A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon (May 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Friends"

    One of the words that really jumps out at me from our Gospel reading is the word, “friends.” Jesus uses this word to describe his relationship with his disciples. He tells them, “You are my friends.”
     Even though we might be familiar with this scripture, if asked to describe our relationship with God, I wonder if the word, “friend” would be near the top of the list. In referring to our relationship with God, we might say, “Savior” or “Lord” or some other religious word, but I wonder if “friend” would be near the top of the list.
     Maybe, we are hesitant to refer to God as our friend because it’s not an even playing field. I mean, God is God, and we are, well, we’re just human beings. Humans can be friends with each other but is it possible to be friends with God?
     One of my good friends who is also a pastor was selected to be a District Superintendent last year. A District Superintendent oversees an area that includes over a hundred churches. They are in a position of authority over pastors who are serving churches in their geographical area.
     My friend and I started out in ministry together. In fact, we both started in pastoral ministry at the same time. He was the first person I met when I arrived at seminary back in 1985. We kind of hit if off and have enjoyed getting together over the years.
     Since we have served churches that have been within driving distance, we have often met halfway for lunch just to stay in touch. We have enjoyed our friendship over these many years.
     When he became a District Superintendent last year, he came up to me at a clergy gathering and said, “Hey, I just want you to know that I hope we continue our friendship even though my role has changed.”
     He said that when he went to District Superintendent training, one of the things they told the new superintendents was that pastors would begin to see them in a whole new light because of their position. They told him to not be surprised if their friends in pastoral ministry would shy away from them because they were now in a more authoritarian role.
     So my friend said to me, “Let’s not let that happen to us. Let’s still get together and continue our friendship.” And so, after I bowed down and kissed his ring, I said, “Whatever you desire, most holy District Superintendent. I am your humble servant.”
     It is kind of strange to see my friend in the same way now that he holds this new position of authority. I notice that I’m now a little more reluctant to say just whatever pops into my mind when I’m with him, which is probably a good thing!
     So when Jesus tells us that we are his friends, while that might sound nice, we still might feel a little awkward. Even though Jesus was just as human as we are, he was also the full embodiment of God. Again, not quite a level playing field.
     But then when I think about it, Jesus and the disciples spent three years together. That’s a lot of time to get to know someone. They traveled together. They ate together.
     If we could read between the lines of the gospel accounts, I’m sure they told jokes, they laughed, they cried, and they just spent time getting to know each other. They would have been there for each other, but like any relationship, there would have been challenging times for them as well.
     That’s what friendship means. It means being in a relationship of shared experiences that includes the good times as well as the bad times.

     The twelve disciples also had different interests and backgrounds. One was known as a Zealot which probably meant that he was very anti-Roman Empire. Another disciple had been a tax collector for the Roman Empire. You couldn’t have had two people at more opposite ends of the political spectrum in 1st Century Israel and yet they were part of this inner circle of friendship with Jesus.
     I think this is why Jesus reminds the disciples that they didn’t choose him, but he chose them. Isn’t that a strange thing about friendships? Friends don’t always have a lot in common.
     I mean, I like Penn State and you still like me, right? We can still be friends, right? OK, maybe I’m pushing this friendship thing a little too far.
     When Jesus is referring to the disciples as his friends, he’s not saying that they all have the same opinions. He is referring to their shared relationship with God. That was the glue of their relationship. That’s what they had in common and that’s all they really needed to be friends. They belonged to God and they were on a shared mission of establishing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
     I guess you can say that shared interests and hobbies are overrated. There are more important things that help to form a friendship.

