I Call You Friends (Visitation Sermon)

by | May 9, 2021

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. 
John 5:9-17

Let me begin by extending a warm Mother’s Day greeting to all mothers among us, and by giving thanks to God for your mothers, those who gave you the gift of life, and those who have loved you as a mother. If your mother has crossed over to greater life with God, with you, I honor her memory. If, as a mother, you are far from your children today, as I am, or if being a mother was something you wanted but were denied, I offer my prayers. Some of the kindest people in my life never had children themselves but they love others as deeply as they would their own children, and I give thanks for them, and this day, for you.  

As a personal aside, my own mother, who is nearly 90, has been living with us throughout the pandemic, and for Mother’s Day, my sister took all the old photographs of our mother as a young child and made a lovely hardcover photobook. All day yesterday, she pondered those photos taken of her with her mother from the 1930s. She’s grieving a lot right now, and the photos reminded her of the amazing arc of her life and those who nurtured her when she was just a babe. May we all have a sense of that today–the long line of people, generation to generation, who have given us life and loved us as best they could. 

I have been looking forward to this Sunday for some time, for the opportunity to worship with you, beloved of Christ Church, Rockville, to acknowledge what you have been through in the last few years, some of which was really hard, and to give thanks for your perseverance on this journey. The last time I was here in worship with you was when we celebrated the new ministry of the Rev. Lisa Zania, whom we had all hoped would be your spiritual leader for many years. For all sorts of reasons, that was not to be, which grieved her, I know. It grieved you, and it broke my heart as well. I saw Lisa the other day. She is doing well, back working for the federal government and she has started a house church for families with children who have mental or physical disabilities. She is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. 

I give thanks to God for the ministry of your two interim rectors, the Reverends Carole Cole Flannaghan and Meg Ingalls. They are quite a team, and they have told me how much they are enjoying their work among you–challenging as it has been through transition, the pandemic, and all matters to the congregation’s future. Thanks as well to your vestry leaders, church staff, and all who give so freely and love so generously, as Jesus himself exhorts us all to do.

It was great to see so many from Christ Church at Washington National Cathedral’s amphitheatre last weekend for the Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation of Faith service, and I’m delighted that we will continue to confirm and receive more of you today. Thank you for taking an important step in your life of faith. 

Let me remind you that in services like this none of us assumes you have everything figured out in terms of what you believe and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus. None of us does. I am 62 years old and a bishop, for heaven’s sake, and I’m still learning and growing. I still have moments of doubt and long stretches of struggle. Yet this I know: you and I can trust Jesus to be with us through everything, sometimes in ways that we can feel so powerfully and other times, we live, as they say, by faith and not by sight. We learn to trust in Him even when we don’t feel his presence. 

That’s how it is for all of us–and one of the gifts of Christian community is that we hold one another up; we rely on each other to carry us when our faith wanes, and we do the same when we can for others. Mostly we strive to care for each other in the way that Jesus spoke to his first disciples. “Strive to love one another as I have loved you.” 

I’m convinced that’s why Jesus spent so much time talking to his disciples about God’s love. He wanted them to know how deeply they were loved, but also how important their efforts to love others were, because it’s through human love that we most consistently experience God’s love. God works through us.  

We just heard a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus says over and over again, I need you to love one another as I have loved you. There’s an urgency to his words, because this is his last chance to speak to them before he dies, and he knows it. Think about that for a moment: what would you say to those you love if you knew it was the last chance you would speak to them on this side of heaven? 

One of the things he says, which catches me up short every time I read it, is that he calls his disciples his friends. He’s not speaking to them as a master would to a servant, or a teacher to a disciple (another word for student) but as friend to friend. I call you friends. You are my friends. 

As I asked those gathered for Confirmation last Saturday, I ask you, “Whom do you call friends?” 

Think about them–what is it about them that makes them your friend? What kind of friend are they? How did you meet them, what part of your life do you share with them? Do you consider them casual friends or what you might call a “good friend” or even a “best friend.” 

