Preaching Date: June 3, 2018
Key Sentence: Jesus is the model of what it means to value friends.
I. Love linked to sacrifice (John 15:12-13)
II. Sacrifice linked to friendship (John 15:13-14)
III. Friendship linked to disclosure (John 15:15)
IV. Friendship linked to service (John 15:16-17)
Imagine yourself on a mountain, looking across a perfectly flat desert. It’s night and pitch black. No human light intrudes. There is a perfect high overcast, and it’s the new moon. Then, somebody, a long way off, lights a candle, and it changes everything. Suddenly your eye is attracted to the light. The darkness is broken, and if you’re like most people you find yourself longing to move toward the light. Now there is significant debate as to how far off you can see a candle. Some have said that it’s like thirty miles. Others have said three or even less. But whatever the answer, a candle in the darkness makes a huge difference.
In the same way you and I, if we are somehow light in darkness, can be used by God to make a huge difference. Our culture has lots of darkness, lots of chances to serve God by being different to make a difference. This summer we’re going to look at several areas of darkness in our culture and study from Scripture the contrasting ways in which we can be light. I’m calling the series “Counter-cultural character qualities.” There is not going to be a lot of politics in this, though there is no shortage of political fault in our darkness. But the kinds of things I want to focus on are personal, ways in which individuals in the culture experience darkness, and opposite ways in which we can be light for people.
I picked the first topic to show how this will work. Believers can make a difference in our culture by offering and modeling friendship. This pushes back against a darkness in our culture called loneliness. You’ve probably heard it called an ‘epidemic of loneliness.’ Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, Surgeon General in the second Obama administration gives a vivid summary. “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely and research suggests the real number is higher. During my tenure as U.S. surgeon general, I saw firsthand how loneliness affected people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. I met middle and high school students who turned to violence, drugs, and gangs to ease the pain of loneliness. I met factory workers, doctors, small business owners, and teachers who described feeling alone in their work, on the verge of burnout.
During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. The elderly man who came to our hospital every few weeks seeking relief from chronic pain was also looking for human connection. The middle-aged woman battling advanced HIV who had no one to tell she was sick. I found loneliness in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease, making it harder for patients to cope and heal.
This may not surprise you. Chances are, you or someone you know has been struggling with loneliness. And that can be a serious problem. Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, greater than that associated with obesity. But we haven’t focused nearly as much effort on strengthening connections between people as we have on curbing tobacco use or obesity. Loneliness is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It is imperative that we address the loneliness epidemic quickly.”
He's right. And my experience as a pastor bears out the fact that people involved in the church are also likely to feel isolated, unconnected and lonely. We’ve talked here at Trinity, off and on, for years, about the goal of connectedness. That’s the same phrase that’s used in the culture, “social connectedness.” But the use of this phrase, and the increasing awareness of loneliness has done little to alleviate it, either in the culture or in the church. I would like to suggest that we use a different word and a different model to address loneliness. Connectedness is impersonal, like plugging a cord in an outlet or connecting to the internet. What we want is a personal word, and I would suggest the word is friendship. What we want is a personal model and mentor. I suggest that the person is Jesus. Jesus is the model of what it means to value friends
The place I want to see this today is the Scripture where the word ‘friend’ is clustered most densely. John 15:12-17 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
This paragraph is just about in the middle of Jesus’ long teaching and prayer that runs from John 13 to 17. In this section he models servanthood to the disciples by washing their feet, he tells them that he is going to go away, but he will send them the Holy Spirit to be with them forever, and he tells them that he is the vine and they are to be branches finding their life sustenance in Him. In the midst of this he gives them one ‘new’ commandment.
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
He gave this command back in chapter 13, and here a little further into his teaching, he gives it two more times. Did you see that when we read the text? It begins with this command, in verse 12 and it ends with this command in verse 17. Clearly what lies between these two love commands is intended to either expand or explain the command. What does it mean to love each other? To expand on the command would address the question “how?” What are specific ways that we can love each other? To explain the command would answer the question “why?” Why should we love each other? I think Jesus does both. He answers the question “why?” Jesus says “because I have loved you and made you my friends.” He also shows “how?” “By making others your friends.” Jesus is the model of what it means to value friends, and thus love them.
So, first, and probably most important, he links love to sacrifice. Verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” This is, of course, exactly what Jesus did. Romans 5:8 “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 1st John 4:10 “This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Long before we get to friendship, hospitality, teachability or any other counter-cultural character qualities that we want to display to the world, we have to ourselves be rescued from our sin and fallenness. This is what God did in Jesus. God Incarnate bore God’s wrath to purchase forgiveness and new life for sinners. This is what we’ll celebrate and remember in communion in just a few minutes.
