To be chosen and called a friend by Jesus is a wondrous thing. Here is a sermon on John 15:9-17 that I wrote in the spring of 2009:
I Choose You!
A Sermon on John 15:9-17
Sixth Sunday of Easter
I wonder what is going to happen to Susan Boyle. I wonder who will turn out to be her true friends. About a month ago, Susan auditioned for the British reality TV series called “Britain’s Got Talent,” and within hours her appearance and her performance were being talked about all over the world. She was an instant celebrity.
This happened because when Susan walked out onto the stage, the judges and the audience were obviously already judging her and rejecting her because of her appearance and her manner. She is a middle-aged woman with a thick waist. Her hair was a mess, and she wore a beige lace dress that resembled what a mother-of-the bride might have worn in the 1960s. Her manner was, well, awkward—it provoked laughter and pity in the audience. Susan has never been married, and she even said that she had never been kissed, which may or may not be true. They also laughed when Susan said she wanted to be a professional singer. Did any of you all see this on TV or online? The judges and the audience had made up their minds: this one was a reject.
But then Susan opened her mouth, and out came a soaring, powerful voice. She poured her heart into a song called “I Dreamed A Dream,” a song filled with disappointed longing for a better life. It blew the judges and the audience away. They didn’t expect someone who looked like Susan to have a talent like that. Instantly, people went crazy about her, wanting to talk to her. Even Oprah. But I wonder. Will any true friends come to Susan out of this, people who will truly care for her as a friend, not just use her? Time will tell who the real friends are.
Jesus’ disciples would soon find out who their real friends were. Some would be put out of their synagogue congregations because they clung to Jesus. Some would even be put out of their families. Imagine it: “If you don’t stop this Jesus foolishness, then you are no longer a member of this family!” Rejection awaited many of Jesus’ disciples out in the larger world. Romans, for example, wondered what was wrong with those Christians. Why couldn’t they at least pretend to go along with giving homage to Caesar? “Christians make bad citizens, that’s what,” they declared.
Knowing what his disciples were going to face in the days, months and years ahead, Jesus said many things to them to prepare them. On the night before he was betrayed, he went over many important promises, like this one from John 14: I’m not going to leave you orphaned. I’m coming to you.
In today’s lesson, Jesus made some things abundantly clear to them: You are not slaves. You are not hired people. You don’t just work for me and try to please me and do what I want. I don’t want you for what I can get out of you. I don’t call you servants any longer. Servants aren’t in on what the master is doing. I call you friends. I have told you, let you in on everything my Father has told me. You are my friends. And the Greek word Jesus uses there means “loved ones.” You are my loved ones. I chose you. Friends prove themselves by laying their lives down for each other. I lay my life down for you. You are chosen and cherished.
Sounds a lot like what God said to his people through the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name. You belong to me. You are mine.” (See Isaiah 43.)
All through his ministry Jesus proved himself a friend. He shared people’s joys and sorrows, as when he helped a family in trouble because the wine ran out at their wedding. Jesus made friends with women and children, people who didn’t count for very much in that society, and with foreigners, sick people, and people with disabilities. He brought healing. Jesus preached good news to the poor and fed the hungry. He touched lepers, people nobody else wanted to get near. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, rejects of all kinds, and he made friends with them. The lowly in society, the rejects loved Jesus. He put himself in danger when he came to Mary and Martha in Bethany near Jerusalem, where people were out to get him. Jesus put himself at risk in order to comfort them and to raise their brother, and his friend, Lazarus from the dead. Soon the authorities arrested him. And then on the cross, Jesus laid down his life for all of these friends.
“I have chosen you,” Jesus said to his disciples. “I have shown you what is in my Father’s heart. It’s love. You are my friends. And you prove yourself my friends when you love as I have loved you. True friends lay down their lives for each other. They put themselves on the line. I put myself on the line for you. And that’s what I call you to do.”
People know it when others do not regard them as friend material. Many, many hearts are longing for someone, someone to choose and cherish them as friends. Awkward people, odd people, people with disabilities. Many people with disabilities have the same hopes and dreams as so-called “normal” people. They long for friends. They long for a special friend to marry them. The more severe the disabilities, the less chance they have of realizing that dream.
Children with disabilities know it when they are a disappointment to their elders. This week I read a story about a little boy with an intellectual disability who had just received communion for the first time in the Catholic church. First communion is a big deal for Catholics, and children’s families hold celebrations for them when that time comes. This little boy’s family had a celebration for him, and one of his Uncles in his hearing said to his mother, “Wasn’t it a beautiful [service]? The only sad part is that he didn’t understand anything.” With tears in his eyes, the little boy went to his mother and said, “Don’t worry, Mummy. Jesus loves me just the way I am.” (Hauerwas & Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, p. 72).
I think one reason people dread going into a nursing home is that they dread the isolation. Think of what it’s like to go for days and weeks and even longer without ever being touched in friendship, to only be touched when somebody is doing something to you.
People know it when they’re not wanted, when they’re not seen as friend material. Even when nothing is said, they know it when someone is drawing conclusions about them because they look funny, or talk funny, or their skin is a different color. Poor people know it when others wish they would just go away.
And then there are hurting souls who doubt themselves so deeply that they believe in their heart of hearts that others wouldn’t want to be my friend any more if they really knew me. They wouldn’t blame their friends for “unchoosing” them.
Jesus makes it clear: this is who you are to me. This is what you mean to me. You are my friends. I lay my life down for my friends. You are worth it. It is worth it to me to lay my life down for you. This who you are, and this is where you belong: you belong in the company of my friends. I love you this way. Now you go and do the same. Be my friends. Put your own lives on the line. Be a society of friends.
I was reading a comment on today’s Gospel lesson by Barry Chance, a Presbyterian pastor in Shreveport, Louisiana. He came up in this presbytery, and I remember seeing him when he was getting ready for ministry. He writes about how, at some point every week, usually at Wednesday night Bible study, and sometimes at the door when the worship service is done, someone says to him, “You’re my friend, ain’t you Mr. Barry?” And his response is, “Yes,” and he calls her by name, “you’re my friend.”
He adds, she “is one of the students in my congregation’s Friendship Bible Study, a weekly study for adults with intellectual disabilities. The class is called Friendship because the curriculum we use comes from Friendship Ministries, but I can think of no better name because it reminds me and all of the other mentors that our role is to be a friend.
“Friendship has not always come easily to all of my friends,” Barry adds. “Some of them have been mocked, excluded, and abused because they are different. Some have difficulty expressing themselves and people aren’t patient with them as they try. Some are just hard to befriend. Still, they are my friends and Jesus teaches us what that means.” (Join the Feast: http://jointhefeast.blogspot.com/2009/04/may-17-2009-john-159-17-barry-chance.html)
Friendship Ministries is most appropriately named. It’s a movement that started in the Christian Reformed Church, a very small denomination similar to ours, and it has grown to involve people across denominational boundaries, protestant and catholic. It is now an international movement. The heart of it is developing friendships between people with disabilities and other people in the congregation. Blessings abound to everyone involved.
Friendship: a gift so very precious, so longed for, and so freely given to us by Jesus. I choose you, he says, yes, you. I choose you as friends, and I lay my life down for my friends. Now you can choose. You make the choice to be friends, not for your own interest, not for what you can get, not because it makes you feel good, but because I have made you my friends.
What a friend we have in Jesus! How he knows every weakness, every hurt, every plus, every minus in us, and how he cherishes us. What a friend we have in Jesus. What kind of friends does he have in us?