- Parish House
Sermon for the Sixth Sixth Sunday of Easter – John 15:9-17
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Jason and I are on a new health kick. We do this from time to time, usually with a fair amount of eye rolling from the kids. We just tell ourselves that someday they’ll thank us for modeling healthy habits. Anyway, our current endeavor is the Whole 30. For 30 days you eat only whole, fresh foods, which sounds great. But the list of what’s off the plan is a bit daunting – nothing processed, and no grains, sugar, dairy, legumes, or alcohol. There’s also some fine print. Communion, by the way, is an exception – I checked the rules. And while the rules are strict, it seems worth it. People report amazing health benefits after 30 days.
I realize it might sound a little crazy. And you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Jesus, which is who I’m supposed to be talking about. Here’s the thing – embarking on a Whole 30 is kind of an all-consuming project. You spend a lot of time thinking about food, planning food, reading online groups about food, and describing cravings and mood swings to your poor significant other, who is doing the same to you. So, with all that going on, when it came time to write a sermon, I figured there had to be a way to use the Whole 30 as a way into the gospel of John. And you know what? There is.
It has to do with my new Whole 30 friends. I see them early in the morning three days a week in an exercise group. We’re all doing the plan together, so as soon as we see each other we immediately launch into how it’s going. We swap recipes and support. Using a lot of Whole 30 lingo, we talk about ingredients in terms of whether or not they are “compliant.” Did you know that added sugar is in just about everything? Anyway, I’m sure from the outside looking in, we must sound like a little group of extremists. But it’s really great to have a group to share it all with. And they help me resist the kids’ very non-compliant ice cream.
Aristotle once described friends like these as friends of utility. They are useful to us. In this case, my friends keep me on track with a particular health goal. I think these friends might also fall into Aristotle’s second category of friendship – those friends that bring us pleasure. We cultivate such relationships because we have fun together. It’s surprising how fun it is to talk about a new paleo recipe for the Instapot (pressure cooker). But truth be told, friendships of utility and friendships of pleasure don’t necessarily go very deep. They serve a purpose, for a time. They have the potential to grow into something else, of course. But I think Aristotle was astute to name the fact that we have different kinds of relationships in our lives, with different purposes.
There is a third kind of friendship in this ancient Greek system. The highest kind, the best kind, is friendship for the sake of friendship itself. These are the virtuous friends. Such relationships take a great deal of time and energy to cultivate, and the results are deep and true. These are the people who know us best, the people we love and who have the greatest impact on us. Aristotle taught that we are formed as good and loving people largely through these virtuous friendships. They bring out the best in us, and ultimately, they teach us how to love.
One of the loveliest lines in scripture comes in today’s passage from John, and it has to do with this kind of friendship. The passage is from Jesus’ farewell discourse with the disciples, the night of the last supper. He said to them, “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 it is in this scene that he gave them a new commandment, to love one another as he has loved them.
If we had to parse out what kind of friends Jesus meant, it’s doubtful that the disciples were friends of utility alone. Yes, they would launch the church, but they weren’t always particularly useful to Jesus. And given their considerable imperfections, well “fun” or “pleasure” are not the first words that come to mind in describing Jesus’ relationship with them. These chosen friends must have fallen into the third category, friends in the truest and deepest sense. Jesus called them friends and named an intimacy that night, not only with himself but with God. What an amazing moment that must have been. The gift of that friendship made amazing things possible, like preaching and healing in his name. And maybe what’s even more remarkable for us to consider is that this friendship didn’t happen because the disciples chased after Jesus. He chose them.
Can you imagine for a moment that you are so chosen? That we are here, not because we’ve been chasing after Jesus but because he found us and drew us closer to him? Maybe that feels far-fetched, depending on where you on in your own journey, but it’s in keeping with the biblical witness. And if we extend that biblical witness a little further, maybe we can imagine an intimacy with Christ that makes some amazing things possible now in this, our own eclectic band of disciples.
Speaking of amazing, the world lost a theological giant this past week. Dr. James Cone, a key founder of black liberation theology, passed away at the age of 79. Born in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1938, he was a pastor, a writer, and a professor for many years at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. In Sunday school here we just finished his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which draws a parallel between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people in the United States. Like his other works, it’s a difficult and powerful book that asks us all to look at the ways Christianity can be coopted into systems of injustice and oppression. It is a brilliant book, clearly the fruit of decades of theological work.
Cone was interviewed by a much younger scholar a couple of years ago at Trinity Wall Street. The interviewer asked Cone that, if he could turn back the clock, is there anything he would change about his life’s work? Cone smiled wide, and answered in a passionate preacher’s voice. “It’s like I didn’t choose all that, it chose me,” he said. “I did not see myself as this kind of writer. It has nothing to do with talent. It has to do with being a vessel. I felt that the God of the universe, something bigger than me, chose me to do what I’m doing. So I can’t say I want to undo any of that. I feel like it’s a work of grace for me to be chosen. That’s the grace. I don’t feel like I earned that. I feel like it was a gift… I work hard, I work every day. And I’m trying in that work to say ‘Thank you, Jesus, thank you for bringing me a mighty long ways.’”
I believe Cone at his word, that he was chosen. He was chosen to show us something we needed to understand about the gospel of Christ. Namely, what it means to love as Christ loved us, finally untangled from the grip of white supremacy. And he could only produce that work embedded as he was in his community of friends. Whatever he understood of love, he discovered it alongside his fellow disciples, also chosen friends of Jesus.
Of course, anytime we hold up famous or extraordinary people as an example, we can be very quick to think that they are some kind of exception in the spiritual life. But Jesus’ words are for us, too. He has called us friends, and asks us to love one another as he loved us. This means that we are to be Aristotle’s third kind of friends, true friends with Jesus and with each other. On the day to day level as a community, this can look as simple as sharing recipes or support, or talking about whatever latest health kick we’re on. But in the deeper picture, we are an eclectic community of chosen vessels learning how to love together. That’s the grace. It chooses us, so that we might show something more of Christ’s love, ever more untangled and true. That’s the grace that will bring even us a mighty long ways.