But this self-sacrificial love is also a model for us. If we don’t, in our minds and hearts, link love for other people to self-sacrifice on their behalf, I fear we have missed the Biblical definition of love. Again, 1st John makes this clear. Just after he teaches that God sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins he says “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” And a few verses before that he says “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” The self-sacrificial love of Jesus is a model for us in our relationships, and especially in the church. John goes on to show that this is not some lofty ideal, but very practical. “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Love is linked to sacrifice, but love and sacrifice are also linked to friendship. This is where our passage in John starts to get remarkable, and applicable to the loneliness epidemic. Look again at verse 13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
We’re to love one another, and the one anothers in our lives are simply called friends. This is a common Greek word, philos, related to the Greek verb phileo which means affectionate love. But this is not some wimpy friendship. Our word is too broad. We use it for everything from lifelong friend and companion to the person who just friended you on Facebook because you post cat memes. Jesus is talking about a friend you would sacrifice for, do anything for. It’s one of the words for love which Jesus used with Peter when he asked him three times if he loved him and then commanded him to feed his sheep and tend his lambs.
Verse 14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What does he command us? “Love one another.” Now is this a requirement, a condition for salvation, a condition for friendship with Christ? Not exactly. The Greek language, most of the time, does not recognize that hard distinction between ‘if’ and ‘since.’ If I read the sentence “You are my friends since you do what I command you,” it sounds very different than “if.” But it’s actually closer to what Jesus is saying. As Don Carson comments “This obedience is not what makes them friends; it is what characterizes his friends.” Even so, this verse is a strong incentive. If we are not loving others the way Jesus has loved us, with at least some measure of self-sacrifice, we are not keeping his command.
So friendship is two things. It is obedience to the love one another command and it is the kind of love that sacrifices. This is what both the world and the church desperately need to combat this epidemic of loneliness. Late last year, I missed the theatrical appearance of the movie “Same Kind of Different as Me.” Apparently the movie was not that well done, but I really liked the book.
Why? It’s the story of a couple whose marriage is on the rocks, the classic “we’ve grown apart” scenario. But the wife, Debbie, coerces her art-dealer husband Ron to go down and serve meals at the homeless shelter. There they meet a man who calls himself Suicide, but whose real name is Denver. Debbie goes out of her way to treat him as a real human being and befriend him. She asks Ron to do the same, and he makes that choice, to get out of his comfort zone. In one memorable scene Denver confronts him: “You wanna be my friend?” And Ron says “Uh, yea.” Denver says “I’m gonna have to think about that.”
Later he says “You was the onlyest person that looked past my skin and past my meanness and saw that there was somebody on the inside worth savin... You stood up with courage and faced me when I was dangerous, and it changed my life. You loved me for who I was on the inside, the person God meant for me to be, the one that had just gotten lost for a while on some ugly roads in life.” That’s the kind of sacrificial love that can bloom into the closest of friendships. And that kind of friendship changed both of their lives forever.
So love and sacrifice characterize true friendship. You need friends who love you and are willing to go out of their way for you. And you and I need to be friends who love that way. I remember being struck, I think in a film series of some sort, when the presenter reminded us that one of the most powerful phrases in any relationship is “What can I do for you?’ One man’s expansion of that goes “If you ask the question ‘What can I do for you?,’ you will always have work, you will always have friends, and your life will always have meaning.”
The second thing friendship is built on is disclosure or transparency. Again, this is first true of Jesus, then of us. Verse 15 “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus contrasts servants and friends. The servant or slave is simply expected to obey. There is no attempt by the master to reveal his own heart to them or even necessarily tell them a plan. But because Jesus, remarkably, considers us his friends and treats us as friends, he reveals his heart and the heart of his Father. In context he’s talking about the deep and intimate things revealed in this final discourse and prayer. These were profound truths about his relationship with the Father and the disciples’ relationship to him and about his plan, his departure and the place he was preparing for them. He shared his heart. But in a larger sense the whole New Testament, revealed as promised by the Holy Spirit is his disclosure to us, the transparency of his heart.
In the same way, friendship is built on disclosure. R. Kent Hughes says “We all need close friends who can hear and clarify our thoughts. We need the healing that comes when we reveal our feelings to another without fear that our confidence will be broken. There is too often loneliness of soul in the body of Christ. As believers we need to take time to talk about one another's goals, pray about our needs, share, encourage one another.” Who knows your heart that way? If even Jesus, whose friendship was perfectly expressed in his sacrifice, needed to also disclose his heart to his friends, how much more do we?
