Homily for Easter 6 2009
Acts 10:44-48 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.
Psalm 98 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
1 John 5:1-6 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
John 15:9-17 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.
In his book A World Waiting to be Born, author M. Scott Peck, who wrote The Road Less Travelled, and many other books, refers to a full page ad which appeared in USA Today some years ago, placed there by the financial information firm Dun and Bradstreet. It consisted of four sentences:
“I’m 30,000 feet over Nebraska and the guy next to me sounds like a prospect.
I figure I’ll buy him a drink, but first I excuse myself and go to the phone.
I call D & B for his company’s credit rating. Three minutes later I’m back in my seat buying a beer for my new best friend.”
Wouldn’t you just love to have a friend like that – one who looks in your wallet or your portfolio first? – one who looks at the relationship in terms of what’s in it for him? We’ve all heard the proverbial saying: “With friends like that who needs enemies?” I think we have seriously misused the word “friend.”
The philosopher Martin (Mordecai) Buber taught that there are different ways of relating, the ultimate way of relating being “I and thou” relationships in which we view the other as a real person in their own right and not merely as an extension of ourselves. The lowest form of relationship is what he called “I – It” relationships, in which we treat the “other” almost as a thing, something to be used and discarded with indifference. He was pointing prophetically to the potential of a sociopathic society. A person can’t be your “friend” after five minutes of knowing you, nor on the basis of snooping about your financial or social background. I think we have seen too many examples of distorted relating based on the concept of “What’s in it for me?” The idea that we can relate without real awareness of or respect for the other is a major obstacle to all relationships in our time.
How would you define friendship? What is the essential giving and receiving that constitutes what you would call friendship? You might name qualities like trust, confidentiality, mutuality, respect, sense of humour, common interests, significant shared history, loyalty, a sense of permanence, etc.
Some years ago a British newspaper ran a contest to find the best definition of friendship. The contest winner: “A friend is one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.”
A friend is someone who knows you and loves you anyway. A friend is someone you trust to tell you the truth, someone you can be open with, someone who won’t use what they know about you to do you harm. They are not just people who agree with you all the time, but challenge you when they see you betraying your own vision/principles and they do that not because it inconveniences them but because they care about YOU. As Oscar Wilde says, “a true friend stabs you in the front.” A true friend is one you care about as much as yourself. Again, you can think of many aspects of friendship. There isn’t one absolute definition because each friendship depends on the individual characteristics of the people involved in the relationship. But a true friendship is a great treasure.
The wider community takes shape according to how we define relationships. When relationships are understood in perfunctory or opportunistic ways (it’s not about the relationship per se but with what you can get out of it), when relationships come to be seen as commodities, as means to an end, then our community life is going to reflect that basic flaw. As Buber saw it, it could mean the disintegration of civilization.
Jesus said, “I have called you friends.” This has always been one of those “highlight passages” for me, something I thought was tremendously significant. The fact that he didn’t call them servants or groupies or students or clients, or act like he was completely above and beyond them was unusual. He was a great rabbi or guru after all; some were already beginning to wonder whether he was a divine being of some kind. But he didn’t treat his relationships with them as roles or functions (I—It relationships); he pointed in the direction of equality, and he enabled them to see themselves as fuller persons by virtue of relating to him. The idea of a community of friends – the idea of that kind of friendship being a model for the Christian life – remains compelling to me. The Church can be a place where meaningful friendships can develop and flourish.
Some of the best aspects of human life reveal themselves in a good friendship. The gift of friendship is no small thing. In this little statement Jesus identifies something central to human life, something very rewarding and rare, and indicates that his followers have had that friendship with him. If his statement makes us think about our relationships, if it makes us more intentional and conscious, then it’s to the good. The Christian life is certainly about the integrity of our relationships: “Love God; love your neighbour as yourself.” It all boils down to that. But Jesus gave the disciples a gift they could not have fully comprehended at the time.
We have been speaking of friendship in a generic sense, but I think Jesus is referring to something much deeper. This is John’s Gospel, and in John’s Gospel, there is usually a deeper meaning that John wants us to see, implicit in Jesus’ words or actions. John points us toward a time when we will look at things and see them as they are. In this light, I want to explore with you just how radical Jesus’ statement was, and is.
