I would like to begin today with a quote from the Talmud:
“The best preacher is the heart; the best teacher is time;
the best book is the world; the best friend is God.”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer . . . but I have called you friends . . .” (15). Jesus is, indeed, our friend – our best friend. And we are his friends, as he has stated. Even though I believe that this is true – that Jesus is our friend and that we are his friends – I find it difficult to think of Jesus as my friend, and me as his friend. I more easily think of myself as his disciple, and him as my master or teacher. I think more easily about his commandments – what he asks from me – than about his comfort – what he gives me.
Thinking more about Jesus’ commandments than about his comfort may be the result of where I am in my journey with God. When I was a member at the First Baptist Church in America, I remember a discussion that took place about the stages of discipleship present in a church. The stages are similar to the stages we go through as developing human beings. As infants, we need to be taken care of. We need to receive physical and emotional nourishment from others. As we mature, we move along a continuum of taking and giving. We learn how to do more and more for ourselves and we are able to do more and more for others. There begins to be a balance between taking and giving. By the time we reach maturity, we are able to give more than take, which is what happens when we become parents of infants. We give, they take, which is as it should be, because that’s what infants need from us, and that’s what we have been enabled to do for them by the process of maturing.
There are similar stages of development in our process as disciples of Jesus, too. When we are infants in our relationship with God, we need spiritual nourishment. The infancy stage of our relationship can take place when we are actual infants, or it can take place when we are children, or it can take place when we are adolescents, or it can take place when we are teenagers, or it can take place when we are young adults, or it can take place when we are middle-aged, or it can take place when we are elderly. Spiritual infancy is not defined by age, but by where we are in our relationship with God. Spiritual infancy is where we are at the beginning of our relationship with God, whenever that takes place in our life span.
There was a woman at the First Baptist Church in America who shared about the development of her journey with God. She was in her late twenties when she began attending church as an adult. Looking back at that time, she could see that she was somewhere between the infancy stage and the child stage of her relationship with God. She was spiritually hungry and needed to be spiritually fed. So she hung on every word of the sermons. She absorbed every note of the hymns. She enjoyed every minute of fellowship. She devoured every piece of theology. Over time, she matured and was able to give more, so she served on one of the church boards, sang in the choir, and taught Sunday School, but she still wasn’t that concerned with the plight of the homeless, or the poor, or the disenfranchised. Over time, however, she matured some more and was able to give more, and she became concerned with the plight of the homeless, and the poor, and the disenfranchised. As the quote at the beginning of this sermon stated, time is the best teacher, and the time she put into her relationship with God as a disciple of Jesus moved her along in her spiritual maturation. She said that it wasn’t that she no longer thought about what God could do for her – of course she did – but that at that point in her journey she was thinking more about what God asked her to do for him.
Because of our tendency as human beings to compete with each other, it is important to point out that there is no more or less glory to any particular stage in the process of spiritual maturation. The stages are merely the natural progression of our development as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus gives a reason for calling his disciples friends rather than servants. The reason is that he has made known to them everything that he has heard from God. As they have journeyed with him, Jesus has been nurturing them, and they have matured spiritually. At this point in their relationship with Jesus, he has made known to them everything they need to know. This moment is kind of like their graduation ceremony. They are graduating from being servants of Jesus to being friends of Jesus.
But here’s the interesting thing: how they are to behave, what they are to do, is the same whether they are servants or friends. As servants, they are to do what their master, Jesus, commands. As friends, they are to do what their friend, Jesus, commands. Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Either way – whether they are servants or friends – the disciples are to do what Jesus commands them to do. The only thing that has really changed is their perspective on what it is they are to do. As servants they do what Jesus commands because servants are supposed to obey their masters; whereas, as friends, they do what Jesus commands because friends desire to do what is good for their friend. If you’re my master and you tell me to wash the dishes, I wash the dishes because I have to; whereas, if you’re my friend and you ask me to wash the dishes, I wash the dishes because it will help you if I do so.
