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I Have Called You Friends (September 7 & 8 at Plymouth Church)


It’s here! It’s finally here!

Around the weekend of September 7-8, a lot of the things I love best about Plymouth Church come back from the summer hiatus. Choirs return. Church school resumes. Confirmation kicks-off. 9 to Dine begins again And, this year, we will see some new things: a Wednesday noon class on friendship, a Wednesday 7 pm adult Bible study, meals on Wednesday nights, new programming for older adults and so much more.

All of that is pretty exciting.

But wait! There’s more!

This weekend will also witness the start of our fall focus on Friendship. From September 7-8 right through Thanksgiving, our worship will explore the spiritual practice of friendship.

It all starts this weekend with Jesus.

John 15:12-17

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.

The setting here is the Last Supper –Jesus telling the disciples what they will need to know as they prepare for life without him. And in this section of the discourse, he is teaching them something important about the nature of their relationship with him and with one another.

“I have called you friends.”

Last week I did something I do not often do. I pulled a couple of volumes of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament off my shelf. (It was pretty dusty). And I consulted a couple of entries to formulate what follows.

The passage opens with the most fundamental commandment: that the disciples “love one another as I have loved you.” The Greek word for love in this verse is ἀγαπᾶτε, the Greek word denoting the highest and most selfless form of love. To make that even more clear, Jesus gives content to the concept by appealing to the example he is about to give them. There is no greater love than “laying down one’s life” for one’s friends.

Does that make you cringe? It makes me cringe a little. To “lay down one’s life” sounds like an invitation to self-sacrifice. Feminist theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock have rightly warned us of the dangers of construing love as self-sacrifice. That kind of rhetoric too often authorizes victimized and oppressed people to “lay down their lives” by continuing to suffer.

But this is where Kittel’s Theological Dictionary was (surprisingly) helpful. To “lay down one’s life” is an expression unique to the Johannine literature (the Gospel of John and the three epistles of John). But if you look at similar phrases in non-biblical literature, you start to see, not a connotation of self-sacrifice, but rather self-risk.

“To hazard one’s life for one’s friends.” Does that sound different? To me it does.

And then we have the Greek word for “friend”: Φίλοs. It is related to the word for “kiss.” But the original root may have meant something like “to regard and treat somebody as one of one’s own people.”

On his last night, Jesus founds a new community –a circle of friends who know that they belong to each other, are defined by Jesus’ example of love and who freely risk themselves for each other and for the advancement of that love.

And Jesus means to make that happen. There is a little conjunction in v.17 that does a big job:  ἵνα (“so that”).  Jesus does not merely set out some vague wishes for how we will be together as a church; he means to make it happen. He tells his disciples about so that it will happen.

He has called us friends.  And he means to make it so.

Plymouth Church, this weekend we start something special. Please don’t miss it. Jesus called us friends. And we’re going to start figuring out what that means –for each of us, for Plymouth, for the whole world.