I can testify that all my life as a believer has been shaped by that kind of friendship. First and foremost my wife is my friend. She discloses her heart to me, and like no one else in the world, she hears my heart, sometimes even when my heart has no words left. But God has also allowed me to develop friendships with a bunch of guys over the years. It started in college where the model of discipleship was ‘one-to-one,’ man-to-man we called it in those days, couldn’t today. But that set a pattern, and so in my first years in Texas I met, frequently, with Paul Christiansen. We called it a prayer partnership. But it was really a friendship, with disclosure, and with a deep spiritual-life component. In the decades since I’ve tried to have as many of those relationships as I can.
I’ve been meeting with Frank Kittle on Tuesdays for lunch longer than I can pin down. A long time. And though if you listened to us you might think all we talk about is work and sound systems and computers, we’re friends at a much deeper level than that, and it’s a blessing to both of us. And there are others, and I’m deeply thankful for them. This friendship/ discipleship/ disclosure thing is so powerful in my life, and I think in the lives of those I meet with, that it actually gives rise to two regrets. I regret that there isn’t more time to invest in these friendships. I wish they weren’t limited to one intentional contact every week or two. Second, I regret that the same pressure keeps me from inviting more guys into these friendships that are such a blessing to me.
But I treasure these friendships, and I treasure the mutual disclosure that deepen them. Sometimes, I know, I say things that normal pastors would not say. I reveal how badly I sometimes walk with Jesus and serve him. But these guys are forgivers and prayer warriors and people who can hold me accountable, and vice-versa. My prayer is that these kinds of relationships will grow up in our church. That you, each of you, will have people you can fully disclose to, and people you can graciously receive disclosure from. The balm that heals loneliness is healed, at least partly, when we make ourselves known to others.
Finally, friendship is built on serving together. A few minutes ago I described some people I’ve known who serve all the time at church, but still feel disconnected. That can happen. But I believe that serving done right connects people and not serving is, more often, the path to loneliness. Jesus says it this way, verses 16 and 17, reading from the y’all New Testament: “Y’all did not choose me, but I chose y’all and appointed y’all that y’all should go and bear fruit and that y’all’s fruit should abide, so that whatever y’all ask the Father in my name, he may give it to y’all. 17These things I command y’all, so that y’all will love one another.” Do you hear how different it communicates when you pick up the plurals? Without the y’all you would have thought he was talking just to you. He is talking to you, but he’s talking to all of them and all of us.
He's saying ‘go and bear fruit.’ Primarily this is ‘go and make disciples in all nations.’ We don’t want to be so sophisticated we neglect the first meaning of fruit, which is people rescued from sin and made new in Jesus. But this isn’t the only fruit in Scripture. There’s the fruit of the Spirit, our own lives changed to bless others. But there is also the fruit of serving and helping others, bearing fruit in every good work, as Paul said to the Colossians. Jesus said we were to let our light so shine that people see our good works and give glory to the Father. Serving in the church is a good work, as lives are changed and people drawn closer to Jesus. Serving in the community, as we have the great chance to do in Harvey Response is a way to see fruit in relationships.
We can’t cultivate a relationship with every lonely person we meet, but we can make a difference for some, and see the fruit of God’s love in their lives, especially if we have the Crisis Response mindset, “People over Projects every time.”
But the other key point here is that when we do these things together, friendship grows. We get the chance to love one another in practical ways. We all know how tightly bonded those serving on the front lines of war become. Those little platoons become a band of brothers. Well folks, we are serving on the front lines of a war. And our little platoons ought to become bonded together as we rely on each other, serve each other and serve others together.
Jesus even teaches here that when y’all pray together, God will answer your prayers. “Whatever y’all ask my Father in my name, he will give it to you.” Praying together is not only the behavior of friends, it is also one of the ways to dispel loneliness. God promises he will answer these prayers. And though we will still have our frictions and our struggles and our trials, and yes, even our loneliness at times, I am convinced that on the whole we will be less lonely if we serve together. In fact as we talk this summer about rebuilding ministry in the church I really hope that we will build ministries that allow or even insist that people serve together and that provide room for others to come alongside.
We’ve had the opportunity to witness this, on a small scale, week after week in the Harvey Response. Teams come, sometimes from two or three different places, and by Thursday night, after serving together for just four days, they are one team. We’ve seen more than one occasion where someone has come down all by himself, maybe with a strong, ‘do work,’ mentality, but by the end of the week it’s the people he appreciates, it’s the people, homeowners and team members that he’s connected with, and friendships are born.
The fight against loneliness in our lives and in our culture is a fight for friendships. We commit to love one another, sacrificially, and friendships are formed. We’re open and transparent with one another, and friendships are deepened. We serve one another and others, and the circle of friendship grows.
But as we end we need to turn this back toward our dependence on Jesus. Remember how it starts “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” It is Jesus who has done all these things, remarkably, to form friendship with us, and he alone is real cure for our loneliness and that of our culture.