On Friday I did something I should really do more often: I drove up to
After we said our goodbyes, I met up with Ellen, one of my seminary professors. Ellen began teaching at Claremont School of Theology the year I started my studies. I took more classes with Ellen than any other professor, and through the years we became good friends. She is a brilliant thinker, an engaging teacher, and a gentle person. Much of her life’s work is dedicated to discerning how Christians should live – how the scriptures, tradition, and experience of the Christian community inform our decisions and actions. I cannot hear the beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers” without thinking of Ellen, because so much of her work directs Christians into a deeper vocation as makers of peace in a violent world.
My last meeting of the day was with my dear friend and mentor, Julie. Julie is a pastor at First Christian Church of Pomona, the congregation that embraced me during my seminary studies. It’s hard to express how much she means to me. We have laughed together, cried together, and prayed together. I learned a lot in school, but she’s the one who taught and continues to teach me how to be a pastor. We only had an hour to spend together, but we filled the time with ice cream and a great talk.
One day, three friends. I may have emptied my gas tank on the excursion, but as I drove home, singing along with the radio at the top of my lungs, I felt as though my soul tank had been filled to the brim. I’d had a chance to delight in the fruits of their Christian discipleship— Paula’s fire for justice, Ellen’s hope for peace, Julie’s heart for ministry. But more importantly, I’d had an opportunity to simply enjoy their presence. In the hours we spent together, my friends and I freely shared our love and care for one another.
Friendship is truly one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind. We are created to be in relationship with one another. In a world where so many relationships are broken, the experience of genuine friendship is a witness to the transformative power of love. Through friendship, we learn to be trustworthy and forgiving, dependable and vulnerable. We learn that we can make mistakes, and that good friends will be there to love and support us anyway. The best friendships help us navigate the joys and sorrows of life, and enable us to laugh along the way.
Today we rehearse the scripture in which Jesus calls the disciples his friends, chosen and loved into a profound relationship with God. The challenge to become friends of Christ is extended to us as well, for we are people who endeavor to be his disciples in this time and in this place. We are called friends of Jesus if only we respond to his commandment to love our sisters and brothers as Christ first loved us.
The mere invitation to friendship with Jesus is a tremendous expression of God’s grace. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, desires to befriend us. Despite our brokenness, our bad habits, our imperfections, Jesus loves us enough to lay his life down for us, the ultimate expression of love. When that love breaks through our defenses and into our hearts and minds, the only reasonable response is to love back, to entrust ourselves and our lives to the wellspring of that love. As our most Holy Friend, Christ is a source of strength and comfort. His arms are extended, inviting us to find respite and peace in his merciful embrace.
Just as we share our time with our dear friends, growing our relationship with Christ calls for time and effort. But that time and effort is no more burdensome than spending an afternoon with a friend. Through worship, prayer, and the sacrament of the bread and cup, we deepen our communion with a God who utterly delights in our presence. These practices may require our humble reverence, but given the jubilance with which God welcomes us into his Kingdom, we may also approach our spiritual journey with joy and thanksgiving.
Andrei Rublev, an Eastern Orthodox painter who lived at the turn of the fifteenth century, created an icon that masterfully illustrates Christ’s desire to befriend his disciples. It is a brightly colored depiction of three men who represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are seated around a table, their heads bowed to one another in veneration. They are clearly connected by a relationship marked by abiding love. They are friends. As you gaze at this icon, you quietly realize that the circle extends beyond the boundaries of the paint. An invitation to the table of fellowship is extended to each disciple of Christ. The circle is open, completed only when God’s beloved creation responds to the radical invitation to commune with our Creator.
The other dimension of Rublev’s icon is that the three characters also represent the men that appeared to Abraham and Sarah by the Oaks of Mamre, early in the history of the Israelite people. According to the book of Genesis, even though Abraham and Sarah did not know the men were angels of the Lord, they extended great hospitality to them. They treated the strangers as friends, offering them a feast despite their meager resources.
Abraham and Sarah, faithful to God centuries before the incarnation of his Son, honored the commandment to love God and to love one another. The loving hospitality and friendship they shared with the three strangers enabled them to encounter and to love God.
After all, this whole business of friendship with Christ rests on a word that seems very conditional. If. “If” looms large in Jesus’ message to the disciples. “You are my friends IF you do what I command you.” This commandment to love one another is clearly high on Christ’s list of priorities to teach his disciples. The matter of love comes up again and again in the gospel, and there is a lot riding on our ability to abide in love for one another. If we fail to love our friends and our enemies, we fail to love God. As Dorothy Day put it, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.” I don’t know about you, but to me that is a frighteningly honest declaration.
Yet our ability to love at all has nothing to do with our own goodness or our own will. We are empowered to love because Christ first loved us. We only know and share love because God is love. And the gospel yesterday, today, and tomorrow is that God can and does transform us through the magnificent and eternal love embodied in his Son. If we abide in Christ’s love, God will find a way to cultivate an abundance of spiritual fruit in this community of believers. Shaped by our joyful friendship with one another and with our Redeemer, we will be an Easter people of hope, of peace, of justice, and, by the grace of God, we will be a people of love. Amen.