The 20th century poet Robert Frost once wrote something to the effect that you should take the light things seriously and the serious things lightly. That line kept coming to mind this week as I was living with the Gospel for today which is John the evangelist at his most seriously sublime with words that, at least for me, point to the very centre of the good news of the saving love of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Listen:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love... 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.”
So how do we, can we, respond to these amazing words? How do we receive this message? How can we listen and live out our lives in light of the - almost beyond belief - possibility that this is all true, that the Good News is this good? That God is with us as a human being giving his life over as a gift, in order to share the road as a friend. God is my friend! I’ve heard that line before – we all have - but still, God wants to be, is willing to be, is here to be, my friend. That’s the line that stayed with me all week: a friend.
It is a surprising turn in this book of the New Testament. On the whole, the Gospel of John has a very high Christology. When he looks at Jesus, He sees a holy priest, a man with great authority who always is at the centre of the scene. That’s his take on it. You would never get a Jesus who is amazed at the disbelief of the crowds, as you do in Mark, you would never get a Gethsemane scene where he asks that cup might not come to him, there’s no sweating blood here. The Jesus that John describes lays down his life with serenity and ease. He proceeds through the actions, signs, miracles, teachings with the majesty of a master with his students, not unlike a Greek sage of the same time. He almost seems slightly above it all.
Except for this line: You are my friends. And that brings another level of discourse, another vantage point to the picture, a different focus, a spaciousness of understanding, of relationship and intimacy that would not be possible if it were not on the horizontal ground of being friends. Seeing God close-up is one thing, Moses sees that and takes off his shoes and trembles, but when God comes close to offer friendship it is another matter, it requires another posture, another response. In this case, this morning, it requires a bit of a detour, so bear with me.
Let me tell you about my friend Greg Eaves. I met Greg in the autumn of 1976. I was taking a seminar on the sociologist Peter Berger, and knew most of the people in the classroom that first day except for this English guy who showed up late and was funny and smart and a little shy. So, we talked a few times and went out for a coffee and a beer after that and the years went by. Now he lives in England and we talk every couple of months and whenever I get there I stay with him and his partner, Julia, and I am hoping that next year they’ll get here for a stay,
But there was one day, maybe six months or a year after we first met, when he was telling me something, and it might have been boring, or something I wasn’t that interested in, - because Greg has a way of going on sometimes, or maybe I was just in a different mood, I don’t know. But when I looked at him at that moment, nattering away about something, I realized that we were friends, not just folk who did stuff together sometimes, but friends. And I knew it was likely that it would be forever, and that who he was and what he did, was, would be, had to be, important to me, was tied up with who I was and what I wanted and this friendship was going to be something that mattered and lasted. And it hit me, in a way I find difficult to understand and not easy to articulate, that this friendship was and would be one of the most important things in my life. And so it has been.
Through good times and bad, job setbacks and personal problems, depressed times, the deaths of parents, health issuers, and breakup of relationships and work woes and all the struggles and pains and glories of being human together. We still get together, after all these years, and we look at each other. Two old guys somewhat battered about by time and toil, and somewhat surprised by the love, joy, life, in the middle of it. Greg plays the guitar and often we start singing old songs from the 60s or 70s, with great noise and rather badly I’ll admit, which Julia thinks is funny, if a bit trying, but she suffers it, as friends do. And it is one of the dearest parts of my life. For friendship is a very common and wonderful thing.
And Jesus, in the Gospel of John for today, calls us friends. That’s the amazing turn; in the middle of this epic prose poem, while the hero moves on towards his freely chosen sacrificial death, he gathers up this rag-tag group: folk who have been following along, getting whatever knowledge, techniques, reassurance, hope, they could gather from what he said and what they saw, and he turns to them and says, “you are my friends.” It is such a surprise, coming in John’s great and glorious Gospel, that this son of God, this sign of love, “how deep. How broad, how high”, should choose to pitch his tent with us in the middle of this muddy journey, as a friend on the way. The joyous scandal of John’s Gospel is that God’s very flesh comes that close, gets familiar with us, calls us to be friends.
Iranaeous, an early Bishop of the church, once said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. We have seen the face of the liveliest human in this Jesus, this Jesus our friend. And there is our hope, that beyond belief and disbelief, beyond doctrine and commandment. Beyond all the plans and politics of the church and the world, there is a relationship of acceptance and presence, of love and delight. God is with us as a friend, with each of us, with all of us! All of us, for friends take on the whole package: our whole selves, our souls and bodies, our doubts and loves, our triumphs and tragedies. With our greatest plans and our deepest fears and failures, the moments of majesties, the times of betrayal - both done to us and by us, bigger than all that. Closer than all that; as we go through all the sad tones and the great music that comes with being human, we find we don’t have to sing it out alone.
For now all this journeying, each of our stories and each of our separate lives are set in this new context, in the company of God, Jesus, as a friend. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is willing to come towards us, arms outstretched in friendship to join us, like the father of the prodigal, like love walking in with a human face. In the very middle of the way, every moment, every day, in the very midst of all the painfully outstretched contradictions that come in the business of being human.
Jesus our friend is willing and able to meet us in the very middle of everything, with all the fears of a tentative life and an empty death. He is willing to share the road to the centre of tragedy, to the wondering why, to the time and the site that makes no sense, to the very foot of the cross and further: willing to meet us everywhere, even there, and to be with us close through the middle of it all as a friend will. What if the world is truly that wrought, that complex, that intimate, and we matter that much, to God?
We are here to take that chance, to move into that relationship, to live into that lively truth, that God wills to be intimate with us. What amazing good news it might be! And Jesus said, “You are my friends”.
The Lord be with you.