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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


As the Father Has Loved Me

John 15:9-17

6th Sunday of Easter - Year B

May 17, 2009

In today's passage from John 15 Jesus speaks at some length; the disciples were there, in the shadows, listening--or we hope they were listening--and as we overhear his words it feels a bit like listening to the radio.  We can't see, we just hear the words--which is how Scripture has happened for most people through history.  Before there were floppy Bibles or Power Point, people heard the Bible, out loud.  Radio could be the perfect platform for a true hearing of what matters.

Since it's baseball season, I think about my favorite baseball book by David Halberstam, who describes what baseball was like 60 years ago and what he calls the virtues of radio.  Mel Allen, who broadcast New York Yankees games on radio and then television, lamented the advent of TV, feeling it rendered his words extraneous.  He decided that TV was "a medium in which both the broadcaster and the fan became lazy-- the broadcaster because he had to let the camera do so much of the work and the fan because he did not have to use his imagination.  Allen felt that he had a less-intimate relationship with viewers."  Allen's "soft, almost silky voice...brought the fan into the Stadium...and projected a sense of intimacy with the players.  He would begin by painting a word portrait....  Television would be different in many ways, not least of all for the athletes.  In the beginning it seemed to bring them greater fame, but in time it became clear that the fame was not so much greater as quicker.  More often than not, it evaporated sooner.  As radio was an instrument that could heighten the mystique of a player, television eventually demythologized the famous."

Now, thinking about Mel Allen, I wish I had a soft, silky voice, but I do want to take you into a room, a flicker of a few candles battling the dark.  It's small, stone, chilly; Jesus and some guys, not chosen for their stellar spiritual resumes, but just some guys, a few fishermen, a tax collector, almost as if Jesus wanted to make the point that anybody would do, anybody could be a disciple, anybody who could listen.  It's the hearing that matters:  you can't see me, and I can't see you, but words matter.  Have you ever been told "I love you" for the first time?  Or after the carnage of hurt, have you ever been told, "I forgive you"?   Or have you ever sat in a waiting room and the doctor enters and says, "It's malignant" or "It's benign"?  It's what we hear, words that pass, not the chance of how we or anybody else looks, even Jesus.  Martin Luther said that the organ of faith is the ear; we walk by faith not by sight, because what we see misleads.  "Show me the money," we say!  We fawn over what is big, or shiny--but wise old Gandalf told Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, "All that is gold does not glitter."

So here's the gold for our ears.  Jesus, who's just washed their feet, shared the Passover supper, with the profound poignancy of one who knows they won't ever be together for an evening ever again, opens his mouth, and we hear him say, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."  At first it's so lovely, warm, fuzzy--God is love, Jesus loves me, Love one another.  But if I think about these words, I lift my finger and punch the button on the radio to get another station; we skid to a halt right here.  "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you."  They had seen the way the Father loved Jesus.  Oh yeah, they were dumbfounded by his passionate intimacy with God, and they wanted in on that.  But they had seen what issued from that intimacy.  How did the Father love Jesus?  He had pushed him out of the comfortable confines of heaven down onto earth where, as a baby, Herod tried to kill him, the Father sends him into the wilderness for 40 days under assault by the devil trying to get his claws into him, the Father loved him by pressing him into conflict with the super pious and with violent bureaucrats who plotted to put an end to him, and the Father loved him by encircling him with friends who were total knuckleheads.  They never "got" what he was about, and they ran for the exits when he could have used a few friends.  How did the Father love Jesus?  Peril at every turn, demons to be cast out, the sick pulling on him, crowds pressing, a woman yanking the hem of his garment, no roof over his head, and then the worst conceivable end....

We might wish Jesus had said something else, like: "As the Father has loved me...well, I will spare you all of that; I will love you differently; I will let you live on an island of ease and weave a spell of protection around you."

But, no, it seems that Jesus' words of love are the same as the Father's; and if we abide in his love, we may lose the roof over our heads, we will battle devils, people will wrinkle their brow and be totally puzzled by our weirdness, we won't get ahead in the world, we will be catapulted into serving in daunting places--and that is why being loved by Jesus is so good.  It's hard, unfathomable, something you have no ability to pull off--but you go, and you know the one loving you has been there, and it's so hard, which is why it's meaningful.

Love is intriguing, isn't it?  Jesus' friends seem to be massive failures as friends--but when our minds recoup from hearing Jesus say, "As the Father has loved me so have I loved you," we pick back up and hear him say, "You are my friends; no longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends."  I'm glad he said "called."  I have "called" you friends.  He doesn't say, "You have proven yourselves to be great friends."  No, he simply by divine fiat, the way God created the whole universe out of absolutely nothing, dubs them "friends."  Our only reaction can be to stifle a confused chuckle....

