“Friend Me”

John 15

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

On a sunny afternoon last summer, I was lying in a hammock, in the backyard of my cottage in Western Massachusetts.

Suddenly, I heard rustling in the bushes about twenty feet away. I turned to look, and I saw a bear cub emerge from the woods and begin to trot across my lawn. Then three more cubs appeared, followed by their large mother.

Needless to say, the presence of five wild animals a few yards away from me interrupted the peaceful mood of my afternoon! But I’m happy to report that, as I lay helplessly on the hammock, the bears ignored me and continued their journey across my property and back into the woods.

When I described the incident to friends and neighbors later, everyone pointed out a fact of nature that even we city dwellers know: black bears are generally harmless. But there’s one exception to this rule is: Don’t get between a mother and her cubs!

Mother love is a law of nature. It is appropriate to remember on this Mothers Day that mothers of many species are willing to fight and even die to save their offspring.

Jesus takes this natural principle of protective parental love and recasts it and expands it so that he can describe spiritual love. “No one has shown greater love than this,” Christ says, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

The notion of “friends” that Jesus announces here is an essential part of his vision of love. These friends represent love in its highest form: spiritual love.

Obviously Jesus isn’t talking about the relationships you have with casual friends, like colleagues at the office, or people you know in the neighborhood. While these social acquaintances might accept a beer from you, they would never demand that you would give up your life for them!

Rather, “friends” by Christ’s definition are those with whom you feel a spiritual bond. Jesus of Nazareth, his friends weren’t necessarily people he grew up with. They were men and women who felt called to work with him and carry out his mission.

In the course of time, these followers became as close to him as his biological family. Christ’s followers committed themselves to his teaching, and because he had shared his revelation with them, they received the high title of “friends.”

In the end, Jesus did give his life for them.

We Christians might do well to remember Christ’s words and his example when we use the word, “friend.” For close friends are linked with us in God’s Spirit.

This can even be true of friends of ours who aren’t Christian. Although these folks may not feel a spiritual bond with us, we have a special connection with them. We’re grateful to God that they are part of our lives, and while our non-Christian friends don’t share our theological language, the supernatural bond is there, nevertheless.

And, as a practical matter, this high ideal of friendship can keep us from some of the unfortunate aspects of secular relationships. People can form cliques, for instance, that serve to benefit the members of their in-crowd at the expense of those who are excluded.

Now, of course, we Christians can also be tempted by this mentality. We can come to see the world as a battle of Us versus Them. In such cases, our churches become insular; we regard non-members as inferior.

This is not at all what Jesus was teaching when he proclaimed an inclusive Kingdom of God.

At the same time, though, we should admit that none of us has the breadth of mind and soul to see every person as a friend. We can acknowledge every fellow human being as equally beloved in the sight of God, yet still we feel more attached to some men and women than to others.

Yet this natural preference is not only a fact of life—it’s valuable in itself. We’re reminded that a friendship is a gift from God.

In the Middle Ages, monks and nuns sometimes spoke about “spiritual friendship.” These were relationships that revealed God’s grace in a special way.

A few scholars think spiritual friends might have been an early form of same-sex alliance. But, in any case, all must agree that the deepest human friendships are special blessings.

And I would argue as well that such spiritual relationships can be more possible today than they were in the Middle Ages.

I know this is contrary to the popular view that Internet media dilute human relationships because they aren’t “in person”—“in the flesh.” And it’s true that the many “friends” you have on a social network won’t feel the same love and concern for you that your best friends share; again, there are just too many contacts for one person to handle.

But, the Internet also allows us to maintain contact with people in distant places. And I would argue that this “unseen” quality of electronic connections could be construed as performing a religious function: the Internet keeps us in touch with distant people who once had an impact on our lives.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I received an email through our web site from a beloved seminary professor of mine; I had not heard a word from him in 40 years. But he found me through some search engine; and, happily, we’re back in touch.

Christ’s teaching reminds us that while Christian love in its ideal form involves person-to-person contact, it always wants to extend itself. When we “love our neighbors” who are in need, we treat them, in effect, like friends.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, a mugging victim is cared for like a member of the Samaritan’s own tribe. Instead of being “them”—a member of the rival Hebrew tribe–the neighbor is treated like “us” – like a member of the Samaritan’s in-crowd.

This ideal of friendship receives its most severe test when we try to follow the Christian maxim, “Love your enemy.” For by definition, enemies are the opposite of friends. The mother bear is not about to cuddle up to any creature who threatens her cubs.

But that is a reminder that Christian love always asks more of us than we naturally want to give. And so as we honor our mothers today, we may think of times when they extended their love to us–and displayed supernatural patience!

If we were lucky, they accepted us as we were, while trying to make us better than we ever thought we could be. Today, we give thanks to God for them, and for the lesson they taught us of ever-increasing, ever-deepening love.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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