It turns out that there is very little difference between what it means to be a servant of Jesus and what it means to be a friend of Jesus. Whether I am Jesus’ servant or Jesus’ friend, I am to do as he commands. I thought that thinking of Jesus as my friend meant thinking of him as my comforter. But the gospel lesson for today makes it clear that being a friend of Jesus isn’t only about comfort; it is also about doing what he commands us to do. As a matter of fact, it is primarily about doing what he commands us to do. Remember, he said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Doing what Jesus commands us to do means bearing the fruit of God. He told his disciples, “I appoint you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” It’s a powerful metaphor. Fruit is nutritious and delicious. It grows on trees and bushes and is available for anyone to pick. The metaphor of bearing fruit tells us that the things we produce are to build people up, to be deeply satisfying to them, and to be available to anyone who has need of them. Think, for a moment, of the millions of disciples of Jesus around the world as trees and bushes with fruit hanging off of them, fruit that is good for and satisfying to anyone who happens to walk by and need a piece. When I picture that, I picture millions of little trees and bushes all over the world, small spots of color and aroma in the wilderness that the world can be – trees and bushes of oranges, apples, lemons, persimmons, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, grapes, limes, and so on. In the midst of all that can be wrong in the world – in the midst of violence, and poverty, and starvation, and illness, and sorrow, and jealousy, and anger – there are these trees and bushes of love – vibrant, sweet, healing love – and we are those trees and bushes. At least, we are to be them if we are friends of Jesus.
Trees and bushes don’t start out robust and productive. They begin as seeds – small, tiny seeds planted in the dirt. That’s what we are when we begin our relationship with God. We’re tiny seeds planted in the dirt of the Holy Spirit. And day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, we are watered by worship, weeded by Bible Study, pruned by prayer, warmed by hymns, and fertilized by fellowship, until we become the mature disciples that Jesus would have us be – disciples that he can call friends, disciples that are able to do as he commands, disciples that bear the fruit of God, which is the fruit of love.
Do you realize how important – how essential – are we trees and bushes bearing the fruit of God in a culture that is wary of religion, and particularly of Christianity? If people don’t get the vitamins and minerals that are in fruit, they develop serious diseases – life-threatening diseases. The men of old who traveled the seas for months and years at a time would often develop scurvy because they wouldn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables on their trips. Scurvy results in spongy and bleeding gums, bleeding under the skin, and extreme weakness. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? That’s what happens to our bodies if we don’t get enough fruit. Now, think of that in spiritual terms. If our spirits don’t get enough of the fruit of God, we develop serious spiritual diseases – life-threatening spiritual diseases. We might get scurvy of the spirit, which results in spongy and bleeding values, bleeding under the surface of our lives, and extreme character weakness. Once enough of us have scurvy of the spirit, we create communities that suffer from scurvy of the spirit, communities where individualism and isolationism reign, where classism and racism run rampant, where its every man and woman for himself and herself.
But, if we allow worship, and Bible study, and prayer, and hymns, and fellowship to nurture us into mature disciples of Jesus – if we become friends of Jesus who bear the fruit of God – then we create communities that are gardens of delight. (Okay, they may have a few rotten pieces of fruit now and then, and even a few dead trees, but, in general, they are gardens of delight.) Healthy, strong, robust communities where each cares for the other, regardless of class and race, and its every man and woman for every other man and woman. In other words, we create little pieces of heaven on earth. In a little book on friendship I have, there is a quote by William Morris, which says, “Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and the lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life and the lack of fellowship is death, and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them. Therefore, I bid you not dwell in hell, but in heaven – upon earth, which is a part of heaven and forsooth no foul part.”
Whether we are at the beginning of our journey with God, or somewhere in the middle of our journey with God, or close to the end of our journey with God, the goal of the journey is to do as Jesus commands – to bear fruit, to love one another as he has loved us. The goal of the journey is to become friends of Jesus. May we be so blessed. And, now, may we end this sermon with a responsive Prayer of Commitment.
PRAYER OF COMMITMENT
Holy God, before time you named us,
through time you redeem and sanctify us.
You call us precious in your sight.
May we love as you love.
Holy One, through the turbulent waters
make us steady, your hands
holding strong the fragile and weak.
May we love as you love.
Loving God, take this day our fears, worries, and
Turn them into a faith that feeds our
hearts, minds, and souls.
May we love as you love.
God of justice, remove the chaff
of our lives that keep us from
hearing and following Your call.
May we love as you love.
Gracious God, may the fruits of our lives
be food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty
so that we may minister to your beloved people.
May we love as you love. Amen.
~ adapted from a prayer written by Terri and posted on RevGalBlogPals.http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.ca/Amen.
Sermon by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 29, 2016, Second Sunday After Pentecost.
 On Friendship: A Selection. Edited by Louise Bachelder. White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 1966, 62.
 On Friendship: A Selection. Edited by Louise Bachelder. White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 1966, 59.