6th Sunday of Easter – Vicar Stoppenhagen

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 15:9-17 (Series B)
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
May 9, 2021

In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.

“What a friend we have in Jesus…” But do we really? Do we really have a friend in Jesus? I suppose we do—he says it right here in the Gospel lesson. But he certainly doesn’t sound like a very good friend, does he? What friend says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” If? What gives Jesus the right to attach strings to friendship? It’s like we’re all back on the playground at Nazareth Elementary: “I’ll be your friend if you push me on the swing.” That’s not how friendship works! Even kindergarteners know that!
Many of you know that one of my favorite subjects to study is spiritual friendship, and I can confirm that Jesus breaks all the rules of friendship. Friendship is supposed to be the freest of all our relationships—it’s not bound by the ties of kinship, marriage, work, or politics. At it’s simplest, it’s two people freely coming together because they share common interests, values, and ideas. There’s usually no obligation or duty one has to the other, except what they agree to as friends. And there can’t be any compulsion if the relationship is going to work. The free choice of both people is necessary for it to be a true friendship.
But that’s not what Jesus’ idea of friendship is. Friendship with Jesus, it seems, is completely one-sided. “You did not choose me,” he says, “but I chose you.” He chooses us to be his friends, and then will only stay our friend if we do what he tells us to do. “Jesus knows our every weakness”—and will manipulate that knowledge to make sure we do exactly what he says. In the end, friendship with Jesus sounds worse than the servanthood from which he calls us. At least the servants get paid! Sure, as friends we might get to know “all that Jesus has heard from his Father,” but it sounds like “all that” is just more commandments. Who in their right mind would really want to be friends with Jesus?
But there is one thing that shifts how we can think about friendship with Jesus. And that thing is death. Now I know my newly-developed penchant for death is concerning to some people. But really! Death is the redeeming quality friendship with Jesus. “Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus claims, “that someone lay down his life for his friends.” This is the highest possible way to fulfill Christ’s commandment to love—dying for one’s friends. And Jesus himself is the one who fulfills this commandment perfectly. God’s love has no greater manifestation than Jesus, hanging on the cross for our salvation.
So how does Jesus’ death change our understanding of friendship with him? For many Christians it simply means “monkey see, monkey do.” Since Jesus died an earthly death for us, we should be ready to die an earthly death for our friends. That’s what true, self-sacrificial, agape love looks like, right? Bold and courageous believers who are willing to jump in front of a bullet for anyone. In fact, we should be looking for every opportunity to sacrifice ourselves and give life for others. That’s what Jesus would do, after all.
But we aren’t Jesus. We aren’t perfect like he was. We can’t love in the same way he does. In fact, our own friendships look more like those one-sided relationships. Far from giving ourselves up for our friends, we only interact them as long as we receive the benefit. We expect all our friends to be those who “will all our sorrows share.” But when they’re the ones who are “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care”…well, that’s just too bad. We could probably help, but we’re headed to the beach for the weekend. We just don’t have the time or energy to sacrifice for our friends.
Yet as we ignore those friends in trouble, we’re more than happy to sacrifice our lives so that we can work our way into the “in crowd”. You know, those folks at work, those kids at school who always seem to be in the know, who have the latest gossip, who have power and influence with the important people. We envy their insider culture, and we hate being the outsiders. “These people will be my real friends,” we tell ourselves. “They’ll surely recognize that I have potential, that I intend to go places.” But it doesn’t take long for us to realize that those relationships go nowhere fast. We think that we can talk our way into the gift of friendship with the “in crowd.” But the “in crowd” isn’t real friendship. And the running to and fro, the constant worry about our own status with other people, leaves us on the outside with no friends at all.
But Jesus calls us away from our striving for friendship and our one-sided manipulations, and says: “Abide in my love.” “Be still,” he says. “Stop rushing around looking for things to kill yourself over. Instead, stay right here, dwell in my love. Yes, my love requires death—but it’s not a death you can seek out! Remember, I didn’t try to be crucified. Death was handed to me, and I freely accepted it out of love for you. And that’s the mindset you must have if you are to abide in my love. You must simply receive all that comes your way. Receive the trials and temptations just as much as you receive the gifts of my love. Receive my commandments, receive the burdens of other people, even receive death if it’s given to you. For none of these is burdensome to you, because you have been born of God, and you have overcome the world with me.”
Of course, that’s a tough pill to swallow. This radical receiving of God’s gifts is hard for us because it takes us out of the limelight. But that’s the teaching hidden behind, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” It’s not about you dying an earthly death so that someone else can keep living in this earthly life—that kind of death leaves you as the hero. Instead, it’s about you dying in such a way that there is no “you” left to be seen. To lay down our lives for our friends means we must first and foremost die to ourselves. Our self-absorbed strivings, our cares, our desires must be put away. We must set aside our corrupted wants and ways, yes even our hopes and dreams. The song and dance we do for others’ attention must come to an end, and we need simply to be still and abide in Christ’s love.
When we get to that point where there’s barely any of our self left, it’s then that we find ourselves in Christ, in his body. And it’s a good kind of one-sided relationship. We’ve suddenly been chosen, freed from bondage to this world, and brought into friendship with Christ. And with Christ’s friendship comes friendship with the whole body of Christ. The self that has died can only be revived in this community that Christ has formed. Our existence is no longer in ourselves alone, but is bound up with the life of every other believer. But there’s no manipulation. No compulsion. There’s simply an unexplainable desire to be with Christ and his people, to love and to serve them as they have done to us.
Maybe we really have a friend in Jesus after all. Yes, the death to self that his friendship requires is difficult and takes a lifetime to happen. But that death means life in him, and his life and love drive us forward into a richer existence, a fuller joy, and a deeper peace—all with no strings attached.

In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.

About Vicar Ethan Stoppenhagen

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