**An Artist’s Canvas by Stacey Zimmerman, A Painting Inspired by Friendship: Birds of a Feather
Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 9, 2021
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
John 15:12-17 [Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
At some point in high school, my daughter noticed that a lot of people described their moms as their best friend. (A relevant aside, I always ask my kids before they show up in a sermon.) Somewhere in that chat about moms being best friends, she and I talked about our own relationship and whether we would describe it that way. I don’t remember the details, but we both remember me saying something like, “You have a lot of friends, but you only have one Mom, it’s important to me that I’m your Mom more than your friend.” The topic came up again recently as she wraps up college. She asked if I thought my answer about our friendship was different now. My conversation with my daughter is timely as Mother’s Day converges with Jesus’ speech to his disciples about being friends with him. Friendship back in Jesus’ day meant something specific. Friendship in the First Century meant direct speak and bold action absent of flattery or distracting social tics. Ultimate friendship also included a noble death on behalf of the friend in both classical and popular philosophy back in Jesus’ day. John’s readers would have understood this definition of ultimate friendship. When Jesus talked about the greatest love exemplified in the one who would lay down one’s life for one’s friend, he was naming a widely accepted moral claim. Curiously, Jesus is not referred to as “friend” in the Gospel of John. He alternately refers to himself as the Son of Man, the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, AND the vine. He doesn’t say, “I AM the friend.” And his disciples don’t call him friend. He names the disciples as his friends when they love each other as he loves them. He defines the greatest love as being willing to lay down one’s life down for a friend. And then he walks the bold talk all the way to the cross. He launched the disciples into friendship modeled on his own friendship with them. Which brings us to Jesus’ friend Peter in the Acts reading today. Taking place well after the crucifixion and resurrection, this short reading is a fragment of the longer Cornelius’ story, the Italian centurion. Read his full story in Acts 10 and 11 this week. He was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who was a God-fearer associated with a Jewish synagogue. Cornelius invited Jesus’ friend Peter to come and teach at his home in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea. This means that Cornelius and his household weren’t just Gentiles, they were really, really Gentiles. And he had invited his friends and relatives to listen to Peter’s teaching so there were A LOT of Gentiles there. According to Jewish custom, eating with Gentiles was prohibited. There are visions and prayers and angels in the longer story that clarify the contradictions. Suffice it to say that Peter was divinely directed to this party. It was a party thrown in Peter’s honor and, like any good preacher, he didn’t waste his opportunity to say a few words. He preached about Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone listening…” The story says that the circumcised believers who had come to Caesarea with Peter “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” It was a wild moment. They couldn’t believe their eyes, nor could they have foreseen that this was where friendship with Jesus was taking them. Except that wasn’t true for everyone. Peter, yes, the same Peter who bumbled his way through many a Gospel story before Jesus’ death, seems to have finally caught up with Jesus’ agenda. Peter’s question about withholding baptismal water from the Gentiles was rhetorical. Of course, the baptisms would happen. But that’s not where the trouble brewed anyway. It’s what happened after the baptisms that got everyone’s knickers in a knot. It’s that last quiet verse in our reading as chapter ten ends. “Then they invited [Peter] to stay for several days.” If we keep reading just a few verses into Chapter 11, we get to the crux of the matter. Peter went up to Jerusalem and was criticized by the Jesus’ followers there – not for baptizing the Gentiles, but for going to the Gentiles and eating with them. Hospitality moved in both directions at different parts of the story. Early on, Peter invited Cornelius’ messengers in and gave them lodging. In our verses today, Cornelius and friends invited Peter to stay for several days. Peter was the kind of friend to Cornelius that Jesus encouraged the disciples to be – walking the talk and boldly widening the circle despite what other people assumed were the natural limits of the circle. I did answer my daughter’s question, by the way. When she asked if my answer about our friendship was different now than it was in high school. I said, “yes,” that as she’s moved into adulthood, it’s become more mutual. Though the truth remains that I’m still her mother. There’s simultaneous mutuality and hierarchy. Before anyone gets antsy, I’m in no way saying that my relationship with my daughter is like Jesus’ friendship with the disciples. I am definitely NOT like Jesus and she would be the first to tell you that she is NOT my disciple. But there is a parallel, albeit limited, in my mother/daughter example that helps us get at the simultaneous hierarchy of Jesus as the Messiah AND the mutuality of Jesus as our friend. Man, I would love to have been in those original conversations with Jesus and his disciples – to see him boldly walk the talk, to hear his instructions firsthand, to wonder about his teachings with the other disciples who were just as lost in his ministry as I was, to hear him call me friend. Not to sentimentalize it, just to capture what those moments might have been like. Imagine that with me. There are moments in various conversations with you all that are hints of what that experience must have been like. The church is, after all, the body of Christ. We are Easter people who support, encourage, and pray for each other when it’s neither easy nor convenient. We hold each other in faith when one of us struggles to get comfortable with doubt. We work together with neighbors on problems in the community hoping that we’re on the right track. In our various ways, we lay down our lives because Jesus first loved us as friends and continues to love us still. The mutuality of friendship is a wonder, located in the middle of Jesus’ farewell to his friends. Made all the more poignant because he’s shared his final meal with them, he’s suffered the betrayal of Judas, and he’s anticipating Peter’s denial. In the midst of sorrow, his command to love, woven with his friendship, is the foundation of joy. Jesus infuses the mutuality with joy in the sorrow of saying goodbye. He said to his friends, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Love and joy are complete in us through the friend we have in Jesus, and through the friendship by which he widens the circle of his love and binds us together in his name.