A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on May 13, 2012.
Fred Craddock was surprisingly late in life before he first preached a sermon on this text. One would think that such warm and welcoming words of tender friendship would be more easily preached than that but he was hesitant to “say words” over this text because it puts the listener in an awkward relationship with God. He likewise noted that Martin Luther found the story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice to his willingness to follow God to be too much for a sermon. There’s more to this story than meets the eye, we might remind ourselves. Perhaps there’s something askew that makes one cautious of the warmth and welcome friendship of Jesus.
Abraham was called “a friend of God” (James 2:23), and one must wonder what trouble is unleashed upon anyone who is known as God’s friend. Craddock recalls being stranded in a small town by a cancelled flight; with nothing that would get him out as planned, he spent a last-minute night at a nearby hotel. When faced with this kind of delay on a Saturday night, since he had a late flight, he inquired the next morning for a church within walking distance. Upon arriving at a small cinder block building where a handful of elderly members were singing gospel hymns, he watched as the preacher painfully walked to the pulpit. The man was large and suffered from a number of maladies that included poor eyesight and faltering speech. His opening words on the text describing Abraham as “a friend of God,” began with these words: “Abraham was a friend of God. I’m sure glad I’m not a friend of God.”
The preacher recalled the story of Abram, a willing pilgrim and obedient, who after a long journey following the Voice that called him as a homeless sojourner, eventually died and was buried in a land not his own. “Abraham was a friend of God. I am glad I’m not,” the preacher repeated and then went on to recall others who had also been called friends of God, faithful servants of the Divine who were beaten and cast into dungeons, souls who suffered horribly. Some were oppressed in uncountable ways while others died horrible deaths simply because they accepted God’s friendship.
He concluded his sermon with a story of Teresa of Avila who had taken up the cause of an orphanage and had gone about begging for financial support to keep the orphanage open. But then came the setbacks – a flood, waves of fierce storms and a fire that finally destroyed the orphanage. Finally, in her evening prayers she said to God, “So this is how you treat your friends; no wonder you have so few.”
The old preacher ended his startling sermon with advice: “If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you. But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.”
Hear Jesus’ words in John 15 as they were offered to his disciples as he neared the end. Hear the words as the plaintive aching of the heart as Jesus knew what lay ahead for himself and for them. Hear them as the intimate words of one who had gave them the gift of his friendship as they acted and lived as servants of God. Hear the text again from the vantage point of his impending suffering on the cross:
I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature.
This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you. But remember the root command: Love one another (John 15:9-17).
It’s easy to get distracted from how these words were given and to get caught up in the sweet invitation to be Jesus’ friends. One of my southern friends said recently, “Everything goes better with sweet tea,” and that’s how we sometimes think about faith. We romanticize the harsh words so we can escape feeling troubled by them. We sweeten the tough ideas that will cost us something if we live by them. We live our faith from our narcissism and think all God has to do in our partnership together is to pave the way for us to live our best life. We forget that God is “all in” in the world and God needs us to be God’s friend by obediently and sacrificially serving the world.
It’s not hard to think about Jesus’ love for these disciples knowing they would move forward past the empty tomb and to carry forward his words and his life. They would move beyond all this with the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit. But the rest of the New Testament is clear. What looks like a promotion from being slaves to being friends comes with a cost.
Perhaps it would help us to think that when Jesus calls us friends, he’s calling us to relationship that implies love and mutuality “in all weathers.” It’s a friendship that’s deeper than anything we know in this world of superficial friendships that have no responsibilities and have no real commitments. Got a friend like that?
Like you, I’ve been through some tough struggles and it’s surprised me that in those moments when they’re past, I have a clearer notion of who my friends are. Some so-called friends aren’t around when I need them and yet others step even closer when I have a great need. What kind of friendship do we offer our friends?
The disciples did not choose Jesus, he chose them. He initiated the search for them and decidedly reached out to them to follow him. For most of the time they spent together, he taught and acted and modeled the way he expected them to think and act. In that sense, they were apprentice-servants under his guidance. Now they were being taken to a new, deeper level of relationship as Jesus called them his friends.
What we see in these words is Jesus preparing them as his friends to become his hands and feet for the on-going mission of God. In so doing, he was preparing them for the yoke of his friendship. To be forever tied to the mission of God by service and sacrifice. We have the wonderful gift of God’s friendship and have been drawn closer to God but it comes at a cost.
Lionel Blue and June Rose wrote a wonderful parable to vividly describe this way of living. It’s a parable about Heaven and Hell, heaven being the place of goodness, and hell being the place of evil. Most of us know the line between goodness and evil can be ironically difficult to discern. In their parable, a rabbi wanted to see both Heaven and Hell and God who has hidden such opposites and their unity from us, agreed to allow him a chance to see the two.
The rabbi found himself before a door which bore no name. He trembled slightly as he saw it opened mysteriously before him. Inside the room was a banquet table laid out with food for a feast. The table was spread with great dishes of steaming food and the smell of it inflamed his appetite reminding him how hungry he was. Sitting at the table were diners with great spoons in their hands, yet they were shrieking with hunger, and fainting from thirst in that terrible place or torment. The spoons in their hands were so long when they tried feeding themselves they gave up because the spoons God had given them were so long they couldn’t reach their faces. They couldn’t get the food to their mouths. They stretched out their arms, but their mouths remained tantalizing empty. So they were starving while great bowls of food were right in front of them.
The rabbi understood the shrieking cries were the cries of Hell. He closed his eyes in prayer and begged God to take him away from that terrible place. And the door to that place closed.
When the rabbi opened his eyes, he despaired because he stood before the same door it seemed; it was a door with no name and again it opened and there before him was the same room. Nothing had changed and he was about to cry in horror. There was the same big banquet table and the same steaming bowls of delicious food. Around it were the same people and in their hands were the same long-handled spoons.
Yet there was no shrieking and no frustration. The cries and the curses had turned to blessing and joy. Nothing had changed mind you, yet everything was different. You see, the people at this table of bounty had taken their long-handled spoons and were feeding each other. And they gave thanks to God for the food and the chance to enjoy such blessing. They gave thanks to God the author and originator of their joy. And so the rabbi too joined them in giving thanks and for seeing the nature of Heaven and Hell, and the chasm between them, a chasm being only a hairsbreadth wide that divided them.
Jesus invited his disciples to move closer from being servants to accepting his offer of friendship by taking on the yoke of friendship. No longer servants but friends … it sounds like such a warm and welcoming promotion.
But that same night, in that very room, Jesus dramatically took on the role of a servant and washed their feet. Preacher Craddock says “nothing strikes us as so unbecoming a follower of Christ as arrogance, as the pursuit of position and power, as the desire to be served rather than to serve.” When Jesus uses the term “friend,” it feels like a title but in fact he’s pointing us to the relationship we have with God, faithful to God in word and deed, the total definition of who we are.
The old preacher may have had it right even though it was not as sweet as sweet tea. “If you find yourself being drawn into the inner circle of the friends of God, blessed are you. But pray for the strength to bear the burden of it.”
 Fred Craddock, “Being a Friend of God,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 189-190
 Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002
 Lionel Blue and June Rose, A Taste of Heaven, Adventures in Food and Faith, London: Barton, Longman and Todd, 1977
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).