There was a story of a pastor who often disagreed with his music director. This does not apply here, by the way. I am thrilled with the staff working relationship with Kevin. But in this church the pastor and the music director often disagreed. It got so bad that it started spilling over into the worship service. The pastor preached one day on the importance of being willing to change. And the worship leader then played the hymn, “I Shall Not Be Moved.” The next week the pastor preached about the importance of giving. Following the sermon, the music director got up and led “Jesus Paid it All.” The pastor preached about the importance of not spreading rumors. And then the music director started playing the hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story.” The pastor got so frustrated that he decided to leave the church and on his last Sunday he said to the congregation, “Jesus brought me here and Jesus is now taking me away.” At which point the music director led, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Today we continue our sermon series discussing friendship. We’ll read from John 15 the next three weeks and particularly in verses 12-15 there are three different types of friendship described, God’s friendship with us, our friendship with God and our friendship with each other. We are going to explore those these next three weeks. First, God’s friendship with us. So as we read from John 15 let us think about the interconnected relationship of God and humanity with the vines and the branches and then sacrificial nature of God’s relationship with us – the importance of sacrifice in friendship. Reading from God’s holy word.
Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us, opening to us the meaning of your love and the reality of your grace, in Christ we pray. Amen.
This morning as Ella and Henry and Grace are baptized we join as their friends in supporting their walk with God. And it’s appropriate they are baptized because today we remember the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John. Originally the baptism of the Lord was celebrated along with Epiphany and the wedding at Cana all on the first Sunday of the year. Typically today Jesus’ baptism is celebrated on the second Sunday but as we are moving to having baptisms here the third Sunday of each month we focus on Jesus’ baptism today. Jesus was about thirty years old at the time of his baptism, a bit older than most of us are baptized now. Jesus received a baptism by John who was generally offering a baptism of forgiveness of sins. Now that is not something Jesus needed. So we have to ask, why did Jesus submit to John’s Baptism? Jesus himself tells us in our text that our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of John in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Befriending us with sacrificial love. By submitting, Jesus identified himself with us on our road to salvation. For we are interconnected; Christ is the vine and we are the branches. By submitting himself to baptism Jesus began his process of giving his life for us. Descending into his role of the suffering servant that Isaiah prophesied. He did God’s will and God was well pleased. Modeling for us sacrificial love.
Chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel are called Jesus’ Farewell Discourses, his final statements before his death. Jesus begins them by saying “I am only with you for a little while longer.” He was projecting his own death. He knew his end was near. On the night of his arrest he told the disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The next day Jesus was killed. Much like he was baptized to identify with and model connection with us, he gave up his life for his friends, to pay the price and model sacrifice.
This long weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and King’s leadership and courage. On April 3, 1968, King gave a speech at Mason Temple Church of God in Memphis, TN. It was called his mountaintop speech but it was also King’s farewell discourse. King said,
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
King delivered his prophetic “Mountaintop” speech, his Farewell Discourse and the next day he was killed by an assassin’s bullet.
When we as a culture think about laying down life these days, our minds turn to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the heroism of the teachers on that tragic day last month.
Of the teacher who hid the children in the closet and explained to them what was going on saying, “There are some bad guys here and we need to stay here until the good guys get here. One of the boys in the class asked if the toy statute of the super hero could help.”
Of special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy whose body was found in a classroom, slumped over young children as she tried to shield them.
And of first grade teacher Victoria Soto. When Adam Lanza forced his way into the school and began shooting, Soto hid several children in a closet, and when Lanza entered her classroom, she stepped forward and told him the children were in the auditorium instead. When several children ran from their hiding places in the closet, and Lanza began shooting, she “threw herself in front of her students to protect them” recounted one student who survived.
History remembers the names of Pontius Pilate, James Earl Ray and Adam Lanza, those who were behind the deaths of Christ, King and the children of Sandy Hook. But history also remember the heroes. Paul Simon sang at Soto’s funeral, Victoria Soto Elementary School is being built in Connecticut and a public facility in Puerto Rico is being named after her.
Tomorrow we celebrate King’s courage of standing up for justice even at the cost of his life. The President has called on us to lay down some time this weekend for service in his name and to take a hard look at how we might lay down some of our weapons to reduce gun violence. I hope in the inauguration on Monday will call on Americans to lay down partisanship for the sake of cooperation.