Again it’s a favourite passage, but I have always focused on it as: “I have called you friends.” The fact that he used such a familiar word, and implies equality between himself and his disciples, is certainly astounding enough. But this time I realized that it also reads as “I have called you friends.” And who is the “I” of this sentence? In John’s Gospel, Jesus is never unaware of who he is and his words carry a deeper, esoteric, sacramental sense in which outward and visible signs point us toward new ways of defining and perceiving things. In John’s view the person making this statement is the Word of God – co-equal with God. So what the Gospel is implying is that not only Jesus the human being has called them friends — GOD has called them friends! He is saying that by virtue of knowing Jesus they have connected with God in a new way. A massive shift in consciousness is required to begin to believe that the universe, the cosmos, existence itself, is friendly. So this is much more than a comment about social re-ordering or re-structuring toward more equality, or even about the value of good friends. It is a comment about our true nature, suggesting that we are actually part of God. This has a lot of implications.
I believe that part of what Jesus is saying is that a new Spirit was (and is) accessible to us, which allows and enables us to share in the life of God in a much deeper way, changing the way we relate to God because we are no longer blind to our true nature. As one Christian thinker put it, the challenge of the Christian life is to become what we are. This is why the New Testament writers use terminology like “born again,” “children of God,” “brothers and sisters of Christ,” etc. to speak of that radical change. This is the reason Jesus told his followers that they were to see themselves as the light of the world, and that they held in their hands the keys to open the kingdom for people. The promise of relationship/friendship with Jesus is that we become related to God in a way that re-connects us to our true identity and purpose. The only question is: do we want to surrender to that truth?
The lesson from Acts today echoes lessons from previous weeks, as well as pointing forward to Pentecost. All these incidents, these “acts,” describe a new era dawning, with this new Spirit bursting the old boundaries, and obliging the disciples to break away from old ways of perceiving and relating. As the Spirit manifests powerfully among Gentiles (people so anathema that they were typically referred to as dogs, and Jews were considered unclean if they entered a Gentile dwelling), the disciples and others of traditional Jewish background might well have asked, “Can God do that”? “Would God do that?” To that point people of most religions did not believe that their individual version of God had any concern or could do anything for someone beyond their particular race and religion. Life was tribal – religion was tribal — it was all about divisions. As the Gospels suggest, God in Christ overcame that world, that way of being, and gives us a new option.
We have inherited a way of seeing things which is still deeply affected by an “Us and Them” approach. In the first letter of John, we hear a kind of “what if . . .” being proposed. What if we were able to see each other as brothers and sisters, as people who are related because of a common connection with the Divine? What if everyone created by God is an expression of God? What if love is the only reality? It suggests a complete re-orientation, a turning away from old prejudices and boundaries which made life narrow and tribal, and turning toward a pathway to a universal way of being.
I believe the old dualistic model of trying to define where we fit and others don’t, of measuring the ways in which we are good and others are not, or focusing on the ways in which we are in the light and others in the dark, is a relic of the past. That kind of “Us and Them,” black and white, “I—It” thinking is passing away, in favour of a new spirit which integrates, and creates unity. The biblical terms might be “reconciliation and healing,” or “the kingdom of God.” It is what we celebrate at Pentecost.
In all of his teaching, Jesus urged us to see people in a new way, to look for the presence of God or Christ in everyone, even the very least and the most unlikely, and the most unlikeable. It’s there. As Mother Teresa said, sometimes it is covered over with the most disturbing disguises, but the point is, if we believe it’s there, we persist in looking for it. Why does Jesus say “love your neighbour as yourself?” Because in a real way your neighbour IS yourself! I think it’s essential to understanding the Christian Gospel to realize this is what Jesus is telling us. So we treat enemies and oppressors and the poor and the sick with compassion and care, and we seek deeper understanding, because they are part of who we are, and because they are also part of who God is.
It may sound presumptuous to some, heretical to others. But if we accept this view, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we suddenly become arrogant, believing ourselves to be better than others. So much of religious thinking has generated elitism, a distorted sense of favouritism. In this view, we are not better than anyone else – God is all, and in all. So it makes sense when Jesus says the last are first and the greatest are least, and so on.
In his profound wisdom, Jesus knew that if people begin to see themselves in a new light, it changes everything. So in this passage, the heart of Jesus’ radical message seems to be: I have made you friends of mine, so you are friends of God and of all things which emanate from the person of God. As Einstein said, “the universe is friendly!” This unitive vision is slowly beginning to dawn on the human race, maybe just in time. I see Jesus as one who saw through all the roadblocks to a deeper unity and purpose, who saw connections between people they did not themselves see (or weren’t willing to recognize). Jesus lived in that unified way himself – he didn’t just talk about it, he embodied it.
As with much that is expressed in the mystical Gospel of John, it’s a deep mystery, but if you remain rooted and grounded in love – if you abide in the love of Christ — you will begin to understand, and you will begin to see it, and once you do, nothing will be the same.