A True Friend
Scripture: John 15:12-17
Preached on June 11, 2017
@ Trinity U.M. Church, Lafayette
By Tracey Leslie
Near the last year of his life, when my dad was moved to the memory care unit of a Methodist retirement community, my sister and I took the brave step of clearing out his house. It was hard. Dad had always been the pack rat and mom (who preceded him in death by more than a decade) had been the organizer; so my dad's house became a daunting task for my sister and me. There were important items that had seemed to disappear in those last couple years. Had they been thrown away? Would we find them somewhere buried and unexpected? There were boxes of dryer lint. Were they concealing something of worth or simply a by-product of his disease? It was a painful and painstaking process. But there were also some rare joys amidst that stress and strain. Now I appreciate the modern convenience of email but I mourn the loss of something as enduring as a letter. When we cleared out dad's house we found several letters. And among them, tucked in the drawer of my dad’s nightstand were love letters exchanged between mom and dad during their teen dating years. Letters more than a half a century old. What a priceless gift to read of their young love. Notes that said things like: “I am sitting here in class but hardly able to concentrate. All I can think of is you and how happy I’ll be to see you this evening.” Those love letters were a window revealing the nature of their relationship that had deepened in intimacy over the course of decades. Mom was barely 16 when they met. To find those letters and to be able to remind ourselves that they’d had so many precious years together long before time and diseases had ravaged their minds and bodies. What a gift those letters were. Correspondence, written communication, capturing the character of their relationship.
Communication both actively constructs a relationship while also revealing the nature of that relationship.
So what if we were to think of prayer in that way: as communication between two lovers – so to speak – that both constructs and builds the relationship while also revealing its character?
I’ll be honest: I consider prayer the most mysterious of all spiritual practices and maybe that’s not unusual. After all; communication is complex. It goes beyond mere words; it encompasses our acute awareness of “the other” when we are in their presence… and, of course, we are always in the presence of God.
The sermon series I’m beginning this morning is based on a book I’ve been reading called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. In it, author William Barry says that prayer can be understood at its most basic level as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] Barry contends, as does the writer of John’s gospel, that God desires friendship with us.
But it’s important for us to understand what friendship meant in the ancient world. Because we don’t speak Greek – well, most of us don’t – we are not apt to detect how significantly friendship factors in John’s gospel. You see, the word used for “friend” in the scripture I shared this morning is philos which has only one letter that is different from the word used to describe Lazarus in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. Lazarus, you might recall, is the dead man Jesus restores to life. When the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus about their brother’s serious illness; in order to lend power to their appeal, they describe their brother as the loved one of Jesus. “He whom you love,” they say, “is ill.” And that word for “loved one” is phileo. Now if I’ve lost you in the Greek, don’t worry about it. The point here is, in the gospel of John, “friends” of Jesus are those whom Jesus loves; love in the sense of fondness or affection.
But far more than that was involved with friendship in the 1st century Mediterranean world. In that culture, the label “friend” could be used to describe two categories of friendships. That culture, as I’ve discussed in the past, was a patron-benefaction culture. There were a small number of wealthy, powerful individuals and many who belonged to the peasant class. There really wasn’t a middle class in ancient Palestine. Those in the peasant class could have their needs met by a wealthy patron who looked out for them. But this went beyond a professional relationship. There was fondness in this relationship and so the wealthy patron referred to the one they helped as a “friend.” The friendship was distinguished by generosity and kindness on the part of the wealthy patron and distinguished by loyalty and public praise on the part of the one being helped. This was a “friendship” among un-equals. But it was very much so, a relationship, a friendship. There was a second kind of friendship in that culture and it was a friendship among equals; probably more similar to what we would define as friendship in our culture today. In this kind of friendship there was a level of vulnerability and intimate knowledge of the other that resulted in trust.
