by Rev. J. Manny Santiago
“You are my friends” -John 15.14a
What does it mean to be “friends” with someone? How many friends do we have? Who are these people that we consider our friends and why do we consider them “friends” and not just “people we know” or “acquaintances”? In today’s world, with Facebook and other social media, people seem to have thousands of friends but really very few connections.
For those of us who profess Christianity, ours is a religion of Easter. We live out the resurrection. Looked at from this perspective we can talk about the church ever rejoicing in the experience of resurrection, the celebration of new life and the victory of the God of life over the god of death. We are a people of resurrection and new life.
The new life and the wholeness of life that our faith proclaims is rooted in the experience of those who sought each other out to form communities; new families if you will. Through their connections and their friendships, those people who experience resurrection came together to form a new family; a family that in time came to be known as “the Christians.”
The Importance of creating our own families
There is a movie that came out a few months ago called “50/50.” I am not sure how many of you had the chance to see it, but I did see it – mainly because the main character is played by one of my favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I’d want to share with you the premise of the movie, which I hope I got right since I spent most of the time crying while watching it.
The premise of the movie is this: a young man – in his early 30s – is diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. The doctor tells him that there is a 50/50 chance of survival. He decides to go into treatment. As he learns how to live his life with cancer, his overbearing mother, who also cares for his ailing father – who lives with Alzheimer’s – is not much help. His girlfriend cannot stand the changes in their lives together and leaves him. His best friend, however, stays with him. In fact, the young man notices how his best friend’s attitude has not changed at all. It seems like his friend had not noticed he has cancer. He continues to give him a hard time, continues to push him to do things, continues to treat him as before the diagnosis. At some point they had a big argument… and after a while, when they reconciled, the young man finds out that his friend had been learning about cancer, learning about how to best be there for his friend, and reading everything possible to make his friend’s life better. He has tons of books in which he had highlighted passage after passage on how to best help his friend. One of the passages that is highlighted talks about treating your friend as normal as always, to continue giving them the support they need by not changing anything unless they are asked to change things.
After the movie, I had to call my best friend to let him know how much I love and appreciate him. Friends, sometimes, become the families we need. Today we are going to talk about friendship, and what does it mean to be transformed and to be saved by it. How does that apply to our work as peacemakers in today’s world? Those are some of the questions I want to explore today and, since I am not a Methodist, but a Baptist through and through, there will be more than three points and way more than a few conclusions…
The Gospel story
In today’s reading of the gospel of John we find Jesus in his role as a teacher, telling his followers what are they to do after he is gone from their midst. Jesus is preparing his followers to continue his work, the work of God. Earlier in the passage we find Jesus telling his followers this (14.25-26): “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate,* the Holy Spirit, whom the [Creator] will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
Jesus wants to prepare his disciples to continue the work of justice, love, reconciliation, healing, and new life that he started. God’s love for humanity is such that God is certain that this love is enough for us to stay in the right path. “As the [Parent God] has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” says Jesus, with the understanding that his followers will show the extravagant love of God to others.
Now, it is very important to put the words in their proper context. As a non-English speaker, I understand the importance of concepts when translating, and therefore, I would like to tell you a little bit about the words used in this passage to describe love. First, there are two different words used in this passage for “love”. Theologian Gail O’Day writes the following: “The Fourth Gospel uses the two Greek verbs for “love” (agapao and phileo) interchangeably, so when Jesus speaks of friends [philos] here, he is really saying "those who are loved." A comparison of 14:15 and 21 with 15:14 suggests that to be Jesus' friend and to love Jesus are synonymous, because both are defined as keeping Jesus' commandments.”
The second concept is “commandment”. In the context of the gospel, entole, or commandment, is an instruction with a wishful thinking. Jesus knows that we are not perfect, and that we are going to fail in following his instructions. Yet, he has confidence that we are going to do our best to achieve the goal. Jesus puts the example of his love for God the Parent as the way in which we are called to love one another and to love God. “Stay loving each other, for I have loved you as the Parent God loves me” seems to be Jesus’ words. I had a professor in seminary, a catholic priest who taught a class on the Gospel of John, and he always told us how hard it is for a Christian to follow the teachings of the gospel of John. He used to say that the most difficult part of being a Christian was precisely this: to love others as God has loved us! Yet, we stay in course for we know how much God loved us, and when we look at “the other” in the eyes – whomever that “other” might be – we see Christ-self in them! How powerful and how transformative it would be if we looked at those around us and recognized that they, too, are the incarnation of God! Who would NOT welcome God to their midst? Who would not be hospitable to God-self if we recognize that the other, the person we have in front of us is the incarnation of God?!
