I remember so well when our daughter Lucia started pre-school for the first time. We enrolled her here at Epiphany Nursery School and as parents we were somewhat anxious for her to be out of our sight for the first time, but mostly filled with excitement to see her take her first big step away from us into a new adventure of her own.
That excitement was quickly replaced by alarm when our daughter came home from the first week of school and said that she didn’t have any friends. She said that no one liked her and no one would play with her. You may be able to imagine our feelings of disappointment and worry even as we urged her to keep at it, and to keep trying, and as we told her that, surely, things would get better.
But the next week wasn’t any better. Again, she came home saying that no one liked her, she didn’t have friends, and no one would play with her. I was really saddened to think of our daughter being excluded and stuck at school alone without anyone to be her friend.
It made me feel powerless – and, if I’m honest, it made me feel angry at her classmates (although then I felt guilty for being angry at a bunch of 3-year-old’s) – but… then, I was also just as puzzled about why it could be happening. Three-year-old’s, I thought, should simply be able to play with one another happily – but clearly, they weren’t!
And so then one day, feeling all this frustration, Sarah, my wife, and I were at home and we were watching Lucia play with her younger brother, and we noticed the way that she bossed him around, and the way she took control of the toys, and the way she incessantly told him what to do.
And Sarah said to our daughter, “Lucia, do you boss the kids at school around like that?”
And she said, “Well, yeah.”
So, her Mom explained that this may very well be the reason that no one wanted to play with her! And Sarah asked her to try and play WITH the other children, let them play the way they wanted to play some of the time, and not to be so bossy.
And the very next week Lucia came home announcing that she had friends, and saying: “People like playing with me when I don’t boss them around!”
Jesus helps us understand how to be friends with one another. With more than advice (as good as it may be) from a loving parent, Jesus SHOWS us how to be united in friendship, saying: this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
And it would be wonderful to believe that one good word from Mom, or Jesus, or anyone, about how to navigate all the difficult relationships of our lives and to be friends with one another, would put everything right for us, but we know that the work of friendship can be a good deal harder than that.
It is true politically, on a large scale, and it is true personally, in our own individual lives.
As we grow up, we never really outgrow that impulse to want things the way we want them and to see peoples’ desires and even other people themselves as obstacles to getting what we want, and I think we become ever-less malleable than the three-year-old who CAN receive advice and put it into practice.
And yet Jesus encourages us to expect and strive for more, saying: There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Friendship can be one of the greatest blessings of life – someone to laughs with you at the things you both think are funny, someone who understands you, someone that you find when you are together there is never enough time and always more you want to do together.
But friendship can be fragile and my guess is you have lost a friend at some point in your life.
Sometimes friends grow a part from each other. One person moves away or they end up going to different schools and make new friends and lose touch.
Some friendships are built on a mutual interest and people’s interests change and the friendship fizzles.
But sometimes friendships break.
Sometimes something that has been said hurt too much. Or something that has been done has broken the bridge of friendship.
Sometimes unhealthy, selfish, or hurtful patterns have taken a toll on the relationship and it becomes difficult to bear.
My guess is that we all have people with whom we were friends, but damage has been done to that relationship — and we may even wish (at times) that we could reach out and make it right, but we fear being rejected. Or we fear judgement. Or we know that because of abuse or harm that it is not healthy to do so.
We may, in fact, KNOW that what has been said or done has made human forgiveness impossible.
Clearly Jesus believes that for those who abide in him, and who follow his commandment to love as he loves, a new kind of friendship is possible.
Jesus calls his disciples…and he calls us “friends.”
And it strikes me as worthy of reflecting on the kind of friendship Jesus offer us.
It is a friendship that is inclusive and joy-filled.
It is a friendship, even though it is initiated by the only Son of God, who reigns at God’s right hand, that is shockingly without hierarchy:
Jesus is sharing everything that he heard from his Father with. He does not want to be known as a master among his servants, but as friends who are chosen to receive the Father’s love with the same fullness that he himself has received it.
