Father Nicholas Lang
The Sixth Sunday of Easter
“I have called you friends.” The dictionary definition of “friend” includes these two descriptions: A) A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts; and B) A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause.
“I do not call you servants any longer but I have called you friends…” Have you ever had a relationship with someone that changed in the course of your knowing each other? A time when the defined pattern of how you interacted with that person turned into something very different, in a way you might not have expected? The people who taught me or mentored me or whom I have taught or mentored and who eventually became my friends. There was a shift in the former relationship to something new and we began to engage in an altered circumstance.
I think of how the role of student and teacher changed over time and how we related to one another differently because the context of that relationship had changed. There was no longer a dynamic of lesser and greater between us although there would always remain and feeling of deep regard and respect. We were simply friends.
For fans of the series Downton Abbey, there is the example of Matthew Crawley, the middle-class cousin of the aristocratic Crawley’s. He is a working attorney, tending to his own needs. When it becomes apparent that there will be no male heir to inherit Downton Abbey, Matthew is summoned to manage the estate. He has to adjust to life as an aristocrat, with servants even assisting him in dressing, a life he finds bizarre.
But he gets used to it, and when he goes off to war, William, one of the servants on the estate who has enlisted, is detailed to serve as his valet. In his previous situation, Matthew would have found this absurd, but he falls into this odd relationship of lord and servant rather quickly. He has grown used to seeing William as his servant, but the relationship shifts once again in the midst of the fighting. When Matthew and William are trapped in a firefight, they struggle as equals once again.
And when William is mortally wounded attempting to save Matthew in the battle, it is clear that Matthew does not see him as an expendable servant, but he grieves him as an equal comrade-in-arms. The shifting context affects the shift in their relationship.
Not unlike the context of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. In the three years of his active ministry, he was their Rabbi, Teacher, Mentor and Lord. They are the disciples whom he called to be servants. Then, in quite a change of course, he calls them friends. How must it have felt to hear the announcement of that huge transformation in the relationship?
What was going on here? One minute they were subordinates and the next they are on equal footing—from servanthood, actually the original Greek word is “slaves” –to deep friendship.
We all cherish friends. Our lives are enriched by them and they form a fundamental part of our life and its support system. The enduring friends in our lives are our anchors. We are changed by their friendship and they are changed by ours. A real friend needs to speak honestly to us and, when necessary, bring us back to reality.
There was once a priest who was very fussy about the celebration of the Eucharist who became very upset whenever the acolytes did not to their jobs to perfection. In fact, he obsessed over every detail. It happened to be this Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, and this Gospel text had been read.
A precocious little 10-year-old was making her debut as a server. It came time for her to approach the priest to wash his hands but she was too slow for his liking. “Bring me the towel,” he ordered. The feisty little girl remembered the Gospel and shouted right back, “Don’t give me orders, I’m not a servant, I’m a friend.”
Everyone in the chancel laughed—even the priest— who told her that, of course, she was a friend because she had the courage to show him how silly he was being in his obsession for perfection.
Friends can come in surprising ways, in unconventional places. They may come to us in a mansion like Downton Abbey or in a foxhole or on a train or in church. For some of us with small families or not a lot of strong family ties, our friends become our family of choice. That should help us make some sense out of what Jesus means when he says, “I chose you.”
Jesus has chosen you and me. God has given us Jesus so that we can be in relationship and friendship with God because in Jesus—his life, ministry, and teaching—we find the face of God. What the disciples did not fully comprehend when Jesus said, “I call you my friends,” was how radical a shift in their relationship this was for them…and for us.
Today we give thanks for the seed, for the soil, for those who labor in the fields and for all of God's creation as well as for the seeds planted through the ministry and presence of this community and the unique and wonderful ways in which we share in the bonds of holy friendship with Jesus and with one another.