Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 17 2009.
If you were with us last Sunday, you know I talked about what it means to be intimately connected with Jesus. In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus uses a horticultural device to explain this intimacy. He said we are to be connected to him like branches to a grape vine. He said the only way we can do anything for him is to be intimately connected to him. Apart from this connection, he said, we can do nothing. Apart from this connection, we will decay, eventually die, be pruned away, and thrown into a brush pile to be burned.
Cleary, intimacy with Jesus is everything.
Today we continue our study of John 15 by asking an important question—isn’t it a tiny bit presumptuous to believe we can be intimate with the offspring of the God of the universe? Think about it this way. We may know about President Barack Obama. We may learn about who he is and what he does through the media. We may hear him speak to a large audience, as his Vice President will do at Wake Forest University tomorrow. If we’re a high-ranking political official or a large donor, we might even shake the Presidents hand. But it’s highly unlikely we’ll have ever have the chance to become a friend of Barack Obama’s, much less to get to know him intimately. Only a few people will ever get that close to the President.
So how realistic is it to think that we can ever become intimate with God, or the Son of God, especially when you consider they are perfect and we are not? Irish poet James Cavanaugh captures the anxiety most of us feel about our relationship with God in these words:
“(God), will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you shouldn’t.
Often, I’m too serious.
Sometimes I’m cold and distant.
I bluster and brag, and I seek attention like a child.
I brood and sometimes my anger can be wild.
I shake a little most every day
Because I’m more frightened than the strangers ever know.
And if at times I show my trembling side,
If at times I show my sinning side,
I wonder, will you be my friend?”
Mr. Cavanaugh puts it well, doesn’t he? We wonder in the privacy of our hearts if we can be God’s friends. And well we should! After all, the Bible has a lot to say that would indicate God is not our “Best Buddy in the Sky.”
When Moses goes to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God and receive the Ten Commandments, God tells Moses to remind the Israelites that if they so much as touch the mountain during their meeting they are dead. You don’t presume to buddy up to God and live to talk about it! When Isaiah meets God for the first time in the temple, Isaiah doesn’t run up to God and say, “Hey dude, give me five.” No, he falls face down on the floor and says, “Woe is me. I’m an unclean man.”
Our God is an awesome God, and in comparison, we’re tiny, sinful specks in a vast universe who are here today and gone tomorrow. We shouldn’t even put God and ourselves in the same sentence, much less in a friendship. It’s crazy to think we could be friends with God!
Or is it?
In the same Old Testament that describes God as high and lifted up we also read that both Abraham and Moses were described as friends of God. In fact, we read in Exodus 33 that The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with a friend (Ex. 33:11).
But even this face-to-face encounter is not as breathtaking as what Jesus says in John 15:15. Jesus Christ, Son of God, King of kings, Lord of lords makes the following statement to his disciples—I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from the Father I have made known unto you.
Copernicus shocked the world when he said that the sun and not the earth was the center of the solar system. Columbus shocked the world when he proved the earth was round rather than flat. But when Jesus said we were his friends, he shocked the universe because in that one statement Jesus radically redefined our relationship with God.
It’s one thing to say we are the clay and God is the Potter; or we are the sheep and he is the Shepherd; or we are the children and he is our Father. But it’s something else entirely to say we are honest-to-goodness friends with the God of the universe, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what it means to be a friend of Jesus?
Before we answer that question, we’ve got a prior question to deal with—how is it possible to be friends with God as he is revealed in Jesus? Lewis Smedes answers the question this way—in order to be our friend, God had to overcome a huge holiness gap. (“The Making of a Very Good Friendship: John 15:15,” preached at Willow Creek Church, August 19, 1994)
Smedes reminds us that an unwritten rule for friendship is that in order to be friends, people have got to be more or less equal. Normally, the rich and powerful don’t become friends with the poor and weak. Smedes illustrates his point by referring to the old PBS dramatic series that ran over 30 years ago entitled, “Upstairs, Downstairs”. This program featured a family of wealthy, noble English men and women who lived upstairs in a mansion, while a lowly crew of servants lived downstairs. The nobles upstairs occasionally mixed and mingled with the servants downstairs. They liked each other and respected each other. But they weren’t friends, not even close.
In the scheme of things, God is the most “upstairs” being in the universe. He occupies the one-millionth floor in the penthouse, while we live in the sub-basement. But one event in history changes the equation and makes friendship with God possible—the cross of Jesus Christ. I love the way Smedes puts this. He says, “At the cross where Jesus died, nobody is upstairs. We’re all downstairs. Because Jesus came from upstairs to downstairs, he overcame the infinite distance of his holiness and said, ‘We can be friends, now.’”
