From “The Distance”
The Rev. Jennifer Adams – May 6, 2018 – Easter 6, Year B: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48)
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you 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 if you do what I command you. I 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. You 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. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9-17)
This morning we’re heading toward the end of the Easter season which will culminate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit. And between now and then on the liturgical calendar will be the Ascension when Christians commemorate Jesus’ ascending to be with God. This means that thus far this year, just to bring everyone up to speed, we’ve celebrated Jesus’ birth, his baptism, and his calling of the disciples. We’ve heard about his ministry, his final days and his death. We’ve proclaimed Jesus’ rising and heard about his many resurrection appearances.
And so now the church is preparing for Jesus ascent – he will be “carried up on a cloud” according to the book of Acts, and then the Holy Spirit will come down upon the disciples and as tradition puts it, the Spirit will serve as advocate and it will “birth the church.” And this is the Sunday just before all of that begins to take place. So what we hear today are some of the passages that the church uses to describe Jesus’ most important “final” words to his disciples. This was Jesus teaching them how to carry on without him present in the same ways in which he’d been thus far.
It’s sort of like a moment when you’re preparing to leave your kids at school for the first time or whatever those moments happen to be when you’re about to have a little more distance than either of you is used to. And you want to communicate to them the essence of what you’ve been trying to teach them their whole lives, because they need to be reminded of how to carry on in this world. And maybe you need to be reminded too.
And so you tell them that you love them, a more profound love than you even thought yourself capable and you pray in that moment that they have been shaped by that love to the point of being able to receive it and offer it too. Even without you there. And then you say a little something about staying safe, because you both know that this world can be a scary place. And then in some way, you wish them joy, because of all things, it’s what you want for them. More than happiness, and beyond “having fun,” you wish them joy.
And all of those things are what Jesus spoke of here as he prepared to leave his disciples. To carry on, they needed and we need above all things to have and to know love. Jesus at this point was hoping and praying that his having fed them, cared for them, taught them, died and risen for them…that all of that had shown the disciples a way of being in this world that would allow them to abide in God’s love, to live and dwell and grow in it.
And to really get that point across, Jesus spoke to them of being friends. He didn’t speak about being king or as a ruler of any kind. In fact he specifically spoke against it: “I do not call you servants any longer,” he told them, “because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends,” Jesus said. Remember that last week he introduced the concept of “abiding in” by using the image of the vine and the branches. This week he takes it one step further and defines the relationships we share with him and one another using the very holy and human language of “friend.”
Which is quite beautiful, really. In friendship there is comfort, there is strength, there is safety, there is very genuine knowledge of one another, and there is healing when needed. Friendship embodies the invitation to abide “in” and “with”.
There is a Celtic term which the spiritual writier and priest, John O’Donahue, resurfaced several years ago called “anam kara” which means “soul friend.” It’s a term that’s traceable back through monastic traditions all the way to the early desert fathers and mothers of our faith. One described anam kara like this: “This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people’s hearts became the basis of the desert elders’ effectiveness as spiritual guides.”
And so very early in our faith tradition, the capacity for friendship was identified as one of the most important qualities of maintaining a healthy and strong spirit, a healthy and strong faith. And it was named by Jesus as the relationship that bound him to his disciples and his disciples to one another. Friendship was the way he taught them how to “carry on” in this world in love.
O’Donahue describes friendship this way: “Your beloved and your friends were once strangers. Somehow at a particular time, they came from the distance toward your life.” I love that. They came “from the distance toward your life.” “Their arrival seemed so accidental and contingent. Now your life is unimaginable without them…Your noble friend,” he says, “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness…In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. [There are friends.] “The more love you give away,” he says, “the more love you will have.”
And so our carrying on as disciples was been given quite a beautiful and holy framework as Jesus prepared to ascend. We are now called friends of Christ and one another. And so we have a descriptor that’s a little more complimentary than “sheep who follow,” a little more demanding of us too. I said last week that I’m not sure that sheep work very hard at defining how to be community. In order to be friends, however, we have work to do. The language is also slightly more embracing than “branches on the vine” although it is certainly related to the fruit we’re called to produce in this world. People are hungry for relationships fueled by love. We have been told by Jesus (that message he whispers in our ear before he ascends) that we will survive and thrive in this world through holy and gracious friendship.
Which means that “friendship” is among the most important things we “do” as church.
We need to develop the capacity “to read each other’s hearts,” which begins with listening, deep and honest listening. And we need to receive strangers who come “at a distance toward our lives.” In the book of Acts notice that the Spirit fell on the people “over there” and completely “astounded” Peter and the others. Because they didn’t expect to be friends with “them.” They didn’t expect to be called into relationship with them. But they were. That’s how the Spirit works in all of this, stretching the ways in which we define “us,” calling us to make friends with those we could not imagine was even possible. And holding us together when we try.
In all of these relationships through which we anam kara each other Jesus said, there will be joy. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
And I actually think that might be all there is to it. We make “carrying on in this world” so very difficult. Granted this world is a messy and complicated place, but maybe our role in it, our way in it doesn’t need to be.
Today we hear Jesus who had just a very few moments left with his disciples speak to them not of doctrine, or even right belief. With just a few moments left he spoke to them of one commandment, and it was the one that called them and calls us to love. And he spoke of friendship.
As we hear of the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. As we watch him ascend and prepare for the coming of the Spirit, may our love for one another grow as we learn even more fully how to friend each other, as we learn the workings of our hearts and receive those who come to us “from a distance”. “The more love you give away, the more love you have,” O’Donahue wrote. May it be so.