Now why am I bothering to “school you” in ancient understandings of friendship? Because both of those are present in our relationship with Jesus when Jesus is our friend. I mean; let’s be frank. It is a relationship among un-equals. Jesus is the Son of God; according to John’s gospel, one and the same with God the heavenly Father. That’s not a power we can rival. And we rely on the heavenly Father’s provision when we pray in the name of Jesus, our friend. So Jesus tells his disciples, “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”[ii] Jesus meets our needs with resources – blessings, we call them – we could never conjure up by our own power. They are beyond us; yet God bestows those blessings upon us. And God’s blessings, his gifts toward us, ought to inspire loyalty on our part. In the ancient world, love was not an emotion in the way that we speak of love today. In the ancient world, love was expressed as loyalty and loyalty was displayed through obedience. So Jesus tells his disciples: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[iii]
But that is not our only experience of God as friend. While our abilities and resources can never begin to match the resources and abilities of God; while this relationship is clearly a friendship among un-equals that is not all there is to our friendship with God. Notice what else Jesus says to his disciples, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[iv] Let me say that again and let’s pause for just a minute so that can really sink in. Jesus says to his disciples, to those whom he loves, “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[v] Jesus reminds his disciples, in relationships of un-equals, the lesser one doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the other. The servant doesn’t know what the master is all about. But Jesus puts it all out there for his disciples. This friendship involves intimacy and vulnerability. And I think this second kind of friendship – this one I’ve just described – is the one we have the most difficulty embracing in our relationship with God. It’s easy for us to understand our relationship with God as something unequal. It’s easy for us to understand our relationship with God as our being dependent on God’s help. But think about what it means that Jesus introduces the elements of intimacy and vulnerability – not as a one-way street, but as a two-way thing – into our relationship with God.
Friends, Jesus came to express to us what it is that God desires in a friendship with us. God desires to reveal himself to us in an intimate way and God, so clearly in Jesus, chooses to be vulnerable or open with us. And so, as Barry writes in his book, “for God friendship seems to come down to mutual self-revelation, to telling the truth about ourselves to each other.”[vi]
And so over the course of the next six weeks, we’re going to look together at what it means for us to be honest with God in our positive and negative experiences, feelings, and attitudes; to be honest with God about the things that make us mad, the things that make us sad; the things that bring us joy.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Are you saying I should describe to God something going on in my life right now that’s making me angry? Why do I need to do that? God knows everything. God knows what’s been happening to me and God knows I’m angry.” And that’s true. But here’s my question: Just because your spouse knows you love them, is that a good enough reason to never say it to them? Just because your son or daughter knows you’re proud of them is that a reason to never say it? Just because your best friend knows you appreciate them being there for you, does that mean you should never say it out loud?
Remember; communication reveals the nature of a relationship. But it also continues to construct and shape the relationship. When we take the time to communicate our experiences and thoughts and feelings, it impacts the relationship. It builds intimacy and it builds a rhythm of speaking and listening; it builds awareness of the other.
In his book, Barry writes of his own experience with prayer. He writes of a day when, during his time of prayer, he sensed God communicating to him. Barry describes what God communicated to him that day. It was as if God was saying to him [and I’m quoting from his book]: “Most of time when you ask me what I want from you, you’re looking for something to do for me. I don’t want you to do anything for me; I want you to be my friend, to let me reveal myself to you and for you to reveal yourself to me. [Then] The things-to-do will take care of themselves.”[vii] That was what Barry felt God communicate to him that day. Now, I don’t think Barry means to imply that God doesn’t care about our behavior or our Christian conduct. Rather, I think he means to remind us that it is through our relationship with God that we are truly changed. Relationships, authentic relationships marked by mutual self-revelation and truth-telling, cannot help but impact who we become at our core. Communication – honest, truthful communication – both reveals the nature of a relationship while also continuing to construct and shape that relationship.
I hope that this sermon series on prayer will help you to deepen your friendship with God and I want to invite you to begin by trying something out this week. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to consider if you experienced any intense emotions or thoughts that day. Did something really captivate your attention? Did something make you angry or deeply sad? Be honest. And if it did, describe not only your feelings but even your experience to God. Don’t worry that God already knows. Describe the experience in your own words and describe what it made you think or feel and then, take a few moments to breathe deeply and be still and listen. If it’s easier for you, you may want to write it out on paper and then, in those few moments of silence, fold the paper and hold it up with outstretched hands… as if you’re offering your experience, your thoughts and your feelings to God and simply listen. If that quiet time of silence feels awkward to you or you feel preoccupied with wondering how much time has passed, set a timer for 3-5 minutes and simply try to breath and rest and listen after you have poured out your words and your heart to the God who most certainly says to you, “I want to be your friend.”
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] John 15:16b
[iii] John 15:14
[iv] John 15:15
[v] John 15:15
[vi] Ibid. p. 7
[vii] Ibid., p. 6
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