Sixth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 15: 9-17
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
9 May 2021
The Gospel of John is often called the Gospel of love. The theme of love occupies a central place in the book. Perhaps the most-quoted Bible verse of all time – one that I am sure you have heard on many occasions – comes from the Gospel of John, and it is about love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). But love is a broad term, an overused word in our society, with multiple meanings, everything from romantic and platonic love to fondness for puppies or ice cream. What does love mean in the Gospel of John?
In our reading today, John connects love to friendship. Jesus tells the disciples who are gathered around him: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Ultimate love, according to Jesus, is sacrificing oneself for a friend. Jesus goes on to explain that the relationship between himself and the disciples is defined by friendship. They are bound together by love. And, as friends, Jesus has shared with them everything that he has heard from the Father. For the Gospel writer John, this section on the sacrificial meaning of love is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion. Jesus will soon set a personal example of ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends on the cross.
In the Hebrew Bible, the paradigmatic story of friendship is that of David and Jonathan. As the young David rises in his military and political career at the court of King Saul, he becomes best friends with his son, Jonathan. So powerful is their friendship that we are told that Jonathan’s soul “was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1). When Saul sets out to kill David out of jealousy and hatred, it is Jonathan who arranges for his friend’s escape. When Jonathan dies on the battlefield, David mourns his death and declares that Jonathan’s love was “wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (II Samuel 26). Later, after the demise of King Saul’s family, David cares for Jonathan’s sole surviving son.
Another beautiful story of friendship in the Hebrew Bible is that of Ruth and Naomi. Although Ruth is Naomi’s daughter-in-law, she goes beyond her familial duties, and the relationship becomes one of loving friendship. After the death of her two sons, including Ruth’s husband, Naomi plans to return to her home in Judah. The family had been living in the land of Moab following a famine in Judah. Now with her husband and sons gone, Naomi instructs her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their natal homes. One daughter-in-law obeys and departs, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She insists on accompanying Naomi to her homeland and adopting it as her own. Ruth proclaims her self-sacrificing love for Naomi with these eloquent and moving words: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). In the end, Ruth prevails, and she follows Naomi. Subsequently, Ruth marries a kinsman of Naomi, Boaz, and they become the ancestors of David.
The Israelites were not the only people in the ancient world who celebrated friendship. The Greeks had a similar ideal of friendship. In the legend of Pythias and Damon, the former is accused of plotting against King Dionysius of Syracuse, and is sentenced to death. Pythias requests permission to go home to settle his affairs before the execution. When the king refuses, Pythias’ friend Damon steps forward and volunteers to be hostage until his friend’s return. If Pythias does not return, Damon is willing to be executed in his stead. The wait begins, and the king is suspecting that Pythias will not show up. But when he does return, the king is not only surprised; he is so moved by the friendship of the two men that he allows both to go free.
The celebration of friendship seems to be a universal phenomenon. In China, for instance, friendship is considered one of the five cardinal human relationships according to Confucian philosophy. The foundational text for Confucianism, The Analects, begins with these words of the Master, Confucius: “Is it not a pleasure to have friends come visiting from afar?” The ideals and values of friendship manifest themselves across many different cultures and societies.
To return to the Gospel of John, calling Jesus our friend is not just a metaphor. Jesus’ friendship is a lived reality. Jesus has many friends, for instance, the siblings Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. The Gospel of John says that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). He dines with them, and he chats with them. We can imagine him sitting in their home sharing stories and jokes, as well as his troubles and concerns. In other words, Jesus does not just go about preaching and working miracles all the time. He has a social life. Jesus’ friends provide him with companionship and support, and joy and love, and he does the same in return. Moreover, he makes himself vulnerable in his friendship. When Lazarus dies, he weeps. Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, one friend betrays him, another denies him, and the rest take flight. Jesus’ experience of friendship was no exalted state of perfect bliss. On the contrary, it was subject to the same challenges and risks that we take on in our friendships. Jesus was fully human.
One of the favorite hymns that I grew up with in my Presbyterian and Methodist family is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It’s not in our Episcopal hymnal, though it used to be. The first verse goes like this:
What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!
The hymn is a wonderful profession of faith in Christ’s saving grace and power, all that he will do for us as a friend. But what the hymn seems to leave out is the fact that friendship is a two-way relationship. Jesus is our friend, but, at the same time, we are friends to Jesus. So, then, what is our role and responsibility as Jesus’ friends? How do we respond and reciprocate? In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes it clear: “You are my friends, if you do what I command you?” And what is this command, this condition for friendship with Jesus? He answers: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And Jesus in his life and death shows us how to be a true friend. We are to offer each other up to Christ and to one another, and we take on the risks and vulnerability in the relationship.
The friendship that Christ teaches and models is not about what we have to gain but what we are willing to lose. We may not be called to lay down our lives for Christ or for one another, but we may be called to give up our time, money, or other aspects of our lives that we value. Whatever the price may be, however, nothing can compare with the privilege of calling Jesus our friend.
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