Love’s Friends

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; I John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to understand that the message of love stands at the very heart of John’s writing.  Between the second reading and the gospel today, a total of eleven verses, the word love appears eighteen times.  It stands as the core of his ethic and what it means to be a community that has Christ at its center.  The past few weeks it’s all we have heard from him is this message of love.

Today, though, he tells it in the context of friendship.  He calls his disciples friends.  Of course, friendship is near and dear to all of us.  More than anything it is our friends that accept us for who we are, warts and all.  There’s no need to hide or mask ourselves in anyway.  There’s no sense of superiority or feeling less than. If there is it really would not be friendship anyway.  Over the course of our lives they tend to be some of the most important people in our lives, accepting us, the first people we call, the ones who walk with us through struggles, the ones who love us in a very unique way, often willing to put our own needs ahead of their own.

It’s a rather unique description that would be used by Jesus in describing his own followers as they prepare to be sent forth into a hostile world.  It’s a radical message for them as a crew who would be familiar with their own tradition knowing that the only one named friend of God in Scripture is Abraham, the father of their faith, and now Jesus using the same language.  He comes down on their level and meets them there while raising them up in line with someone like Abraham.  They are friends.  Of course, it won’t take very long before they find out what this friendship is going to ask of them.  They’re not the best of friends at first, abandoning him in the darkest of times out of fear for their own lives.  Yet, he meets them where they are, in all their imperfections and nonsense, love comes down to them and calls them forth.

We have seen how that plays itself out in the earliest community of Acts of the Apostles these six weeks of Easter now and once again today Peter is confronted with this reality in relation to others.  Peter has just had a miracle done through him so Cornelius believes that he is at an elevated position.  Now, of course, we have put Peter in that position ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with being a leader, but what Peter doesn’t forget is that it’s not about him.  As a matter of fact, when he gets out of the way, as he did today, his ministry is even more fruitful because he knows it’s not about him and it is only this love and this friendship with Jesus that continues to work in and through Peter to do what he does.  Now it’s not that they always get it right either and we’ve heard that these weeks as well.  They are constantly discerning and figuring it as they go and learning where it is that God’s leading them, but they can only do this by doing what was commanded to them in this farewell discourse of John, by remaining and abiding in their friendship with Jesus and to keep returning to that source of love.

The community at times still falls back to its old ways and old way of thinking.  The other followers of the way can’t seem to understand how the Spirit has come upon the Gentiles in the first reading today.  Israel, like Peter, has had its own struggle with having a somewhat superior status of being the chosen ones of God.  The master/slave relationship that Jesus speaks of was most familiar to them and has influenced them greatly.  It all takes time and returning to that source of love that begins to expand their hearts to understand that it doesn’t matter whether your Jewish, or followers of the Way, the early Christians, Samaritans, or Gentiles, this love far exceeds a particular group of people because the chosen-ness has nothing to do with that and everything to do with who this God is and the expansiveness of that love.  As they grow and deepen in that love it begins to make sense and the normal boundaries and judgments that have separated them begin to dissipate.  The love that transforms their hearts now transforms the world around them.  It only happens, though, when the return, abide, remain, the message that we have heard consistently from Jesus the past few weeks.  You only become love when you return to that source of love and that friendship with Jesus.

As we come ever nearer to the end of the Easter Season we return back to the beginning when we were asked as to what kind of community we’re called to be.  John has reinforced that message of love over and over for us these weeks and calls us to remain and abide in that love.  It’s the only thing that changes and transforms us.  Today, though, he calls it forth through friendship, one of the most valued of all relationships we cherish because we choose this friendship with Jesus.  We come like the disciples, messed up at times, afraid, far from perfect, masks and all at times, but he comes down to us and raises us up to that place of love to transform our hearts where we no longer need to hide from this God but rather enter into friendship in order to abide in love and become that love.

It is only love that will see the disciples through as they are sent forth into the hostile world, a world that remains hostile towards love.  Hostility, fear, war, violence know full well the power of love and will do anything to have us succumb to something less than love.  We go forth to bring that love to a world that doesn’t need more violence, separation, war, and division, but needs to be loved.  It’s the only thing that will transform it.  The more we enter more deeply into friendship with Jesus the more that love transforms our hearts and we become the hands and feet of Christ to those most in need and who are hurting.  We don’t go forth in order to be more of the same.  Rather, we go forth in order to love in a very different way as we are called to be a community of love, of friends, who don’t see ourselves as better than or even inferior towards others, rather as the most humble of ways, as friends.  Friends who share in love and are called to become love.  We pray for the grace to abide and remain in that love so that despite whatever it is we face, the world will be, as it was with Peter, transformed in and through us because we have allowed, over and over again, love to transform us.

Becoming

Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8

If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian.  He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life.  Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.

It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him.  He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience.  Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical.  He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing.  It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.

Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment.  This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation.  In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith.  One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.

This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after.  It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion!  Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community.  It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional!  Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life.  He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified.  He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.

I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel.  It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples.  Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter.  It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love.  Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple.  What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life.  They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.

Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples.  It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves.  However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life.  We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship.  In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world.  We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love.  It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.