Sunday, May 9, 2021

The cost of being a disciple...

 John 15.9-17

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Last week, we heard the first 8 verses of John 15, where the focus was on abiding in and with Jesus, so that we can be well-grafted onto the Vine of faith.  You’ll recall, I hope, that I suggested this requires a bit of effort on our part.  ‘Pray more, worship more and give more’, was the strapline I proposed.  This week, we move on to the next section of this really important bit of teaching from Jesus.

Abiding in Christ remains a focus, but now Jesus expands on his theme to include the topic of love.  He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…”.  He goes on to encourage his disciples to ‘love one another as he has loved them’, and goes still further to say that he no longer thinks of his disciples as servants, but rather as his friends.

Wow!  Let’s just pause and think about that for a moment.  Jesus, the Lord of the Universe through whom all things were made wants to call you and me his ‘friends’!  Isn’t that mind-blowing?  What’s more, he wants to introduce us to his Father!

These concepts are SO far beyond what believers of the time were taught to believe.  They would have struggled to even grasp the concept.  For the vast majority of religious people at the time of Jesus, God, any god, was a remote, distant, unknowable mystery.  The Jewish understanding of God placed him at a marked distance from human beings – either up a mountain, or behind a great curtain, living in the Holy of Holies – a place which even the High Priest could only enter once a year.  And now, here was Jesus, God’s son, saying that he sought not just servants, but friends.

But here we need to sound a note of caution.  This is God, through Jesus saying he wants to be our friend – but there are some conditions to that friendship.  “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you”. 

There is a tendency in some quarters of Christianity to regard Jesus in rather familiar terms.   Some of the worship songs of the last century have, in my view, a rather mawkish, almost romantic quality to them, as indeed do some of our most familiar Victorian hymns: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, for example.  Such songs almost (and in some cases actually) sound more like love songs between two human beings.  They are passionate, loving or pleading in tone.  They lay on with a trowel the concept of love between creator and creature – leading some commentators to cheekily refer to them as ‘Jesus is my boyfriend songs’.

But we must not over-sentimentalise what Jesus is offering to his disciples in this passage.  Friendship with Jesus arises out of his gracious offer of friendship.  He, gracefully, mercifully, initiates a relationship of friendship.  Despite all the ways we fall short of his standards and teaching, the Lord of the Universe reaches down to his creatures, and offers us his hand.  But, it is a steel hand, in a velvet glove.  There is a condition attached – the condition of obedience to his commandments.    Jesus offers us his friendship, but we have a stark choice to make.  We can only be his friends if we keep his commandments.

This means, of course, taking Jesus seriously – which is something of what I meant last week when I talked about praying more, worshipping more and giving more.  In some Christian circles, it is possible to get so caught up in adoration, love and worship of the God who offers us friendship, and fills us with his Spirit, that we forget his friendship comes with conditions. 

Because, you see, how we live our lives matters.   If we live with hatred or unforgiveness in our hearts, we are failing to keep Jesus’ commandments.  If we live with greed or avarice, jealousy or infidelity, we fall far short of the standards that Jesus requires of those he calls friends.  If we fail to care for the poor, and the broken hearted, we cannot call ourselves Jesus’ friends.

But, lest anyone should think that I’m saying we can earn our place in the Kingdom by our own efforts, let me be clear.  None of us can ever do that.  None of us, not even the saintliest among us, can hope to be good enough to earn Jesus’ friendship.  Jesus offers his friendship despite our failings, out of his love and his grace.  But, if we accept that friendship, we also accept the obligations that his friendship places upon us.  It’s simply not good enough to say ‘I’m a friend of Jesus’, but then to fail to make any significant changes in the way we live our life.  Jesus may have indeed paid the price, but there is still a cost to being a disciple.  We may even be called upon to lay down our lives, as did our patron, Saint Faith and most of the first disciples.  For "no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends".

The good news, of course, is that Jesus never stops reaching out his hand of friendship, even if the velvet glove conceals a steel hand.  He is always willing to forgive his friends, whenever we fall.  He always keeps his hand held out, for us to grasp and be drawn upwards.  Jesus offers us his love, and his friendship.  He initiates that relationship, by his Divine grace and mercy.  All he asks of us is that we follow him, live like him, and obey his life-giving, world-changing commandments. Amen

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