Today’s scripture readings:
1 John 5:1-6
As I was preparing to write my sermon this week, I did a little crowd-sourcing. I went on my various social media profiles and asked people to answer this question: How do you know someone is your friend? I was a little overwhelmed by the response; as of the time of this recording, I’ve received over 140 answers to that question, and that’s just on Facebook; I heard from a few dozen more people on Instagram and Twitter.
(As an aside, I could preach a whole sermon just about how amazing it was to hear from so many friends from so many different times and places in my life—including people I’ve long since lost touch with but who somehow saw my question and felt inspired to leave their reply. The fact that my question sparked such a response may in itself say something about how important friendship is to the human experience.)
Anyway, as I read through those many answers to that question, “How do you know someone is your friend?”, I began to notice a few common themes:
- Many people replied that a friend is someone with whom you can share your most honest self and know that they will keep on loving you anyway.
- Others said a friend is someone who calls to check on you, and someone you naturally want to check on yourself—someone who connects with you even though they don’t have to. One of you said a friend is someone who will look you in the eye and ask, “But how have you really been?”
- Several people talked about the importance of mutuality. In a true friendship, the care goes both ways.
- One person said that a friend will point out if you have a booger hanging out of your nose and won’t even make you feel bad about it.
- Many people said that a friend is someone who is there for you, that a friend is someone who shows up. One friend of mine—someone around my age who received a cancer diagnosis six weeks ago and today is recovering from surgery, said that a friend is someone who shows up when you need them most, even when it’s a sacrifice for them to do so. I suspect that he knows personally the value of that kind of friendship.
Truth be told, when I posed that question on social media, I was trying to test a hypothesis. I was guessing that friendship entails more than just nice feelings—warm fuzzies that we get when we’re around another person. I had a hunch that, at the end of the day, we know someone is a friend by their actions; that there may be a feeling involved, but the feeling always comes as response to one’s actions.
The responses to my question confirmed that theory. And what I heard from the people who replied to my question is that the actions that most clearly demonstrate friendship are actions that entail sacrifice. Showing up for someone else even when that means setting aside our other commitments. Being confronted with someone’s imperfections but choosing not to let those things define them. Taking the time to listen even when that brings us into the midst of someone’s pain and hardship. Being willing to sit and be present to another person who needs to experience a little compassion, even when it’s not very fun to be with them. Actions that express friendship are actions that entail sacrifice.
The Gospel lesson we read today is a continuation of last week’s passage about the vine and the branches, and it’s found in a section of John’s Gospel that biblical scholars refer to as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. Jesus is trying to help his disciples understand how he will continue to be present among them even when he is no longer physically with them. Jesus says, “I don’t call you servants any longer because servants don’t know what the master is doing. I call you friends because I have shown you exactly what God is up to. You are my friends when you obey this command that I am giving you, to love one another.” Jesus says he will be in their midst when they love one another as he has loved them. Jesus forms a community of friends marked by love—not just any kind of love, but sacrificial love. A community of friends who love one another as Jesus loved them—love that leads to the cross.
In her book Crucified Love, scholar Robin Maas describes what it means to love one another the way Jesus loved us. She writes, “Few, if any of us, will be called to martyrdom; but all of us are called to a series of little deaths in the form of invitations to restrain or deny self…. Your mission and mine… is to submit, out of love for one another, to countless, daily ‘little deaths’ until we have yielded every least and last remnant of self to the purpose of Christ.” Most of us, we pray, will never be called upon to sacrifice our lives for the sake of another, but each one of us will be asked to die a series of little deaths every day—little deaths out of which new life can emerge.
I love that this Gospel lesson is paired with the story from Acts. Cornelius was a Roman centurion—a soldier, a Gentile. At that point, the budding Christian community was an exclusively Jewish movement; Gentiles were not welcome. But Cornelius has a vision in which an angel instructs him to go to the city of Joppa to meet a man named Peter. Meanwhile, Peter has a vision of his own. He sees a sheet being lowered down from heaven, and on the sheet are all kinds of different animals that the Jewish people were forbidden to eat. A voice from heaven says, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat,” but Peter protests. He says he will never eat animals that are unclean according to the law. The voice tells Peter, “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.” Peter wakes up puzzled and is trying to make sense of the vision when Cornelius arrives at his doorstep, and now it all clicks. This Gentile, Cornelius, has answered God’s call to go and hear what Peter has to say; who is Peter to turn him away? Peter gives a big speech where he explains that the Gospel is good news for everyone. That’s where today’s reading picks up; while Peter is speaking, the Holy Spirit falls upon the entire crowd, and Cornelius and all the other assembled Gentiles are baptized—the very first Gentiles baptized into the community of Christ-following believers.
“Your mission and mine… is to submit, out of love for one another, to countless, daily ‘little deaths’ until we have yielded every least and last remnant of self to the purpose of Christ.” Peter needed to die to his limited conception of the Gospel for the sake of a Gentile who longed to be in relationship with the living God. It was an act of sacrificial love.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus instructs us to love our enemies. If you love those who love you, he asks, what reward is there in that? Even the tax collectors do that. If you greet only your own people, what more are you doing than others? That is actually the challenge in all of this. The sacrificial love Jesus models for us is the kind of love we are to extend not only to our friends but to everyone—even to our enemies, who, it turns out, are friends of God.
Biblical scholar Osvaldo Vena says that “this kind of love will make sure that justice is done in the world. You will venture yourself from the safety of your community into the broader society to see that it is transformed by this sacrificial love that Jesus modeled for us.” To quote a famous line from Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is what happens when the loving actions that define our friendships begin to shape our interactions with our enemies, with those who don’t share our politics, with those who test our patience. Justice is what happens when sacrificial love forges a relationship where that kind of connection had previously been impossible, and what emerges is compassion and empathy for the “other.”
Jesus tells his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This is all for the sake of joy. Joy that is complete. Joy that is for everyone. Even Cornelius. Even you and me.
Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, “Commentary on John 15:9-17,” on WorkingPreacher.org, published May 6, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-5.
Robin Maas, quoted by Anna McDonald, “What is Love?”, published May 6, 2015, http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2015/05/what-is-love/.
Salt, “Love for the Sake of Joy: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 6,” published May 4, 2021, https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/5/1/love-for-the-sake-of-joy-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-6.
Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 15:9-17,” on WorkingPreacher.org, published May 6, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-159-17-4.