In John's gospel, there are seven statements Jesus makes that begin with the two words, “I AM.” Every time he uses these two words he connects himself to God the Father. It ties back to when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. When Moses asked God for a name to give to the people, God's answer in English is most often translated, “I AM who I AM.” And so in John, Jesus seems to take up the mantle of God when he says things like, I AM the good shepherd or I AM the true vine—statements we looked at these last two Sundays. Some of his others; I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate of the sheep pen.
In today's gospel, we don't get the direct I AM statement, but I'm going to suggest that we get a form of it. It is not part of his claim to divinity, but a claim to the intimate connection that he has with his disciples and by inference with us. He says, in effect, “I am your friend.”
I think it is important to note that while Jesus announces this intimate connection, he does not suggest that there is an equal relationship. He remains their teacher and, as Thomas declares later, their “Lord and God.” But what he does do is change the picture of the relationship between their God and themselves. He as Rabbi; as teacher invites us into a new relationship. And I want to suggest that the church has often done a work of separation rather than joining together.
I'm thinking of the clergy and the congregation. I grew up in a culture where the clergy were set apart, set above those of us in the pew. It wasn't until I heard one of my pastors swearing in a volleyball game that they came down off that pedestal. Pastor Melissa Earley wrote a couple short articles on the lectionary in last week's Christian Century. She shared what I have been taught as well. “I was taught that clergy shouldn't be friends with the parishioners. Friendship leads to complications. Boundaries get blurred; expectations get messy.... Jesus gives us a different example of leadership. 'I do not call you servants any longer... but I have called you friends.' He blurs the boundaries... He remains in them; they remain in him. They all remain in God.”
During these liturgical Sundays after Easter, we leave the scheduled Mark readings in favor of John's gospel. And we have been reading John's account of the Maundy Thursday supper in the upper room. And if you've ever done a Holy Week study of the four gospels together, you've seen that John does not include the Lord's Supper in his account. John has chosen to focus his attention on the call to love one another. The “sacrament” if you will in John's gospel is Jesus washing of the disciples' feet! Not the bread and the cup, but the teacher kneeling and serving the students; turning their understanding of master and servant upside down. And remaking our understanding of the great separation between God and us.
As I said, historically we have built a kind of wall between God and us by making the priest the intermediary between God and us. Scriptures teach the priesthood of all believers. But often the minister or pastor still gets set apart. We as a church community are somewhat unique in our clergy/member relationship. There is little inclination to put me as pastor on a pedestal. And that's because many of you have known me for many years. But it is also a result of the absence of the traditional elevation of clergy over the member in the pew. I have always tried to be clear that I am not the boss, I am not greater than members; in fact, I am here to serve. And we are friends as well as pastor and member. In a way, Jesus is encouraging us to see him as more than a deity to be worshiped from afar. He has invited us to be his friend. And what does friendship look like? It is sharing. It is intimacy. It is honest sharing. It is enjoying time with each other. It is liking each other.
And I think we can extend this invitation to be friends with Jesus to the fellowship we share here at First Presbyterian. The other article Ms Earley wrote last week reminded me of our fellowship/friendship. She wrote, “I began to see the strengths of my church. They genuinely like each other. The had a deep history of supporting each other through difficult times. They forgave the more difficult people their faults... This wasn't a dying church. It was a small church... It was a church that was bearing fruit.”
I think sometimes we need to hear these kinds of words about our church. We face challenges of an aging congregation, of isolation, of physical limitations. And like all people, we face illness and death. But we do it, not alone, but amongst friends. And as we gather as a family in the name of Jesus, we are invited into intimate friendship with him! Let's not take that for granted. That can happen, we get too comfortable and easy-going with the Savior. But it can also be go the other way, that we keep the Lord at a distance out of respect or fear or awe. Jesus is Lord and Savior, Good Shepherd and the true vine. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. But he is also our friend. You are invited to connect with Jesus in a very close and personal way.
However, if we look back to the gospel, John does teach that Jesus puts a notice; a caveat if you will. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We are reminded again and again that God's law is fulfilled in our obedience of these two commandments, love God and love your neighbor. And the bar for loving our neighbor is placed very high in this passage, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus showed his love for us; God's love for us by laying down his life for us. And we are certainly taught that sin was a reason for his sacrificial death. But we are reminded here that it was his great love for his friends that sent Jesus to the cross.
When I first started working out today's sermon, I wrote out the working title, “Friends.” That reminded me of the 90s TV series by that name. It was a show Julie and I chose not to watch while we had young kids in the house; much of the show was not appropriate for children. But I've been catching up on the show. From time to time I wake up in the middle of the night. A little TV relaxes me and helps me get back to sleep. Friends is on two separate channels from Midnight to 2 o-Clock or so. I sit and switch back and forth and follow the lives of these friends.
I would say there is not a lot to emulate in those people as portrayed on TV. But I did find a bit of theology in their theme song. “I'll be there for you.... “I'll be there for you(When the rain starts to pour)I'll be there for you(Like I've been there before)I'll be there for you” That's the promise Jesus has made as the Good shepherd who leads us. He's the vine and that connection is real and he is there in the rain, by the still waters, in our sorrows and in our joys.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And we are called to abide in Jesus's love and the love of the Father. In his commentary, The Gospel and Epistles of John, FF Bruce wrote, “the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son, and of Jesus and his disciples, and of the disciples with their heavenly Father as his children, is a mutuality of love, a love in which obedience is a spontaneous joy.” (pg 310) It is a mysterious wonderful mix of creator and created, master and servant, Lord and friend all mixed up together. Mystery is a key here. It is not for us to understand all the workings of God. God as a loving parent has adopted us as children. God full of grace has forgiven our sin. God who is love calls us friends. As friends, we are invited to share all our joys, our griefs, our sins to God in prayer. Not in prayer as “give me this and give me that.” Prayer as in “here's our life Lord, lead us and teach us, we pray.”
We are privileged to be called children of God. But today's reading reminds us that that privilege includes being called as friends of God. Remember that comes with responsibilities; we are called to bear fruit in the name of Jesus. But time and again, Jesus reminds us that as his friends and as his disciples, we are to: “love one another as I have loved you.” What a love the Lord has shown us! What a joy it is to share in this mutuality of love! What a wonderful friend we have in Jesus! Amen.
Hymn: what a friend we have in Jesus