Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
From John 15:9-17
I have a bad job. Really toxic. I thought that I had avoided most of the backstabbing and underhandedness until last week when I learned that someone I thought was a friend was actually not. She has said some pretty terrible things about me and some of my pals. She is not my friend. Right?
Jesus, though, has called us friends. The kind of friendship Jesus is talking about is characterized by equality and care for one another. There is mutuality; if one falls the other will help them up. That is amazing! Jesus, God’s incarnation, has entered into this kind of relationship with us. We are friends. If there is any reason for one to say to another, I am above you, isn’t it that one is the creator and the other the created? Yet, this is not how it is at all. God has chosen to elevate us to positions of friendship.
This is a wonderful thing to sit and think about isn’t it? God has made us co-creators, joint-heirs with Jesus… It is tempting to just end the essay there. But, “Wait,” as they say on late-night TV, “There’s More!” In this morning’s readings, Jesus went one step further, as he often did, and told us that we should be friends to one another too. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said. So, I am left to wonder how I might be a friend to the one who has betrayed me, how will I love even her? So far, I am not doing too well, but I am trying.
The apostle Peter had a similar problem. And, you know, it wasn’t that he was unreasonable or against the movement of the Holy Spirit. I suspect that like me, and maybe like you, he just hadn’t got it all worked out yet. Peter believed that in order to be a follower of Jesus one had to become a Jew first. There was no formal process for conversion in the first century, though the Pharisee sect was very pro-proselytizing. They believed — like Jeremiah — that God was not limited to the people of Israel and their covenant but that God was the God of the whole world. What that probably meant to them is that a seeker no longer had to be born a Jew, they could become one! Great, right?
But, to become a follower of Jesus… that was another matter for Peter. He believed that a seeker, a stranger, had to first become part of the Jewish community — accept it’s belief in one God, and it’s observance of the Torah — and then, he thought, they could become a follower of Jesus. Throughout the book of Acts, though, Peter’s world was rocked by a series of events that caused him to rethink his position on that.
In today’s episode, Peter and his Hebrew companions were astounded to see that the Holy Spirit was poured out even on Gentiles! Peter began his encounter with Cornelius and his gathered friends by stating clearly that he would not normally eat with gentiles, but that this was some kind of special situation, a one-off. But, right in the middle of Peter’s great speech, the Holy Spirit came on down and even the gentiles started speaking in tongues! There was no longer any denying it: The God of the Jews was the God of everybody else too! Confronted with this phenomenon, Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Of course, nobody would withhold water for baptism. But, if I replace water with friendship, which is the other thing our readings are about, then the text takes on a different meaning. If I am friends with someone, then I can’t withhold any good thing from them. Just as the Jews had become willing to share Torah with anyone who wanted to join them, I have to share the friendship of God with anyone who will receive it too. That is pretty easy most of the time. But, how will I share the friendship of God with the one who has betrayed me? What if sharing the friendship of God means that a stranger has the same rights and privileges as I do as I do? And, what if it’s not just rights, but rites too? What if even gays can be married, and even the unbaptized can have communion? See, there are real-world ramifications for this.
I would like to find some reason to exclude this woman, this betrayer, from the friendship of God. I could justify myself, and lots of people would agree with me too. I’ve been wronged, after all. But following Jesus is more demanding than that. In these days of political meanness, when people announce proudly that they will not forgive or have compassion, when Christian commitment is sometimes measured by who can snark the snarkiest, or be the boldest in proclaiming the sins of others — mainly President Trump — it is important to remember that we are called friends of God and that being a friend of God comes with some obligations.
Monday is coming. I do not know how I will handle… um… my friend. But, I know two things: 1) I can not write to you and tell you that you should extend the friendship of God to everyone unless I am doing it too; and 2) Peter did a lot of talking about how God shows no partiality before he finally acted on what he said he believed. So, it might take me a couple of tries too. We might all have to try a little harder to extend the circle of God’s friendship even to those who seem like they should be on the other side of some line.
What about you? Who have you placed on the other side of the line? Who have you made into a stranger by denying them the same status as a friend of God that you have? If we are indeed friends of God’s… and I have to wonder if God doesn’t sometimes want out of that deal… then our circles of inclusion have to be ever expanding until absolutely everybody is in there. Even betrayers.
Linda McMillan lives in Sakaka, al Jouf Province, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Image: Pixabay, no attribution required.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Eccleasticies 4:9-12… Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Jeremiah took the ideas of Amos and Hosea and expanded them. Jeremiah believed that God could be involved in more than one covenant at a time and that God could be worshipped outside the land of Israel. With rabbis and Torah study replacing priests and sacrifices it was just one more step to say that God could be worshipped by anybody and anywhere. — A good book on this topic is Playing a Jewish Game: Gentile Christian Judaizing in the First and Second Centuries CE, by Michele Murray, and my own understanding of early Christian-Jewish communities is mainly from what I’ve read in that book… and, always, what Rabbi Monty taught me.
Ron Popeil was the first television personality to use the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!”
People had been “converting” to the Hebrew’s religion for a long time. Even when they left Egypt there was a “mixed multitude” of people who went with them. Exodus 12:36… A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock. (New American Standard Bible.) The NIV Bible just says that it was “many other people.” Generally, these other people are not held in high regard. It is thought that they were the ones always wanting meat to eat. The New Living Translation calls them, “a rabble of non-Israelites.”
Even though I will find some way to share the gift of friendship with my betrayer I will still protect myself and my pals. The way of Christ is demanding, but it is not stupid. Proceed with caution.