Presented at First Congregational Church, UCC West Boylston, MA May 13, 2012.
Jesus says something very interesting in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John. He tells his disciples “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 think about that: I do not call you “Servants” any longer… but I have called you friends…
This is from the last great discourse Jesus gave to his disciples before his death in the Gospel of John. He is telling his disciples that something has changed. They are no longer like anonymous servants or slaves, lost in the shadow of the Messiah. They are no longer nameless or faceless figures in the gospels. They are now “friends” – and more than that in fact, because the Greek word we read as “friends” in this passage is perhaps better translated as “Those Whom I Love.”
Those whom I love.
Let us Pray…
Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning. We ask that you open the scriptures before us, and that I clearly speak what you intend for me to say. Enable these words to come alive within each and every one of us, and that through them we continue to be amazed and transformed by your unconditional, living, infinite love for us. Help us to embody that love, and to live it, in all that we do, think and say. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Why does this matter? We’ve all been taught from our earliest days in Church that Jesus loves us. And I’ll prove it, how many of you know the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” O come on, raise your hands, this song’s been on the Children’s Sunday School Song greatest hits list for 150 years! OK, now that you admit knowing it…. Why don’t we sing it? Seriously, but just the first verse! Are you ready? Here we go –
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong, we are weak but he is strong
Yes, Jesus Loves Me… Yes, Jesus Loves Me
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!
OK, How was that? It was kind of fun, wasn’t it? Didn’t it feel good? But some of you are saying – ahh, big deal Allen, this is old news! We know Jesus loves us! Well, yeah – we hear it all the time – and that’s the point.
You see, we hear it so often that it no longer hits us like it did the first time we heard it. Do we ever really think any more about it, about what this Love of God really is, what it really means? Have we heard it repeated so often that we’ve lost touch with the impact it had when we learned about it, or felt it, for the first time? Kind of like the first time you kissed your spouse – if you were like me, it ran through you like a bolt of lightening, you felt alive like never before.
But now, it no longer has the same impact. We hear it, and it assures us, but we no longer feel that thrill running through our soul. Don’t you want it back?
Let’s explore this a bit further. What does Jesus really mean when he says we are “those whom he loves” in this passage?
We’ll start by taking a look at the implications of Jesus saying “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing…”
Jesus uses the term “Servants” here (which is often translated as “Slaves”), and tells us that Servants do not know what the Master is doing. Let’s think about this for a moment. We’re being told that servants are not constant companions of the Master, the Master does not confide in them nor share anything with them. What they want, what they think, what they feel, what they know, is irrelevant. All that matters is whether they do what they are told. It is a one-way relationship: the Master has all the power, the servant has none. It is not a relationship that can grow, it is not a relationship that can challenge or change the Master, it is not a relationship with any sort of future, nor any risk for the master. It is not a relationship based in friendship, nor in Love. In other words, it is the Covenant of the Law: these are the rules. Obey!
But then Jesus says “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Here’s why we are not merely servants (or slaves) of the Father, here’s why the old Covenant no longer applies: Jesus has confided in us, just as we confide in those whom we love and trust. Everything the Father revealed to Jesus has been revealed to us. He has entrusted us with the Word of God. He has revealed to us his innermost thoughts and desires. … … Jesus is sharing his knowledge, and the power that results from it, with us. In so doing, Jesus has given us the ability to have a relationship with him, with God, as a peer, as a friend, as a lover.
You don’t do this with a servant, because doing so would give your servant power over you. You don’t share such things with someone who is anything but a close and trusted friend, someone you love. And so we begin to see a glimmer of the new covenant that is being revealed in Jesus teachings, soon to be sealed with the Blood of the Son of God.
More is revealed in the next sentence. Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you…” This new covenant is one of unconditional love. It didn’t come about because we are ready to love Jesus. It is already there. He chose us first, he loved us first, he trusted us first, before we ever had a chance to choose to love Him back, before we proved that we were worthy of such trust. Before we could do anything, his love was already out there, on the table, waiting for us. He already trusts that we’ll accept his love, and be worthy of it. This is astounding news. We are being offered the chance to walk side by side with God as a friend, as a lover, without first proving that we merit such trust. That’s how much Jesus loves us.
But, there’s more! Jesus then says “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” Where is this coming from, and why?
This thought hearkens back a few verses earlier, just before this morning’s reading, where Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine to describe our relationship with God, saying (among other things) “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The point here is that we can bear good fruit individually, but we only fully embody the potential, and merit the trust God has placed in us if we abide in him, all intertwined together: distinct branches, but all part of the same vine, all part of the same community, rooted in Christ. This is a statement of the importance of community, that one cannot be a follower of Christ in isolation from the rest of the Body of Christ. We can’t do it alone. Christianity is about community, about our relationship with each other, in Christ, as much as it is about our relationship with God. This is why Jesus commands us in this passage, saying “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and its why this passage ends with the words “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
And this brings me to my final point on this scripture, which is that to truly love means loving first. To Love First as Jesus did, loving the other even before encountering them. For if we truly do so, how can there be preconditions to our Love? We are called to love one another before we know anything about each other, and to not stop. We are called to be lovers of the unknown and the unseen. We are to love one another as Jesus has first loved us, and as Peter in turn loved Cornelius and his family: unconditionally.
And so you’ve done with me.
I first sat in this sanctuary almost a year ago, a prospective Seminarian, a little intimidated by what I was about to enter into, and by how many people were here that Sunday – it was Children’s Sunday. I was wondering if this church would be a good fit for me, and if I’d be accepted. I was hoping I could succeed.
Last September, you first saw me standing up here in this robe, and in the months since, you’ve seen me here almost every Sunday, preaching the Word of God and assisting in the administration of the sacraments.
And I’ve felt your love every moment in these months, sometimes sternly, like when Steven says “Allen, what were you thinking?!?” But more often gently, like in the many hugs I’ve received and given in my time here, in the tears we’ve shared from time to time over the loss of loved ones or the many challenges of life in this world, or simply while drinking our coffee together and sharing our stories and thoughts during fellowship hour.
So many of you have invited me into your lives, whether through telling me the story behind the treats you gave me this past Christmas; or talking with me in your home during a Circle Supper or Pastoral visit. I have been honored, and deeply touched, by our conversations and your stories. It has been a revelation to be given a glimpse of the strength and beauty that is in each and every one of you.
And now we’re at the end, at least in a way. You’ve shown me love from the moment I stepped through that door – first as an anonymous visitor, then as your Seminarian, and from this time forth as a member of this Congregation. You’ve embodied what Christ sought to teach his disciples, meaning us too, in this passage from John: love first, love unconditionally, love even those who are new and unknown to you. Love even despite your reluctance to embrace the unknown.
I have learned a great deal from all of you this year. I have learned how to love, and how to embody that love, in a pastoral role. I have learned how to carry forth that love as I engage with others. I have learned how beautiful and how important even the sharing of Christmas cookies or coffee can be.
Thank You for this opportunity, thank you for allowing me the privilege of stumbling and falling from time to time. Thank you for your joy and your unconditional love.
And always remember – God loves you, and I do too.
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site).