever said that being a friend of Jesus was going to be easy.