I’m reminded of this time back in high school when my social studies teacher asked us, “who here has more than 10 friends?” What a funny question to ask a bunch of grade 9s. Because as you know, in grade 9 you know everything the world has to offer and you’re also the coolest cat on this side of the street so of course you’d have way more than 10 friends, not to mention the bonus points in using the terms “this side of the street” and “cat”. So of course, everyone put up their hand. And then my teacher went on to explain that “friends” are actually the people that you would trust with your deepest secrets, those you feel most comfortable with to be yourself, the people that you would consider doing anything for.
All of a sudden everyone put down their hand. Well, everyone except one girl who just kept her hand in the air probably just to still look like a cool cat. She was unsuccessful.
Interestingly though, my teacher started to decrease the number of how many friends we have, to see where we stood friend-wise by this new definition of friend he gave us. 8? 6? 3? As the number dropped then more people put up their hands. Looks like most of the people in my class had just around 3 friends, and we learned that we like to keep our circles tight and we don’t often trust more people than that.
Again, I was just this cool cat grade 9 kid who thought he was super popular and well liked, it was sort of an eye opener. All these people I considered my “friends” weren’t really my friends at all, but just people I knew and maybe occasionally hung out with. I wouldn’t trust them with a stick of gum, let alone my deepest secrets and feelings. But I also realised that I had a longing to have these more of these “friends” to add to the ranks of my 3-6 (aw who are we kidding, it was just my buddy Ben). I sought out people to trust, opening myself up in hopes to find that connection, perhaps getting into the not-so-great habit of revealing too much. And now? Still just my buddy Ben.
And then 1994 happened. This was the year that a new kind of TV sitcom hit the airwaves, following the life and adventures of 6 modern friends living in New York. This show, aptly named “Friends,” again redefined relationships and community, and we saw people in droves flocking to coffee shops thinking that it was the missing ingredient in having the happy and fun lives like those we see on TV, wanting to satisfy that longing for more. Suddenly people were defined with how many stamps they have on their coffee cards and the kind of caffeine they would ingest on a regular basis.
But coffee can be expensive. And addictive. And anger-inducing if not had early enough in the morning. That longing and deep-seated need for something more still wasn’t satisfied, that while the sitcom Friends was wildly popular, it still wasn’t what we had in real life.
Then in the early 2000s, right around when Friends was taken off the air, came the rise of social media, made extremely popular by Facebook. Sure, there were sites before and after Facebook, but it really did define a new way of community, ironically with face-less communication and interaction with a plethora of people who you connect with over this thing we call the internet, inter-netting us with each other, strangers, and fake profiles all in the name of friendship. And so we became defined by how many people were on our friends lists. So much so that I remember people padding their lists with random people whom they may or may not have met in real life, and stroking their egos with the number of views, likes, and shares.
This was all fine and dandy, until people started to realise what was happening with their personal and sometimes private information that they are putting out there, inadvertently giving people access to all this sensitive stuff that our lives are made out of. Still, people kept at it for the likes, all in the name of friendship and connection, and temporarily filling this hole that we have for acceptance, relationship, and love.
Man this friend thing is hard, huh? It’s like we try and we try but we just end up shooting ourselves in the feet. As “friend” keeps being defined and redefined, all we know is that we feel this emptiness in our lives and hearts and have this need to have others in our lives but we don’t always know how.
Today Jesus calls us his friends. But without a clear definition of what that is, it becomes anyone’s guess to what Jesus is talking about. Some of us with keen eyes and ears may have noticed that Jesus actually does define it, he says, “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” Dang, that doesn’t sound like a friendship by any definition, but rather it sounds more like manipulation. Like, “hey wanna be my friend? Well then you have to do this and this and this, and then maybe I’ll think about it.” Sounds almost like recruiting for a gang or something.
And while we would instantly see that as not what Jesus means, don’t we actually live our lives sometimes like this? Don’t we sometimes try really hard to do the good thing solely because we think God told us to? Don’t we sometimes pain ourselves with sacrifice by cutting things or people out of our lives because we say it is sinful? Don’t we sometimes frown on others in the church because we believe that their lives aren’t indicative of someone who is obeying Jesus’ commandments? We might not cognitively think that we have to be obedient for Jesus to love us, but we sure do draw that line in the sand between the things, people, and actions that belong inside and those that should stay outside.
Don’t get me wrong though, there isn’t anything wrong with doing what is good and right. In fact, I suggest that we should. We should be aiming to be good, full of truth and integrity, and serve God and neighbour at every chance we get. But what I am saying is that this isn’t what makes us Jesus’ friends. Obedience isn’t what brings out Jesus’ affection for us. Jesus isn’t trying to manipulate us, using his friendship and salvation as bait.
Rather, Jesus says that he already calls us his friends. He says that he loves us before we could even decide to love him back or not. We don’t choose Jesus but Jesus chooses us.
It isn’t that Jesus sent us a friend request on social media before we did, or Jesus got to the coffee shop first and saved us a seat, or even that Jesus trusts us with his deep secrets, but rather Jesus defines friendship as a connection through the bond of love. To Jesus, a friend is someone who we love unconditionally, regardless of what secrets they have, what coffee they drink, or how cool of a cat they are. To Jesus, a friend is someone who we choose to invite and welcome into our lives, whether they accept that invitation or not. To Jesus, a friend is someone who we deem as worthy to potentially lay down our life for. And Jesus calls us friends.
No conditions. No requirements. No “or else” or “if than” language. Jesus calls us friends.
So him saying that we are his friends if we obey is commands is actually him saying that because we are his friends we will begin to love as he loves. His goodness and grace will rub off on us as we learn how to be good and how to love. His words will look less and less like orders that we must follow, but rather descriptions of what we will become. These are not requirements to be Jesus’ friends, but they are results of being Jesus’ friends.
Those of you with really keen eyes may have noticed that we’re singing “Joy to the World” as our sending hymn. And you might think that is weird seeing as how we’re in the Easter season, not Christmas. Actually, Joy to the World is an Advent hymn, but those lines have been so blurred anyway so whatever.
The reason we’re singing that hymn at the end of today’s service is because that hymn was actually written for today’s Psalm, Psalm 98. It uses the language around how God is the one who has done these good things, God is the one who comes to us, God is the one who has decided to love, to welcome, and to save. God loves us first, and we learn to love. God chooses us first, and we learn more about God’s grace and mercy. God saves us, and we just get saved.
Saved not just from this fire and brimstone scare tactic, but saves us from the loneliness we sometimes feel, the guilt that we sometimes get when we don’t feel “good enough”, the constant need to search for love and friendship in sometimes all the wrong places. Rather, God fills us with value and worth, reveals to us a love that does not end, and chooses us as friends.
So this is a call to be joyful. This is call to see and recognise all the good that God has done and continues to do for the sake of the world. This is a call embrace this love freely given to us, that we might grow and be strengthened to reflect that love unto all people, that we might not just welcome and accept, but invite and actively serve, helping others to see that they too are loved by this God that created us all. Praise and thanks be to God, for God is full of grace and mercy, the very embodiment of love, our dear friend.
As we come near to the end of this Easter season, this season when we are reminded of what it means that Christ has been resurrected for our sake, may we recognise, accept, and embrace this love that has been graciously offered to us, that we might be recreated as God’s children, revitalized to love ourselves, others, and God as God loves, and redefined as worth and valuable friends of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.