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A Welcoming Church

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer; but I have called you friends.”

In chapter 13 of John’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to his disciples who are all together in the upper room at the Last Supper. He has just washed the disciples’ feet, and he puts his robe back on, goes back to the table, and says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example.”

Jesus then begins a long discourse that takes up the rest of chapter 13 and all of chapters 14,15 and 16. The discourse covers a lot of ground: – foretelling Judas’ betrayal, and Peter’s denial; giving them his new commandment; promising them the Holy Spirit. He closes by telling them they will weep and mourn for him, but then their pain will turn into joy.

It is a credit to the disciples that they sat at the table for so long. A painting of the Last Supper by Titian shows the disciples perched uncomfortably. In the middle of this discourse, we come to today’s gospel in chapter 15. The passage has a few aspects to it, about love and commandments and the Father. I will focus on just one feature that is most striking to me.

For the first time, Jesus calls the disciples his friends. He says, “You are my friends if you love one another.” He repeats and underlines it, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” We can almost hear Jesus telling them, in all affection and regard, I am done teaching you; now you know what I know from my Father, so now we can relate in a new way.

What an extraordinary notion, that Jesus could be a friend! The word friendship connotes a kind of equivalence and correspondence and parity and reciprocity, which could hardly apply to a relationship with the Son of God. And yet here is Jesus making a point of it. You are my friends.

There are different kinds of friends. There are social friends that help us along the way by relieving the pressures of life; who let us enjoy ourselves at parties and are lovely guests and hosts for dinner. Special social friends might accompany us on vacation or cruises. We swear we will keep in touch with our social friends, but then we lose contact.

We should not diminish the importance of having social friends. Jesus was social friends with Martha and Mary and Lazarus. With such friends, we can reduce loneliness and control depression and anxiety. They can boost our self-confidence and our positive feelings about ourselves and others. So God bless social friends.

My oldest friends date from 1952. I keep in touch with them because they keep me in touch with who I most essentially am. They have known me forever, and I them, and there can be nothing false, no pretense, between us: we know each other too well. They keep me real.

Then there are true friends. Years ago, I knew a man named Otto Lowe, who had the most generous spirit. He had been a principal at a Wall Street firm called Goodbody. When Goodbody went under, as firms did pre-bailout days, he was ruined. He joined Kidder, Peabody and got back on his feet.

When another man got into trouble, Otto was there for him. He loaned his friend what was then a lot of money. The loan was interest-free, and Otto told him, just pay me back when you can, and not to worry about it. No one knew Otto had done this until his memorial service.

There are souls like Otto in this congregation, people who just instinctively, reflexively reach out when someone else is in need.

Such people are true friends. In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Except in war, we will probably not get the chance to do that, to give up our life, but people like Otto Lowe come close.

What is a friend? A friend provides good company and enjoyment and an ego boost. A friend can give us support and guidance and encouragement and alliance in bad times. A friend can be honest with us, and vice versa, without conditions or judgment. A friend can also remind us of our positive qualities. A friend can help us live our best life, and be our best self.

That is what a friend is. It is also who Jesus is. In the old 1940 Hymnal, there was a hymn called, “What a friend we have in Jesus!”, hymn 422. It was dropped from the 1982 Hymnal, maybe because it was too Sunday Schoolish or unsophisticated. And maybe it was a little sentimental. But this morning’s gospel says Jesus is our friend.

He tells the disciples, “You are my friends.” Our hymn 388 closes with that magnificent description of Our Lord, “Our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!” He is that person we can go to with all that is most on our hearts, all the stuff that we maybe can’t take to anyone else. And when we do that, he will answer us as a friend would.

Jesus’ love for us as friends has one condition. He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Right before that, he tells them, “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” So, we get, “You are my friends if you love one another.” That’s the formula, and it’s pretty simple: we are his friends if we love one another.

The rest of the passage is his promise to us as his friends. The promise is, if we love one another, then we will abide in his love. His joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete. If we love one another, we will abide in him.

God be praised. Love your neighbor. Amen.