Think of the qualities and experiences that deepen friendship. Time, certainly; Shared experiences; Affection for one another. Common interests. 

Paradoxically, hurting one another and forgiving each other can deepen a friendship. Some friendships don’t survive the hurt, but those that do teach us the power of forgiveness and true reconciliation. 

One of the qualities of a deep friendship is that we know that our friend truly cares for us. It’s not about what we can do for them, or that we entertain them, or share common experiences. They simply care. They love us no matter what, and they have our best interest at heart always, and we theirs. This kind of friendship takes time and effort on our part to grow into the kind of person that can offer deep friendship as well as receive. It means becoming a person, as Jesus said, who learns to love others as God loves us.

Every morning, my mother either receives a phone call or makes a phone call to a person who has been her friend for decades. They started out as colleagues, working at the same hospital in New York City. They would sometimes meet in the city for dinner or a play, or visit one another in their homes. For years, theirs was a warm, yet casual work-based friendship. As they both aged, however, and retired from the work they shared, their friendship deepened. They haven’t seen each other for years, but every day they call one another to make sure the other is all right. This is the friend my mother pours her heart out to now, and her friend listens with unconditional love. 

There’s another kind of friendship that helps us understand what Jesus was offering his disciples on the night he called them his friends. Let me describe it by way of personal example. 

When I was a teenager, I was blessed to have several older adults in my life who meant the world to me. One was a teacher, another was the minister in my church, another was my aunt. These were the people I looked up to and admired. I learned from them, and I wanted to be like them someday. The two who were practicing Christians showed me what it looked like to live as one who loved Jesus and followed his example. 

And at some point in our relationship, they each said to me in one way or another, “I call you friend.” It was an acknowledgment that I had grown up, both in age and in my capacity for friendship. They knew that I wasn’t perfect and didn’t expect me to be, but they trusted me to care about the things they cared about, and the people they cared about.

Their acknowledgement of my friendship was and remains one of the great gifts of my life. I strive to be worthy of their friendship. And I think what Jesus was saying to his disciples by calling them his friends is that they, too, had grown in their capacity to love the people Jesus loved, and to care about the things he cared about. He trusted them to carry on after he was gone. 

What I want you to leave you with is an assurance that Jesus is your life-long friend, one who loves you, wants the best for you, delights in your company and all your accomplishments, and will always be with you, no matter what happens. 

The nature of friendship with Jesus will never be mutual in the sense that you and I are equals. But if we choose, we can grow in our relationship with him, as we do with friends who are farther down the road of life and wisdom and compassion, by learning from him, listening to him, and as he said to his first disciples that he called friends, by striving to love other people as he loves us and he loves them. 

This kind of friendship takes effort on our part, as does any friendship that we really care about. But it is so worth it, to grow in love and friendship with him. As I pray with and for each of you today, keep in your mind an image of Jesus as your friend who will always be there for you, and who invites you into a relationship of deep friendship. 

Here is something you might consider for the remainder of the month of May. Put something near your bed so that when you rise each day, you will be reminded that the Spirit of Jesus lives within you and is with you as your friend. What I’ve done is simply write the words “I call you friend,” on a notebook that I periodically use as a journal. 

It reminds me as I rise to take a moment to receive Jesus’ love and friendship, which helps me remember throughout the day that he is with me. What could you put by your bed to do the same? And then, at the end of each day, before you fall asleep, take a moment to hold the day’s events in light of Jesus’ love and friendship and ask what kind of friend you were.  

How might you live today, and all your tomorrows, if you dared to believe that Jesus was at your side, as your friend? How would you live today, and all your tomorrows, knowing that Jesus calls you his friend, and invites you to love other people the way that he loves you and he loves them? 

Remember that Jesus needs you, needs all of us. In the words of Teresa of Avila, Jesus has no physical body on this earth, but yours. Yours are the hands through which he works, yours are the feet with which he moves, yours are the eyes with which he looks upon this word with kindness and love. He sees you through us and invites you to see those around us with those same eyes of friendship and love.