Understand, Jesus gave his life so we could be friends. I grew up learning in church that the only reason Jesus died on the cross was to save me from my sins. And of course that’s true. But salvation doesn’t tell the whole story of the cross. Jesus also died to pull heaven and earth, upstairs and downstairs together. Jesus died so we could be his friends.
This ought to shock us more than it does. Two thousand years ago the pagans of Jesus’ day worshiped gods who cared little if any about mortal human beings. These pagan gods tolerated and toyed with human beings. But they always made it clear that even when they came to our rescue it didn’t change the fact that they were upstairs and we were in the basement, and never the twain shall meet.
Not God. And not Jesus, the Son of God. For some crazy reason, God and his Son Jesus loved human beings enough to come downstairs to not only be with us, but become close to us.
You can see the relationship between Jesus and his disciples evolve as you read the gospel of John. Speaking to Jews who are challenging his authority, Jesus says in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” In John 8, the Jews, the disciples, and by implication all of us are slaves to sin, and Jesus is the one who saves us from our sin. He’s way upstairs, and we’re way downstairs.
Fast forward to John 13, and we see a shift in the relationship. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, a shocking thing for a Messiah to do. Jesus has just walked down several flights of steps to be with his disciples.
Then Jesus attempts to explain what he has done. He notes that his disciples rightly call him “Teacher” and “Lord.” Then Jesus urges his disciples to follow his example of foot washing because servants are not greater than their master (v. 16). In John 13, the gap between Jesus and his disciples has narrowed. Once they were slaves to sin. Now they are slaves or servants of Jesus. They’re making progress, but they are still many floors apart from their master.
But in John 15, when only a few hours remain before Jesus is crucified, the relationship shifts again. Now, Jesus calls his disciples “friends”. The truth is, Jesus has always been on the hunt for friends. He never considered going it alone. Now that he’s about to die, he’s eager to keep descending the staircase so he can have friends for the journey.
Along the way, he models for us what true friends do for each other. In just a few hours, Jesus’ disciples will see a living demonstration of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:13—Greater love has no one than this—to lay down his life for his friends. God gave his only son, and Jesus gave up his life for us because that’s what good friends do for each other.
Notice, by the way, that Jesus’ friendship with his disciples and us is an extension of his relationship with his Father. “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus says, “so have I loved you. Remain in my love.”
The greatest friendship of all time is that which exists inside the Trinity between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s an extremely complicated friendship we will never fully understand. But this much we know—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy a deeply intimate friendship that has no beginning and no end, that has a closeness we can only imagine. And the amazing thing is that Jesus wants to extend that love and intimacy to us. He wants to draw us into that never-ending circle of love known as the Trinity.
By the way, the Greek here for friends is philos, which literally means “those who are loved.” The 11th chapter of John gives us a glimpse of what it meant to be a philos, or a friend of Jesus. When Lazarus died, his sisters Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (v. 3). In other words, “Lord, your philos is sick. Come quickly!” Later in John 11 we read that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus (v. 5). And still later Jesus refers to Lazarus as “our friend” (v. 11). Of course, Jesus goes on to weep over the death of his dear friend before raising him from the dead.
Do you understand, my friends, that Jesus loves you the same way? He loved you even before you were conceived. He rejoices with you on your mountaintops, and cries with you in your valleys.
He wants you to confide your every need to him. And most strikingly, he wants to confide in you. Indeed, the real proof of this friendship, Jesus says, is this—“everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
Remember, for three years now Jesus has been pouring himself into his disciples. For week after week and month after month, Jesus has been teaching them about God, the Kingdom of God, and what it means to walk with God. Jesus hasn’t jealously guarded his friendship with God. He generously shared it with his disciples.
Servants obey the commands of their masters, even though most of the time they have no idea what their masters are up to. We’re friends of Jesus because he’s taken the time to share with us the heart and mind of God. We know the mind of God and the heart of Jesus when it comes to their dreams for us and our world. And that makes us more than servants. That makes us friends.
Is our friendship with Jesus complicated? Yes, almost as complicated as that of Jesus to his friend, God. Jesus is called to obey the commands of his Father, and we’re called to obey the commands of Jesus. What’s interesting is that when we trust our friend Jesus enough to obey him, we discover that true, abiding joy comes from obeying Jesus rather than resisting him.
As we read on we learn that friends of Jesus love one another the way Jesus loves us. What would happen to this church, to all churches if we actually made that principle a priority? We learn that we’re Jesus’ friends because he chose us, not because we chose him. We learn Jesus chose us to be his friends not so we can spend our lives feathering our own nests, but so we might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. And we learn that friends of Jesus have the power of prayer at their disposal, and with that power, anything—and I do mean anything—is possible.
The good news of the gospel is that thanks to Jesus there is no longer an upstairs and a downstairs. Can we be friends with Jesus? You bet!
Will we be friends with Jesus? That’s up to us.