This, then, is not a friendship then that can be lost, that can be broken, or that can be damaged beyond repair because it comes as a gift from God.
And there is nothing you can say or do to stop Jesus from extending his friendship to you.
There is nothing that would keep him from being there for us.
And this is our model of friendship with one another as a congregation.
For us who belong to Epiphany there are divergent expectations about what the next steps for our life together should be.
Some of us still want to wear masks, some are ready to throw them to the wind.
Some want to sing in worship, others aren’t ready.
Thankfully, nearly everyone I have talked to who is old enough and able, has chosen to get the covid vaccine, but there are differing thoughts about what doors being vaccinated does or does not open up for us as individuals and as a community.
And so, we’re confronted with the puzzle of how to remain friends as we go forward with one another, as Jesus commands.
And certainly, for a while, we can have a singing service and a non-singing service. For a while we can have an online worshipping community and an in-person worshipping community. But I think this isn’t the long-term goal.
And sometimes I worry about the ways we who are Jesus’ friends, and friends of one another, may hurt or offend each another on the messy path from here to that place where we look back on all this in the rear-view mirror.
Most of all, as we think about Jesus’ friendship, I think it is crucial to understand that Jesus speaks these words about friendship to his disciples on the evening of his arrest and subsequent death.
And on this night, these disciples will scatter, not only un-friending and un-following Jesus, but betraying the friend group that Jesus has created around himself.
And yet Jesus knows that their betrayal and desertion are coming, and he responds by beginning to prepare them for life on the other side of his cross and empty tomb. He is already coaching them toward forgiving themselves and one another so that their dispersed group can in fact come back together in friendship.
Jesus’ friendship with these disciples transformed them from a group of formerly-fair-weather followers into men who would travel to the ends of the earth, laying down their lives, as witnesses of their martyrdom were compelled to join the community of faith.
In turn these new friends who would brave the jaws of lions, burn bright at the stake in flames of persecution, and even watch as their family and loved ones were killed, all of them trusting the promise that the love of Jesus is stronger than death.
The love of Jesus is the bond that held them together and as Jesus’ love is the bond that holds us together.
The love of Jesus will make it possible for us to bear with one another.
…For those of us who are ready to gather in person to remember and stay connected to those who are not ready to be together physically.
…For those who are not ready to gather physically to pray for and hope for the best as segments of the congregation get back together.
The love of Jesus will endow us with patience as ministries like youth group, Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, Bible studies and more, change and morph as we try to meet the needs of a situation that keeps evolving.
If, in the coming months of negotiating life together, we ever feel discouraged, perhaps the Holy Spirit will recall to our mind that Jesus laid down his life for us so that we might have the joy that transforms everything it touches.
…that we too, like those first disciples, now live awash in the light of the Lord’s resurrection, and know that if we were called to love one another with our own love, our own depth of feeling, from the reserves of the love we could call forth from within, we know we would come up way short, like when you’re at the grocery store and you have a cart full of groceries all unloaded on the checkout counter but you left your wallet at home.
But thanks be to God, we love one another as Jesus has loved us, which means that we love with Jesus’ love.
His love is flowing through us as the source of possibility that relationships can be repaired, friendships can flourish, that forgiveness can create new beginnings.
His abundant love flows to us and through us, as if you were hungry in the pit of your being and you were befriended by a congregation befriending you, as they prepared hundreds of meals for hungry neighbors, and one is just for you, given to you to slake the gnawing emptiness in your body and nourish your spirit.
Yes! Jesus has called us friends, and urges us on in our friendship with one another so that we may have joy and so that our joy may be complete.
Because Jesus is the love that binds us together, not only can we trust that he will help us navigate our way forward together as friends, but we can trust that God will bring new friends into our midst to abide with us in the love that brings complete joy in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
May they find in us people ready to welcome them. A people who, above all, know themselves to be friends of Jesus.