But don't stifle it, let it out, let it rumble, especially if you're not alone listening to this radio.  C.S. Lewis once said, "There's no sound I like better than adult male laughter."  For most of us, friends are virtually better off than lovers.  He said, "Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; friends hardly ever talk about their friendship.  Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; but friends are side by side, absorbed in some common interest."  Nowadays, for us, "friends" are people with whom you share interests, you have fun, you enjoy the same diversions, you probably look a lot alike.  But in the ancient world where Jesus said what he said, they had a cool notion of friendship.  Aristotle said that a friend is somebody who helps you to be wise or to be good, and a few hundred years after Jesus said what he said, Kierkegaard said that to love another person is to help that person to love God and to be loved is to be helped in loving God.  We are absorbed in a common interest!  We need some help in loving God, and Jesus was our ultimate friend, helping his knuckleheads to be wise and good, helping them, side by side, to love God.  And how presumptuous of us!  What a friend we have in Jesus--or as a very large church in my neighborhood loves to sing, "I am a friend of God."  We may prefer to think of ourselves as loyal, groveling subjects or recipients of gifts from a Santa Claus God who swoops in on occasion, filling our wish lists--but a friend?  What more generous, startling, wonderful offer could there be in all of Scripture?

Friendship can be hard:  Aristotle said, "The opposite of a friend is a flatterer," and Jesus would not flatter us or inflate our egos.  But he does offer friendship.  No, that's not right.  He simply declares you are his friend, like it or not, and irrespective of whether you've been a good friend in return or not.  I'm unsure how to picture this in my imagination, the way fans listening to Mel Allen conceived of Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig shaking hands at home plate or a Joe Dimaggio slide into second.  I do think of a few, a very few old friends--which I can count on one hand with a leftover finger or two--historic friends, guys who knew me before I knew myself, who could care less if I am speaking on Day 1 or on a ham radio, who have stuck with me and always will, who would say words to me if I grew blind and could not see them, or if I had a stroke and could not speak in return.  They have loved me and stuck with me and we are friends; and there really is nothing better than adult laughter.  

I think there must be one other thing too.  Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this--to lay down his life for his friends."  And we are hearing this program during the season of Easter; we know how the story ends, we know Jesus suffered terribly, but God could not leave his son, the one he'd loved, his friend, in the grave.  How did the Father love Jesus?  On the third day God raised him up--which really tells us less about some automatic destiny we might have after we die than about how magnificent God really is; and if we think about it, we fall down on our faces and we laugh, then we pick each other up and begin to sing some great chorus of praise to a God who loves like that.  It's odd, but so hopeful, to hear what Jesus said the night before he was crucified and to hear it after Easter.  Jesus' future invades that night, and the flicker of the candle really does banish the darkness.  The disciples were not dying the next day--although they might have if they had been required to prove their friendship to Jesus.  They are simply deemed friends; they have some number of years left on them, and the question Jesus knew they would harbor in their souls was, "So what do we do now that he's gone?"  Remember that last night he said, "As the Father has loved me so I love you," and that he called us--us!--friends?  What do we do now?"

Well, the answer is probably lots of things, and they are probably all really hard and scary.  But to these friends, Jesus said, "Go and bear fruit."  Go bear fruit.  Where does one go to bear fruit?  I mean, trees bear fruit, but they can't go anywhere at all.  Paul, who is another very pious guy who didn't "get" Jesus but was simply knighted as Jesus' friend, spoke of the "fruit of the Spirit."  Not "the fruit of my good intentions" or "the fruit of my gritting my teeth and trying really hard."  No, the fruit of the Spirit:  "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Against such there is no law."

Not only are these not against the law.  They are not the law!  Paul doesn't say, "You must be patient or joyful."  It's so American to feel like being good is up to us; I do it!  I'm good.  And then God is pleased.  But Christians wiser than you and I, our friends who were brave and suffered for their faith and kept the Church alive through history, believed in what theologians call "Sanctification."  I do not bear fruit, as I have no clue how to do such a thing.  It is the Spirit who works in me.  Yes, Jesus commanded things Jesus knew I was incapable of.  But he commanded love and fruit, knowing that I'd never pull it off--but he did call me his friend knowing this about me.  And so he must have had some strategy to make fruit happen in me, and in us; and it is the work of the Spirit, in Jesus' lingering, elusive, powerful presence surprising me, surprising us, surprising the world with a wobbly but very definite image of Jesus in the world after all these years.  We are the Body of Christ, we are the friends of God, and then we discover the joy of that prayer we sing at Christmas:  "Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever, and love me, I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there."

Fit us for heaven.  I am not fit; we are not fit.  So fit us for heaven.  We will go and bear fruit, although if we go five inches from you, O Lord, the tree will die; so we will just be still and know that you are God and we aren't; and as we raise our arms in prayer and thanksgiving we notice, pulsating through us, some fruit, the love, the friendship, and it's happening, and nobody's more surprised than you and me, listening now, and our imaginations get dizzy with what is happening, or not happening, and it is all good, because it is all of God, and somebody out there who didn't care about God five minutes ago notices, and she raises her arms, and the fruit forms, she is loved as Jesus was loved, she's a friend, and together, side by side, absorbed in our common interest, we laugh, we sing, we sigh.  We love.  Amen.


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