As we continue in our sermon series on friendship we hear in John’s Gospel that Jesus told his disciples, “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.” The relationship between a master and servant was significant in Biblical times. The word servant, or doulos in the Greek, really meant slave. A servant or slave had little societal status of their own; theirs was derivative of their master’s. So the servant of a wealthy person might have relative status compared to another servant. In the Bible, being a servant of God was no shame, it had status, indeed it was a high honor. Moses, Joshua and David were all called servants or slaves of God. In the New Testament, Paul and James were as well.
And yet at the end of his life, Jesus gave his disciples another name. One greater than that given to Moses or David or some of the great leaders of the tradition. Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” That was a vaulted status. The word friend was not thrown around lightly in Biblical times. It was a high honor to be a friend. The Greek word for friend here, philos, is related to love.
For the disciples to be called a friend of Jesus, as Abraham was called a friend of God in the Hebrew Bible, meant something special. It implied an intimacy with God. The great theologian William Barclay described this relationship using the example of the Roman emperors who would have a select group of servants in their lives called “friends of the king” who had access to the king at all times. These people were given the most intimate connection to the monarch.
I know there are some fans of the television show Downton Abbey here. I think of the relationship between some of the servants and the family in the Abbey. The relationship between Mr. Carson and Lady Mary Crawley of the master family for example, where she visits him when he becomes ill and she seeks out Carson’s advice would about whether to declare her love to Matthew in the story. There is still a hierarchy but also great friendship. Carson is more than just a servant for his master; he is a friend to Mary. The barrier that separates them gets reduced over time through experience and interaction.
And so it is with the disciples of God. Through their experience and interaction with Jesus, those who follow him become friends. Through Jesus the barriers between God and humanity are reduced. The revelation of Jesus helps us to understand God in a deeper way than ever before. We know what God might be thinking about a particular problem we face because we can look at how Jesus approached it. Not looking up to the clouds but across at the divine in human form. Not as a servant waiting to be called but as a friend.
Yet this gift, this kind of relationship, this kind of love, requires something in return. There are responsibilities in friendship with God. First, we have to live our friendship through love. A master could simply compel the obedience of the servant, that happens in all sorts of military style relationships, but force does not result in love. Ordering someone to do something does not make them love you. Only love yields love in return. God could force us to do things but we might resent it. God’s love through Christ inspires us to love God.
We apply this lesson to life and we learn that to have a friend we have to be a friend. William Bennett argues that to befriend a friendless or less fortunate schoolmate can be a profoundly maturing activity for a child. It often gains friendship and loyalty in return. Love breads love and friendship breads friendship. Secondly, we have to be a friend to Christ. That doesn’t seem so hard.
Who wouldn’t want to be Jesus’ friend? It sounds powerful. But to quote Jesus from Luke 12, “to whom much is given, much is required.” Or, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben from the movie Spiderman put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Those who are set apart for friendship with Jesus are given responsibilities of friendship.
The reason Jesus gives for the disciples’ promotion to friends is that “I have told your everything,” that through Jesus everything of God has been revealed. No longer is humanity ignorant about the priorities of God. No longer do we need to question if there is something greater out there than ourselves. No longer can humanity wonder whether we should care about charity, mercy, justice and compassion. No longer do we wonder if our imperfection dooms us, for Jesus demonstrated God’s grace. No longer do we worry about whether God ultimately loves us. Through Christ, God showed God so loved the world that God was willing to give of Godself. God has made God’s will for humanity known to humanity by joining humanity. Yet that can be a challenge for us. For we have Christ to measure our lives against. And that can be uncomfortable. But it’s part of our responsibility.
A servant does not have the same responsibilities of a friend. When one is a servant one simply follows directions. Servants have little independent discretion. They do what they are told. And servants are not often let into the strategic or full thinking of the master. As Jesus put it, “a servant does not know his master’s business.” In some ways such ignorance is bliss because a servant cannot be expected to understand what the master wants or to be held as accountable.
But a friend cannot make that excuse. There are certain expectations of friendship and one of them includes understanding someone. You don’t get upset when the person at the car wash forgets your birthday, but if your roommate, or worse yet your husband forgets, you might be disappointed.
Jesus said, “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.” With a special relationship with God, comes our responsibility to act appropriately.
Today we recognize, ordain and install our new classes of elders and deacons. It is a special day as ten individuals publically recognize their calling to minister among us in leadership and service. Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down our lives for our friends. We ask those who are ordained to kneel in body or in spirit to recognize that it is humbling to be given responsibility. That from the beginning of their service humility is part of being set apart for service. That they, and each of us who seek to be friends of Jesus, must take our responsibilities to God seriously.
Next week would be German theologian Detrick Bonheoffer’s 107th birthday. In 1937 Bonheoffer wrote a classic of Christian thought called the Cost of Discipleship, about what it meant for those who are set apart as disciples of Christ to follow him. Bonheoffer wrote “To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before us step by step, we shall not go astray.”
There are costs to discipleship. There are responsibilities in our friendship with God. In Christ we have a model for living and so cannot claim ignorance about the big priorities of God. Being a friend means being full of grace but not being too proud of it. It means following the truth and yet loving even those who oppose it. It means recognizing that our best hope for an extraordinary life is to follow Christ step by step.
When we see someone making a public commitment to follow Christ in a special way, we remember our own commitments to walking a life of faith, remembering that our first calling is to be a disciple. None of us are compelled to follow Jesus but are invited to in love so that we might love God back. And we all take on responsibilities when we realize that our gifts come from God.
Bonheoffer’s whole theology at some level rests on human responsibility. Bonheoffer said that what God most deeply calls us to is “worldly responsibility.” That is to take responsibility for our gifts, for our ministry and for those around us.
Being God’s friend comes with requirements. It means you must be responsible with the knowledge of God. Responsible for the creations of God. And responsible to God.
Last Monday afternoon our family went to the Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport. The boys loved it. It’s always a challenge though when we go to a park or museum or zoo because we have to make sure no one runs off. But Monday I noticed how helpful our oldest son has become watching other members of his family. He has crossed over from just being on the receiving end of attention and care to being responsible enough to give attention and care.
Jesus told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” His disciples had crossed over to being able to take the responsibilities of friendship and love seriously. At the end of his life, Jesus called his disciples “friends” because he had made known to them everything that he could. He had given his all. Left it all on the field. Held nothing back. He had made a total commitment.
What Jesus asks in return of those who follow him is that we do the same. That we take responsibility for our spiritual lives, for our church, for our world and for each other, as friends. May it be so. Amen.