Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
9 May 2021
1 John 5:1-6
I have mentioned to you before that my childhood was not the most stable. That it wasn’t stable had to do with two things: the fact that my father was always on the verge of leaving, so much so that when he did leave and told me he was, I did not believe him because he had said it so many times before; and because my mother’s mental health was profoundly unstable.
I credit my maternal grandfather who, together with my grandmother, lived with us for the first 11 years of my life, and the church for the fact that I turned out vaguely normal. And I realize what constitutes normal can be debated.
The way I understood my faith as a teenager was that my family life was something I could not control, but God became the constant in my life, and the stability I needed I found in God and God I found in the life and worship of the church.
This situation is not completely unlike the situation in which the community for whom John was writing his Gospel found itself in. The theologian Karoline Lewis makes the case that the story of the healing of the man born blind in chapter nine sets the theme for John’s writing about faith in Jesus, as the man born blind had been banished from his community because of his faith in Jesus. And so Jesus’ repeated use of the word abide speaks to this new community established by their faith in Jesus and their common excommunication.
And so the images of vinegrower and vine, vine and branches, abiding, dwelling in each other and bearing fruit are all expression of the deep relationship the church has with Jesus, so much so that when in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are wanting to see him, he says, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
The church is the new community, not against family, but stronger than family and our new family. When we are baptized, we are baptized not only into Jesus’ death and resurrection, but into a new community, into the church.
I suspect that all of this rings true for us, especially during a pandemic, when we not only miss family and friends but miss our siblings in Christ, miss the community of the church.
In verse 11 of today’s passage Jesus says, after having instructed the disciples to keep his commandments (for which we must remember his washing of their feet in chapter 13), ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’
Considering that chapter 15 is part of the farewell speeches of Jesus and that we know what lies ahead, this speaking of joy may seem misplaced, and yet, this joy is related to the communion Jesus has with the Father, and the communion we have with Jesus and with each other. It is a gift, even and especially in difficult times. This mutual indwelling is the foundation of our joy.
In the fourth century St Gregory of Nyssa writes, ‘Our only fear should be the loss of God’s friendship, and the only honour or pleasure we covet should be that of becoming God’s friend.’1
This is what Jesus offers his disciples in today’s passage. ‘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.’
That means that up to this point there was a hierarchy between Jesus and his disciples. He was the master, and they were his servants and students. But from now on, this hierarchical relationship makes room for friendship, which is the deep intimate relationship Gregory speaks of, and that we know, and that makes us miss each other.
Now ordinarily, friendship is based on mutual interests, understandings, and experience, which is why friends can grow apart. Many of my childhood friends and I have gone different paths and would no longer consider each other friends, though I am fortunate to continue to have three loyal friends dating back as far as preschool.
But friendship with God is based on a different kind of mutuality. In fact, it is Jesus who establishes the friendship with his disciples, with you and with me. It is not about our agendas but about God’s agenda, and the friendship we have in Jesus opens us up to the risks of discipleship.
Jesus makes us his friends by laying down his life for his friends and thus describes the measure of God’s love and the ideal of friendship.
This means that friendship is not based on common interests or political convictions, but that in the Christian community friendship is offered as a gift, it is selfless, and it conducts itself with humility.
St Gregory explains, “True friendship is founded upon the words of the apostle “Love does not seek its own” (1 Cor 13:5) and “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another” (Rom 12:10) The holy fathers put this into practice, “We both struggled, not each to gain the first place for himself, but to yield it to the other; for we considered each other’s good reputation to be our very own… you must be convinced that we lived in each other and with each other.”2
On my internship in North Battleford, Sk I was honoured to participate in leading the public Remembrance Day ceremony. It was a special honour and a sign of peace and reconciliation that I, a descendent of the enemy, was asked to lead the prayers in a service that honoured the fallen and remembered the victims of war.
It was the first Remembrance Day service since that I heard the Legion padre read this verse from today’s Gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It was well intended and yet completely misunderstood because the One who said these words first, died as an innocent victim of human aggression and it was his death without resistance that worked our salvation. It is the gift of the One who taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. And the One who has such great love to give his life for his friends and encourages his disciples to follow in his footsteps, died precisely in the way that he had instructed his disciples to live.
There is deep joy in this relationship with the vine who allows us to grow and bear fruit. The fruit may not look like the fruit we would first imagine, and the friendship Jesus has established through his sacrifice is not built on our performance but only on his love, which enables us to love each other even when we may be deeply disappointed with each other.
And so St Gregory can say, “it is not failure to live virtuous lives that can keep us out of Heaven, but a refusal to believe in the mercy of God, and to trust His gracious declarations of His good will toward us, concretely expressed in the saving blood of Christ, who is the True Vine, and who for our sakes hung on the wood of the cross between two thieves, (…), showing forth in His own Person the sign of God’s good will to us and His assurance that He is ready to overcome all our enemies.”3
May it be so among us.
May we enter more deeply into friendship with God and thereby learn to be friends of each other and of the world.