Sermon: No Longer Servants but Friends

“No Longer Servants but Friends”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 29, 2018

Psalm 1:1-3
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers; 
but their delight is in the commandment of the Lord,
and on God’s commandment they meditate day and night. 
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

With this morning’s Gospel passage, we’re traveling a little bit back in time, to Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. But I imagine that now that he has died, risen, and will soon be leaving them again – at least physically – his words have taken on extra significance.

Because this morning’s scripture is the moment when Jesus passes the mantle to his followers: he calls them “friends” instead of servants, leveling them up from people who are told what to do – kept in the dark, essentially – to people who are in on the game plan, able to carry the mission forward themselves.

Last week I was talking to my husband’s cousin about a new position he’d taken on at work. He talked about how he used to work in a small, somewhat isolated department in his organization, where decisions were often handed down from on high without much context or explanation. Then he leapfrogged up to a new position, higher on the org chart, where he was in on the meetings where those decisions were made, where he was part of creating the vision for the whole organization. The perspective, the sense that he had all the information he needed to do his job well and to make change and to be part of something greater, propelled him from tolerating his job to relishing it.

I think we sometimes feel that part of what it means to be human is to be kept in the dark, like my cousin in his previous position – that there are always going to be things we don’t understand, decisions made, so to speak, that affect our destinies or our experience of life that we don’t get to weigh in on.

And while in one sense that’s really true – we aren’t omniscient and things DO happen to us that we can’t control or wrap our minds around – Jesus’ words to his disciples imply the opposite: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

(Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that Jesus often called God Father – abba in the Aramaic, an affectionate term for one’s dad – because that’s how he related to God. If that term doesn’t describe how you relate to God, let’s replace it: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Parent, my Creator, my God.”)

This friendship puts us in a position of mutuality with Jesus – particularly where ministry is concerned. We aren’t just told what to do to live out our call – we are invited to stand beside Jesus, looking in the same direction, and to form a vision for ministry together. I think this is really key for the conversation we’ll have after church – that we aren’t just waiting on someone else to tell us what to do, but that we feel ownership over our identity: it’s not our job to wait around until someone else gives us instructions; it’s our job to work with Jesus to discern who we are called to be as a church, and then to act on it.

So that’s what it means to be Jesus’ friend – there is nothing hidden from us, no secret knowledge Jesus has reserved for himself. We have access to it all, we are equal partners in this whole endeavor.

Does that mean that Jesus has passed on everything God told him, but God left out some of the important bits (like why people get cancer, or why your dog got hit by a car, or why there is such great evil in the world)?

Maybe.

But maybe it means that those kind of “whys” aren’t the most important part – maybe not even that important at all, as far as Jesus is concerned.

As soon as I started seminary, my Uncle Joe – the one in the family with a slow-burning sense of humor – wanted to know what the secret to life is. He figured that if I was getting my MDiv – Mastering the Divine, as he called it – that should definitely be on the curriculum. At the end of every school year, and then when I got ordained, and then when I was called to my first church, he kept asking if I’d “leveled up” yet to that bit of knowledge.

After marinating for several years on the great existential mystery of what the secret of life might be, and how to explain it to a self-proclaimed “simple farmer” – ha – I finally got smart and noticed that when Jesus tells the disciples that he’s told them everything he knows, there’s no grand explanation for how the world works – rather, he gives them two things to do.

What does Jesus say right before he tells the disciples that they now know it all?

“abide in my love like I abide in God’s love”

and

“love one another as I have loved you.”

Then he says, essentially, “That’s it. That’s all you need. I’ve told you everything I know, the keys to your future ministry, the keys to having a life of joy.

Let’s dig into these a little bit.

What does it mean to abide in something, in someone? It’s not a word we use every day, after all – at Bible study on Wednesday one of the first things we came up with was a hymn from the 19th century, Abide with Me, ‘Tis Eventide.

It turns out that menó, the Greek word translated as “abide” in our scripture, isn’t too far from the meaning of the hymn: “to remain, to continue, to stay with.” But the paragraph right before this morning’s scripture gives us an even richer sense of the word: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

In ancient times as now, grape vines were often propagated using grafting, a technique where branches with desired characteristics are cut off their vine, then spliced into established vines to spread their genetic properties throughout the whole vineyard. The desired branch has to be grafted in such a way that the tissue that delivers food and water to the ends of the branch lines up with the same tissue in the vine – then nutrients can continue flowing into the branch. A branch cut off for propagation but never grafted in will die on its own without producing grapes. But one that is properly grafted in – one that abides – will not just survive, but thrive.

So to “abide in [Jesus’] love like [Jesus] abide[s] in God’s love” means to be grafted right into the very stuff of life.

How do we do this – how do we get plugged in, grafted in to the Source? Jesus tells us we will abide in his love when we keep his commandments – and that those commandments boil down to one thing:that you love one another as I have loved you.”

What kind of love is this? Ancient Greek has more than one word for love – there’s romantic love, brotherly love, and then there’s this morning’s love – agape. Agape is both a rational decision to love someone and a love of affection, a love that takes pleasure in the one who is loved.

Jesus says he loves us like this – both as a choice to love us, with full knowledge of our foibles and flaws, and as a natural outgrowth of his delight in us. Did your mother ever tell you you don’t have to like your sibling, but you do have to love them? Well, agape love is both loving everyone because they’re part of your human family, just like your mama taught you, and actually coming to enjoy them, to like them for who they are.

As a pastor I get a lot of practice in this. Every church has such a range of personalities, such a cast of characters drawing from every corner of the human experience. There are church people who cry at every service, church people who tend to overshare in meetings, church people whose contribution is to critique every choice the minister makes, church people whose unhealed wounds continue to wound others.

I remember a dear parishioner in a church I served who had many uniquenesses – one of which was that once, while we were passing communion to one another in a circle, she dropped the consecrated bread on the floor and then promptly dropped an f-bomb. She felt terrible about it, and I can imagine that if this had happened when I had first met her, I might have been irritated, even offended, by her lack of filter. But because I had already grown to love her, quirks and all, all I could picture was God smiling ruefully at her accidental outburst – which, after all, showed in a rather unorthodox way that she really cared what happened to that sacred bread.

You see, I have the great good privilege to be called by God to see each of my people – each of you – and, crucially, myself – the way God sees us – with a clear-eyed love of both appreciation and affection.

It might sound like a privilege you wouldn’t particularly want. But I do believe it is a privilege – a gift, one we all get to experience when we are part of a faith community. Think of the person who always rubbed you the wrong way until something changed your perspective: maybe they shared about their loved one dying or their struggle with cancer and it reminded you of something you’d been through; or maybe you learned that they always take a worship bulletin to a member who can’t make it to church anymore and your heart was touched. Some small thing shifted, and suddenly you found your way to loving them – and you felt lighter and freer and more appreciative of the way God has made each of us unique.

It isn’t easy – least of all for me! But each time we are able to do this, each time we remember Jesus’ words to love one another as Jesus has loved us – clear eyes, hearts full – our perspective shifts. We level up to a place where we see the bigger picture, where we feel part of something greater, where we abide in Jesus, where we bear fruit, where we find joy – not joy that is fleeting or partial, but joy that is complete.

That, after all, part of what it means to be Jesus’ friend – to graduate from one who is fumbling in the dark as to what this faith thing is all about to one who may not have all the explanations, but who sees clearly the key to ministry – to life – and is ready to live into that vision alongside Jesus, in love.

May we all continue to be counted among Jesus’ friends. Amen.