Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby

May 9, 2021 Worship Sermon - "God Our Friend

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser

 Scripture: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

I no longer call you servants… but I have called you friends.

Have you ever been through a time when you really needed a friend? (see if anyone answers)

Shortly after I graduated from college, a couple of friends and I decided to travel to Europe.  I cashed out the small pension that had accrued during the six years I had been working at a bank, purchased a plane ticket to London, and then converted the rest of my savings into travelers checks.  My friends and I traveled together for about a month.  Then one returned to the United States while the other traveled to Switzerland to spend the holidays with his family.  I wasn’t quite ready to come back to the US, so I bought a train ticket to Madrid and decided to spend some time there.  On one of my first nights in Madrid, I was walking through an empty subway station and I was held up a knife-point by two guys.  They took my wallet, which fortunately did not have a whole lot of cash in it, they took my gloves, and they took the watch my parents had bought me for graduation.  After my assailants left the station, I went to the police to explain what had happened.  There was no one there who spoke English and my Spanish classes, unfortunately, never included a lesson on how to file a police report after being mugged.  So I went back to the pension where I was staying and tried to explain to the landlady what had happened to me.  Her English was no better than my Spanish, so she was unable to offer me any support.  This was before there was anything like email or Whatsapp that you can use to communicate around the globe.  I would have to wait until the next day before I could get to a phone and call my parents.  And I remember feeling so incredibly alone.  I had been through a traumatic experience and there was no one I could talk with about it.  The next day, I purchased the first ticket I could get back to the United States.  I was no longer eager to be separated from my friends and family.

During this pandemic, I have found that my longing for friendship has intensified, even as the opportunities to experience friendship have diminished.  Yeah, I’ve been able to gather with some friends on Zoom or take a few walks with friends over the past year.  But in addition to the close friends with whom we might set up a Zoom meeting, there is a much larger network of relationships that has been missing for much of the past year.  I think about the women who works at the Dunkin Donuts.  I’m so grateful for the smile in her eyes as she hands me my coffee.  Who cares what the coffee tastes like?  I don’t need coffee!  But I will gladly pay $2.15 for that sense of positive connection at the start of my day.

I think a lot of the polarization we have witnessed over the past year is really about loneliness.  We’re feeling isolated, so we cling to that group identity - Democrat or Republican or whatever - in order to feel a sense of belonging.  We’re willing to hurl lies and hostilities at the people in the other group in order to feel closer to the people in our own group.  We want friends!  We want connection!  Being alone is just too painful!

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are my friends.”  I used to think this passage was about Jesus conferring a higher status on his disciples.  Like he was saying to them, “Okay, guys, you’re ready to graduate.  I’m no longer going to call you servants.  You can be my friends from now on.”  But someone recently pointed out to me the possibility that maybe Jesus really needed a friend at that particular moment.  It was the night before he was going to be crucified.  When I think about how much I needed a friend to talk to after I was mugged, I can imagine Jesus really needed some friends on that night before his death.

Friendship is reciprocal.  In order for it to be friendship, it has to go both ways.  We talk about God as a lover; but the lover needs someone to love.  I love how Pope Francis put it when a child asked him what God was doing before God created the world.  Francis answered, “Before God created the world, God loved… because God is love.  And God’s love was so big that God could not contain it within Godself.  God needed to share it.  So God created the world in order to have something to love.  God created the world in order to share God’s love with it.”

We have this image of God as being self-sufficient and not needing anything.  But maybe, God really does need friends.  At least that’s one way to think about our reading from the Gospel of John.

If God calls us “friends,” how do we demonstrate our friendship toward God?  According to the Gospel, we demonstrate our love for God by loving each other.  “You are my friends if you do what I command you… and this is my commandment: that you love one another.”  Perhaps because we are created in the image of God, we have the same need to love that God has.

If friendship can help to heal the isolation and polarization our world is experiencing, then we whom Jesus has called his “friends”, we have a lot of friending to do.

For a couple of years, the state of Pennsylvania has the motto, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.”  I thought it was a strange motto until someone pointed out to me that Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers, who are also the Society of Friends.  The Society of Friends started in England during the sixteen hundreds, a time when England was even more polarized than the United States is today.  England was split apart by religious differences and political differences.  People like William Penn decided to take seriously what Jesus said about friendship with God and friendship with each other.  They decided that Christians do not need a priest to intervene between them and Jesus.  Jesus sends the Holy Spirit so that God can speak directly into the heart of any human being.  And because every person can be a vessel of the Holy Spirit, every person is worthy of respect.  So, Quakers were among the first abolitionists and Philadelphia had the largest population of free black men and women in the United States.  Perhaps that same model of friendship upon which this state was founded - friendship with God and friendship with each other - can be the source of healing for our world today.