     Many of you know that my brother is an ordained Deacon in the United Methodist Church and over the years, we have attended continuing education events together from time to time. One year, we were at a conference in Cincinnati. And we were on the hotel elevator on our way to the next session.
     Another pastor got on the elevator with us, and my brother said, “You look really familiar. I think we met before. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name.” And then my brother said to this person, “You know, I think we were at a seminar in whatever city a couple of years ago and we were in a discussion group together.”
     This other person nodded in agreement and said, “Yes, I remember. You’re a Music Director at a church in Pennsylvania. I remember that we shared all about our ministries with each other. Yeah, now I remember. We talked about our personal lives and we prayed together. How’s your mother doing? Did you ever get that college age ministry started?”
     As I listened to this conversation, I just started to laugh because only at a church continuing education event would complete strangers share such deep and personal information with each other in a short amount of time. But that’s the way it is in the church. People who have never met before can instantly become friends all because Christ helps us to share at a deep and meaningful level.
     Do you know why that is? I’ve been thinking about this. The reason that people in the church can go from strangers to becoming friends in just a few minutes is because Jesus makes that possible. Jesus has shown us what it means to be fully human. Jesus has shown us what it means to be in relationship with God. Jesus has shown us what it means to be in relationship with one another.
     Our common denominator is Jesus. What makes us friends is Jesus.
     Yes, silly icebreaker games can help people who have never met before get acquainted and we can take turns sharing our favorite color with each other. But what makes all the difference in the world is when we share our faith with each other. It’s when we share together in the spiritual journey of being the people that God has called us to be.
     The biblical Greek word for fellowship is the word, “koinonia.” It means to share in common. In the church, we share Christ in common. We have been brought together because of Christ. We have become friends in Christ.
     That’s why we can be Democrats and Republicans. Old and Young. Classical Music and Rock & Roll. Rich and Poor. Long-Term Church Member and New Christian. Ham Loaf Lovers and Non-Ham Loaf Lovers. In the big picture, those distinctions pale in comparison to our shared connection through Jesus Christ our Lord.

     In one of the churches I served we hosted Chrysalis weekend retreats for youth. Chrysalis is the youth version of the Emmaus weekend where approximately thirty people who don’t know each other come together over a long weekend to experience the love of God through fifteen inspiring talks on the Christian faith, table group discussions, very moving worship services, incredible food and snacks, and new friendships.
     These thirty or so people come from different churches, different denominations, and different walks of life. When you arrive for one of these weekends, you are told when you arrive to not share with others what you do for a living. They don’t want people to form opinions based on what people do for a living.
     When I attended an Emmaus weekend back in 1990, I wasn’t allowed to share with people that I was a pastor. They put you into small table groups with like 5 or 6 other people for the weekend, but you don’t share what you do for a living until the end of the weekend experience.
     I remember on the last day of the weekend when we were finally allowed to share with each other what we do for a living, one of the men who I had gotten to know in my table group said, “There is no way that you are a pastor. No way!” I took that as a compliment.
     If you’re interested in attending one of these weekends, please let us know here at the church and we’ll help you get signed up. They’re held on certain weekends during the year so the important thing is to fill out a registration form and get on the list to be considered for an upcoming weekend.
     Like I was saying, one of the churches that I served hosted Chrysalis weekends each year. It was a huge commitment to host these weekends because of all the work that went into getting these weekends ready.
     Our part-time financial secretary at the time was a lady in her mid 80s and her name was Florence. She had attended an Emmaus weekend and had such a wonderful experience on her weekend that she agreed to be the registrar for our youth Chrysalis weekends.
     She would attend the closings of these weekends and the youth got to know her through those gatherings. She also was instrumental in getting the youth of our church to sign up to attend Chrysalis.
     Florence was probably responsible for getting over half of our youth to attend one of these weekends while I served there as pastor and they just loved her. She was a like a grandmother figure for not only our youth but also for the youth who attended Chrysalis weekends from the many other churches.
     While I was serving there as pastor, Florence died unexpectedly. It took us all by surprise. Our church’s grandmother like figure had passed away.
     I conducted the funeral for Florence and it’s one that I will never ever forget. There were probably thirty-five or so youth who attended her service that day.
     These were youth, who because of Florence, now had a relationship with Jesus Christ. These were youth who because of Florence, had felt loved, encouraged and accepted in the life of the church. They were youth from many different churches and denominations, some who previously attended no church, but because of her, were now attending church every Sunday.
     Now I ask you. How can it be that over thirty teenagers wanted to attend a funeral service for a woman in her late 80’s? How can that be?
     I know why. It’s because Jesus said that we are his friends. We are his friends because we share in his love.
     Whenever I think about Florence, I am reminded that God’s love is like a mother’s love. It’s a love that welcomes us. It’s a love that can bring people who have never met before and make them friends.

     Thanks be to God!

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