9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. 16You 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. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
Last weekend we had family in town and I noticed a phrase that kept popping up: “Church friends”
As we shared stories there were “school friends” and “soccer friends”,
but over and over again:
when go swim at our “church friends’”
when our “church friend” babysits
our “church friend” gave me this book, these stickers…
Anyone listening carefully would pick up on the fact that among all our friends in Auburn, our “church friends” hold a special place in our lives. More than teammates or classmates — church friends have a unique bond — and this is exactly what Jesus is talking about today when describes for his followers the special brand of friendship that is Christian friendship.
In the ancient world there were two kind of friends - political and fictive-kinship. Political friendship is exactly what it sounds like: friendship with an ulterior motive, and that motive was to get ahead. That kind of friendship included one with more and one with less, both hoping to use this connection for some sort of personal gain.
But fictive-kinship was different. These friends genuinely cared about each other’s wellbeing. Fictive-kinship even implied the willingness to defend the friend with one’s life. Or, as Jesus puts it: "to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In today’s text, Jesus makes it known he is this kind of friend. He will and does (eventually) give his life for them. And while he is not their equal, the relationship is not patron/client or master/servant - instead Jesus is the connecting force binding each of them to one another because they are bound to him. And while members of the body of Christ cannot function without the head of the body, Jesus, they are also made better because of their friends - and because of this, they are willing to sacrifice for one another.
The last few weeks Nick and I have been having meetings with each of the staff to check in before we are out on sabbatical. And even though they only have a handful of remaining weeks here at the church we met with Karen and Steve Hickok - mostly to say thank you, but also to acknowledge how each of their ministries at FPC has extended far beyond their job descriptions as they have been not just staff but friends (and not just friends, but “church friends”) to so many of us over the years.
At one point in our conversations, Steve shared an observation of this congregation born out of many years of serving many churches. He noted one of the greatest strengths of this staff is that “everyone lifts each other up” (and to paraphrase) — no one is desperate for the credit, no one is trying to get ahead, we lift each other up, so the burden is light.
And I agree. We’re not just co-workers, we are friends. And we’re not just any kind of friends. We’re “church friends” - which also means we know each others’ quirks, faults, and when we need to tread lightly.
But as great as this staff is, Steve also pointed out that our staff dynamic is a direct reflection of the way we experience God’s presence through the life of this congregation. We’re able to be thoughtful and generous and forgiving with one another because of the grace, patience, and sacrifice we have been shown through Jesus Christ, so very often made manifest in each of you.
On a late night in December of 2014 I stayed up until the early morning hours in my guest room at Columbia Seminary where I was desperately attempting to write what would be my first sermon for our first Sunday here at FPC. I struggled as I’d never struggled with a sermon before and the other pastors attending the meeting I was at felt nothing but sympathy for me.
I remember one of them saying, “It’s so hard when you don’t know them yet.”
At that point it was clear that First Pres Auburn and I liked each other on paper and by reputation. But we really didn’t know each other yet. Most of us weren’t even acquaintances, let alone friends… let alone “church friends.”
Since that time so much has happened.
Good and bad - looking through my pastoral record book this week I took a walk down memory lane: all the funerals where “church friends” not only sat in the pews but made sure Conway Hall was filled with flowers and punch and cheese straws for the reception after. All the baptisms, where we promised to raise these children in the faith and knowledge of Christ, and now those babies are not just friends, they are each others’ “church friends”.
Weddings, confirmations, graduations… And a lot of things we wouldn’t think to write down — if we’re honest, there have been moments where even as “church friends” we have frustrated and disappointed one another. But, as church friends do, this congregation has taught me the redemptive power of grace. To be Christ-like in our willingness to love one another. Sometimes, “laying down one’s life for our friends” means offering forgiveness when we don’t feel like it, and then moving forward together to do the work God calls us to do.
I have felt a lot of mixed emotions leading up to this sabbatical leave. When you begin a position at a church and you see that clause in your terms of call that says, “three months leave following six years of service” it feels a million miles away. Six years is a lifetime when you are still just trying to learn everyone’s name.
But it went by fast. And in those six years we have become not just any sort of friends, but “church friends”. We have laid down our lives for one another. Much like marriage vows, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, in good times and bad. And each time we baptize a new member into this body or welcome someone new into the family, the bonds of Christian friendship, fictive kinship, church family, grow wider and deeper.
Todd White (preacher’s kid), he once shared something with me. He said, “There is no greater gift in life than being a child of the church, because when you walk in that door you just know you are loved.” And that’s not just true for preacher’s kids. It’s what I hope every one of us comes to feel in this place. That’s what I pray, that all of us, children of God, no matter what age or phase of life, can walk through these doors and feel known and loved.
Outside the walls of the church that love takes many forms as we lay down our lives for one another. I’ve talked with so many of you about how one of the greatest gifts we find in our church friendships is having friends we can turn to when our lives aren’t going exactly the way we’d hoped. Friends we can reveal our struggles to in ways we might not be willing to do with just any old friend. But we know our “church friends”, like us, believe in the unconditional love and mercy of Jesus. So we hold hope that we might find glimpses of that love in one another.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to some time away. Y’all know that. But I’m being serious when I tell you that it’s bittersweet, especially because we’ve only just started to be able to be together in the last month or so and I miss “my church friends.”
This is the community that over and over again shows me what it means that Jesus Christ laid down his life for those he loved. You are the vessels of that same grace that show me how to be a better follower of Christ. You are the friends who help me bear my burdens, and in doing so, model for me how to do the same for others. That is what it means to be members of the body of Christ - “church friends.”
Craig Barnes is the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, but before that he was the pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church for almost thirty years. He had a ritual every time he left on vacation of saying “I love you” to his congregation as part of the benediction.
He writes this about it:
“The words are true because I will be away from those who long ago settled into my heart… It’s awkward, clumsy even, to tell a congregation that you’re in love with them. After all these years of trying to say this, I still feel like a junior high school boy passing a note to a girl that says, ‘I really, really like you.’
I used to think it would be easier to love the congregation at the end of a vacation when I was full of air again. But it is actually when I am depleted and more than a little grumpy that I find my heart is most caught up with being their pastor. Even my worse arguments with the church last year were old lovers’ quarrels… we’ve figured out long ago that we belong together.”
So on that note, my “church friends” — thank you, for this gift of sabbatical rest. I will miss you, and that’s because I love you.
Thanks be to God, Amen.