But let me tell you this, it is not easy. The gospel message is not about easy solutions or a “how to” manual. On the contrary, the gospel message is a challenge to all of us as individuals. God challenges us to live a life in which we bear witness to one of the most difficult things of all: extravagant love for one another.
The story of the people left out
How do we find the strength to follow Jesus’ commands? How do we achieve the goal of loving all the people unconditionally and just as much as God loved us? The answer to that question can be found in the Acts of the Apostles, when the Spirit of God is poured out into ALL of the people gathered; people who came from all of the known world to be together for just a few days of celebration. And in the midst of the celebrations, God is then manifested through Spirit, a presence so powerful that it fills all of the people that are there, regardless of who they are, regardless of their documentation to be there, regardless of their sexual orientations, regardless of their socioeconomic status, regardless of their gender or gender expression; regardless of their accents and whether they speak “good English” or not… The Spirit is poured out for ALL to enjoy! Hallelujah!
By pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all of the people, God is testifying to God’s unconditional love for each individual on earth. “You did not choose me but I chose you” reminds us Jesus in the gospel of John. Even before we are aware of this extravagant love, God has already shown God’s love to us! This is an experience of grace! What a marvelous thing to see God’s love present in the lives of those who others consider not worthy of it!
God’s love and welcoming are radical. God’s love and welcoming are revolutionary. God’s love and welcoming are extravagant. God’s love and welcoming are beyond all expectations! God’s love is expressed by welcoming and honoring an making room into this new community for those who had been rejected by society and by religious institutions. And this is where friendship becomes a tool of transformation and a means of grace that save us. We are saved, we are transformed, we are made new by recognizing that God, through Christ, has become our friend… Not our master or our boss: God has become our friend!
When the journey gets difficult and we feel like we cannot go on, we hold on to this message and remember that God will be walking with us. When the journey takes us to places that we rather not be, we remember that God our friend is there with us. When we feel like the work is too exhausting and too much, and that things do not change and that the government doesn’t hear us, and that the religious institutions do not hear us, and that our neighbors do not hear us; when we feel like we are only just a few hundred peacemakers gathered to proclaim peace against a military complex that is too big to take down, we must remember that God is there with us, empowering us through the friendship that God has already extended to us… And then, it is right there when we can proclaim, I have been transformed, I have been empowered, I have been saved and this is what I must do: the powers that be have nothing against me, I am a Friend of God and peace is at hand! The Realm of Peace and Justice is at hand! The reality of God’s dream of justice and peace and reconciliation is at hand because my Friend, God, walks besides me and works with me!
Transformed by friendship
In 1997 I came out as a gay person. As you can imagine, the news did not sit well with my conservative, Baptist family. Soon, I found myself alone. My father, in a moment of desperation and ignorance of what it meant to be gay, threw my out of the house. At that time, I found friends who helped me in the way. Here this week is one of them, Thea was part of that new family of choice I had to create. Another friend of ours, John Lee, asked his mom to cook meals for me during that period of time in my life. It was because of friends that I had food on my table. It was because of friends that I was able to pay rent. It was because of friends that I stayed in college for the first semester after my coming out process. Without these men and women, I would have not been able to continue. They showed me God’s love by embracing me and counting me as family.
Jesus’ teachings in the gospel are similar to this. When others let you down and when others are not willing to stand by you on the proclamation of justice and of peace, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon you to testify to the world that you are indeed a friend of God. When pain and hurt are present in your life, God pours out the Holy Spirit in your life to show to the world that you are loved, and wanted, and cherished like a friend, not a servant. We are transformed by our friendship with God. And because of this friendship with God, we move forward, form being the people of Easter, to be the people of Pentecost, where we call upon the Spirit of God to renew our own spirits in order to transform the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.