And as my old worship teacher used to say, “Each Sunday we gather in church we celebrate a mini-Easter. Christ’s dying and rising. That is why the Sundays were excluded from the 40 fast days of Lent for example.” For Jesus said “I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” The sheep remember the ones who lay down their lives.
Shortly before his death Martin Luther King said,
I have come to believe that unmerited suffering is redemptive. Not, please hear, that suffering is God’s will, but that somehow God can use suffering for purposes that exceed our ability to understand. What else, after all, can we say about this one who goes obediently to his cross, than that his suffering is for our salvation, that with his stripes we are healed, that he laid down his life for his friends and that somehow God uses that to make us more human, to make us more loving, to heal and redeem us and to make us whole, to save our souls?
Most of us will not be called to lay down our lives in some act of heroism. Every once in a while we might have to react in some big way to an unexpected event or in times of war to pay the ultimate price, but most of us we won’t be called on to act by laying down our whole life at one time. But each of us is called to give ourselves away, a little each day. That is what a Christ like friend does.
Like many of you I watched the Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday and Friday nights. I thought about what an elaborate scheme he created. So much energy spent on concealing in order to take as much glory as he could upon himself. What struck me was how unhappy Armstrong described that period of his life when he was winning races but losing himself in his lies. How alone he was. And how much happier he at least clams he is in confessing the truth, and in giving honesty rather than taking all the glory. It feels much better to be honest and be one of many, than to win and know it’s a lie. Being the fastest will not save your soul, but following Christ’s example of laying down our lives a little each day will.
1 John 3 tells us that as Jesus laid down his life, so should we as we pass by those in need. There is a story Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a mother who sent her twelve year old son on an errand, and he was slow in coming home. When he finally got back, his mother asked, “What took you so long? I was worried about you.” The boy said, “Oh there is a little boy down the street whose tricycle broke and he was crying because he couldn’t fix it, and I really felt bad for him so I stopped to help.” The boy’s mother asked, “Are you trying to tell me you knew how to fix his tricycle and you sat there and fixed it?” Her son replied, “No, I sat down and helped him cry.”
That boy sat down and made a friend. He was in relationship. He wasn’t just meeting a need, a broken bike, he was developing a relationship that fixed a broken heart.
Many of us have read Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity these past few weeks as we discussed our mission outreach. I was struck by Lupton’s argument that just trying to meet people’s needs without developing relationships often leads to a lack of understanding and poor results. If our goal is to lay down life for our friends, we need to develop deep enough relationships so we are partnering with people we can call friends.
What characterizes God’s relationship with us is love. No one has greater love than God has for us. And no one has greater love than to lay down their life for their friends. That is what God ultimately does. So if we seek to follow Christ we do well to follow his example.
As followers of Christ we are connected to the vine. Baptized in the waters of Christ’s love. We are called to lay down our attention, our gifts, our joy, our resources, our time, to be with those who need help.
Laying down life does not mean we just let others abuse us. It means to give freedom and equality and to freely give ourselves away a little each day. That is what it means to be a friend.
In the Hellenistic culture that influenced the New Testament, there were three kinds of friendship. There were useful friends. We might call them connections or business associates. There are social friends. People we just enjoy being with. They are lots of fun but are often contextual. You might enjoy watching the football games this afternoon with the same group you always watch football with. And then there are soul friends. The deep friendships. Friends you can go anywhere with. Friends you can be away from for a long while and then pick up with as if it were yesterday. Friends that by loving you teach you how to love. Friends who are really close and about whom you really care. Aristotle talked about these kinds of friendships saying, “A friend is another form of self.”
Such friends mold who we are. It’s why parents get so concerned about who their kid’s friends are. David Cunningham wrote that “we are very likely to be known by the company we keep, in fact we are likely to become the company we keep.”
When we keep company with Jesus we learn from our friend that laying down one’s life means showing love in a powerful and personal way. It’s why through life you find that to be loved, you have to risk by loving. To be really happy you can’t live for yourself but you have to care about another’s happiness. If you want to your save your life you have to lose it. Christ poured out his spirit and gave up his life so we could know love. Jesus was baptized to begin showing us what it means to lay down our life for our friends, and throughout his life showed what sacrificial love looks like so we could see how to become more like Jesus.
Greater love has no more than this. When you lay down your life, a little each day, you are giving thanks for your holy friend. You are modeling Christ-like grace. You are sharing love. You are becoming more like Jesus. And what could be better than that. Amen.