Easter 6B 2006 John 15:9-17
“You are my friends,” Jesus said to his disciples. “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Friends
and friendship. What in the world do you suppose Jesus meant? It seems important and yet we find it hard to define it for
ourselves. The Greek New Testament terms are filios,,, filh,, filias. In the Greek speaking world of antiquity, real friendship
was considered possible only with a few. Hence a wide circle of friends really means a few good friends and a wide circle
Furthermore, for the Greeks, friendship extended to an unhesitating willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a true friend.
Jesus himself, in our Gospel lection for today, put it this way: “This is my commandment that you love one another
as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this. To lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This,
of course, was referring to his own imminent death on the Cross for all of us, his friends. (1)
Like many important aspects of life and culture we find friend and friendship hard to define, but we know it when we see it.
A junior high school English class was once asked to define a friend in one sentence.
One student said, "A friend is a pair of open arms in a society of armless people."
Another said, "A friend is warm bedroll on a cold and frosty night."
Others said: "A friend is a lively polka in the midst of a dreary musical concert." "
A friend is a mug of hot coffee on a damp, cloudy day."
"A friend is a beautiful orchard in the middle of the desert."
"A friend is a glass of milk and honey when you can't go to sleep."
"A friend is a good book on a rainy day."
"A friend is a stiff drink when you've just had a terrible shock."
"A friend is a hot bath after you have walked 20 miles on a dusty road." (2)
Not too far from the way the ancients understood it, really, when you think about it.
When Jesus called his disciples friends, the Greek words also denote brotherly love, with overtones of community love –
agaph. And in all of our readings from the Gospel and letters of John, the love that has been the central theme is that agape
love – the love of God and neighbor.
One of the poems I had to memorize in grammar school was one by Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) which describes a man by the name of
Abou Ben Adhem who had a dream in the night. He woke up, and there in his room was an angel of the Lord writing in a golden
He said to the angel: "What writest thou?"
The angel answered:
"...The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Ben Adhem. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Ben Adhem spoke more low,
But cheerily still, and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
the angel appeared again but this time with a great wakening light, And showed the names of those who love God;
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!
When Ben Adhem saw his name at the top of the list of those who love the Lord, he asked the angel what had happened.
The angel said, "If we love not our brothers and sisters whom we have seen, how can we say we love God whom we have not seen?"
In this country we have churned much, legislated much, spent much on improving race relations. It hasn’t really worked
in terms of brotherly love although civil rights efforts have been successful. We go about it the wrong way. Jesus told
us how to do it: one friend at a time. Two famous instances:
The African-American athlete Jesse Owens seemed sure to win the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games. The year before
he had jumped 26 feet, 8 1/4 inches -- a record that would stand for 25 years. As he walked to the long-jump pit, however,
Owens saw a tall, blue eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens felt nervous. He was acutely
aware of the Nazis' desire to prove "Aryan superiority," especially over blacks. At this point, the tall German introduced
himself as Luz Long. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed!" he said to Owens, referring to his two jumps.
For the next few moments the black son of a sharecropper and the white model of Nazi manhood chatted. Then Long made a suggestion.
Since the qualifying distance was only 23 feet, 5 1/2 inches, why not make a mark several inches before the takeoff board
and jump from there, just to play it safe? Owens did and qualified easily.
In the finals Owens set an Olympic record and earned the second of four golds. The first person to congratulate him was Luz
Long -- in full view of Adolf Hitler. Owens never again saw Long, who was killed in World War II. "You could melt down all
the medals and cups I have," Owens later wrote, "and they wouldn't be a platting on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz
Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play Major League baseball. In his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson
faced venom nearly everywhere he traveled. Pitchers threw fastballs at his head. Runners spiked him on the bases, brutal
epithets were written on cards and spoken from the opposing dugouts. Even the home crowds in Brooklyn saw him as an object
of reproach. During one game in Boston, the taunts and racial slurs seemed to reach a peak. To make matters worse Robinson
committed an error and stood at second base humiliated while the fans hurled insults at him. Another Dodger, a Southern white
man by the name Pee Wee Reese, called timeout. He walked from his position at shortstop toward Robinson at second base, and
with the crowds looking on, he put his arm around Robinson's shoulder. The fans grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm
around his shoulder saved his career. (5)
And finally my cousin Will Willimon, Methodist Bishop of Northern Alabama, tells this story:
“On my way out of the church late one afternoon, I was chagrined to see, coming towards the church down the walkway,
a rather forlorn looking man with a small bag, obviously a wanderer, a vagabond, a drifter, obviously coming toward the church
seeking a handout.
‘This is what you get for having a church situated near a busy highway. These drifters drift through about twice a week,
seeking a tank of gas for their trip, a meal, a gift -- preferably in cash -- for their journey to who knows where. They always
have some sad story of woe to tell but the end is always the same -- can you spare about $25.00 in cash.
‘I sighed as I watched the man approach. It had been a long day. I had a meeting to return for that night and I was
anxious to get home. I would meet him at the door, head him off, give him the only cash I had -- a mere $15.00 as I recall
-- and then send him, and me, on our way.
"What can I do for you?" I asked with some annoyance in my voice.
"I wondered if you might be able to help a fella' on the way South," he said. "I was headed down to...."
"Yes, yes," I said. "Well, I'm in a bit of a rush. So here is all I have. A five and a ten. That's all I've got."
“The man took the money as I offered it. Looked at it. And without a word, he turned, and headed out toward the street.
“Then he stopped, and turned toward me as I locked the church door. "I guess you think I'm supposed to thank you, to
be grateful," he said with a surprising tone of defiance.
"Well," I said, "now that you mention it, a little gratitude wouldn't hurt."
"Well, I'm not.” "Why?" I asked.
"Because you are a Christian. You don't help me because you want to. I’m not going to thank you. You want to know
why?" he sneered. “You have to help me because he [now thrusting his finger up into the air] told you to help me!"
And then he left.
“I stood there, stunned, angry. The nerve of these people! On my drive home it finally hit me. The man was right,
absolutely right. “
Love God with all you have and are and love your neighbor.
1. Kittel, TDNT, electronic edition, G5384
2. As quoted in John Killinger, “A Celebration of Love,” SermonMall for Easter 6B.
3. Adapted from eSermons Illustrations for Easter 6* 2006.
4. David Wallechinsky, "The Complete Book of the Olympics" as adapted from eSermons Illustrations for Easter 6B 2006.
5. Adapted from Brett Blair, www.eSermons.com
6. Professor William Willimon (Duke University), "Commanded to Love ", as quoted in and adapted from eSermons Illustrations
for Easter 6B 2006.