John 15:9-17/Acts 10:44-48
May 13, 2012/Mother’s Day
It was the first day of our Group Processing Class at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, otherwise known as PSCE. I had been mentally kicking myself for registering for the class since I walked through the door. Somehow I felt tricked, although I couldn’t figure out who had tricked me. I had been told by friends who had taken the course in past semesters that it was an important class. It would serve me well in my ministry. I would gain new insight into what made people act in the way they did, and I would gain new insight into what made me act in the way I do.
That last part put a nervous knot in the pit of my stomach; then as I was getting ready for the first day I found out that group process was not just a lecture, take notes and study for the final kind of class. No. We would be put into groups. We would have to figure out group process while we were literally in groups processing. The knot in my stomach grew exponentially when I heard that information. I realize that it sounds self-evident that group process would require work in groups, but as the old joke goes, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It was alive and well in me.
So it was the first day of class. Our professor, Gwen Hawley, had given us an overview of class expectations, grading, attendance, etc. We’d received a copy of our syllabus, and now Gwen asked for volunteers to give an example of what working in a group could be like. I did not raise my hand. But others did. We moved our chairs into a larger circle around the smaller circle of volunteers and watched as they tackled a decision making exercise together.
As I watched these people struggle to work together, I zeroed in on one particular person. I’ll call him Phil to protect his identity. I’ll put it plainly. I thought Phil was an idiot. He quickly became the clown. He was loud and opinionated and he talked over everyone else. I remember that the one thought going through my mind was, “Please don’t let him be in my group. Please don’t let him be in my group. Please don’t let him be in my group.”
Guess what? Our group assignments were made at the next class. Phil was right there. In my group. My best friend Ellen, who many of you met when she was here participating in my installation, was also in the class, but she wasn’t in my group. She told me that if I had so much resistance to the class than obviously I needed to be there. I took that as a challenge, so even with Phil in my group I decided to stick it out.
That is one decision that I’ve never regretted. Group process became one of my favorite of all the classes I took in seminary. At the end of the semester, Gwen Hawley asked me to be one of her teaching assistants, which meant that I had to take an Advanced Group class to prepare for it. I loved it! But what about Phil?
Phil and I actually became friends. I wouldn’t say that we became best friends or best friends forever, otherwise known as BFF’s. But working in that group with him gave me a chance to see another side of Phil. The process of forming a group forced us to see beyond our public faces, the personas we showed to the world. Phil and I became friends.
Phil and I haven't stayed lifelong friends. But I still have a great deal of respect for him and for his ministry. Seeing him as a friend is one of the many times I’ve been surprised by God and by the people God puts in my life.
That introductory group process class forced me to think outside the box in many ways – in leadership, collaboration, mediation and what a friend can mean. I learned to see Phil and the other people in my group outside of the box that I put them in when we first came together.
I realize that it’s probably a stretch to say that Jesus was telling the disciples to think outside the box when it comes to friendship. Although I do believe that Peter in our story from Acts was pushed to do just that. It is a rare event though to hear anything about friendship in scripture, so I wanted to take the opportunity to address it while I could.
I read a comment this week, from a fellow preacher, that friendship has been cheapened by social networking such as Facebook. If you have any connection to Facebook at all, you may have already realized that it’s very easy to be friends with people that you don’t have strong connections to, perhaps none really at all. I’m certainly guilty of that. I have “friends” on Facebook that I don’t know that well. Some of my “friends” on Facebook are people that I haven’t always liked that well. Some of the people I'm friends with on Facebook are people from high school who didn’t give me the time of day when we were actually in school together. Girls who didn't see me as part of their circle, and boys who wouldn't ask me out, now check in with me on Facebook. We weren't good friends then, but now we’re all one big happy Facebook family. Or at least that’s the image that’s portrayed. But we've all grown up now. We've all had our heartaches, and been through tough times. We don't put each other in the same categories or use the same labels anymore.
Maybe social networking has cheapened the idea of friendship, but in spite of that, I stay with it, because it’s also helped me connect with friends I thought I’d lost. And I do think more outside the box when it comes to friendship. There are people I’m friends with on Facebook that I wish I’d worked harder at being friends with when we interacted daily. They are intelligent, creative, funny people who lead interesting lives. I wish I had been more willing to really see these people as my friends once upon a time; to see them as children of God trying to figure out this life the same as I was. Facebook has helped me think outside the box when it comes to friendship.
As I said earlier, I know it may be a stretch to say that Jesus was telling his disciples to think differently about friendship, but calling them friends was in fact a sort of status change for them. They weren’t just disciples to a teacher or servants to a master, they were friends. But being friends to Jesus was more than just a label or category. It was a relationship in God with God. Friendship meant abiding in God as well as with one another. Friendship meant obeying commandments. And what was the number one commandment that Jesus gave? To love one another. You are my friends, you abide in me. I abide in the Father. We all abide together in love. So love one another as I have loved you. That is what I command. Love one another as I have loved you. And what does this kind of love look like? Love is laying down your life for your friends.
Obviously this is what Jesus does for his friends. But think about it. Jesus doesn’t just lay down his life for the disciples or the people of Galilee or the folks from his hometown of Nazareth. The cross was and the cross is for the world. Earlier in this gospel we hear the words “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” It is for the world that Jesus was willing to die. The cross was for the world. Jesus not only preached but lived sacrificial love. And that love was for the world. So if I’m not stretching the analogy too far then the world consists of Jesus’ friends, or at least all sorts of people that Jesus calls to be his friends.
In our text from Acts, Peter also gets a new understanding of what it means to be friends. The entirety of chapter 10 consists of Peter being forced to see through new eyes what it means to be clean and unclean, pure and impure. It starts with a centurion named Cornelius and Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals that by the standards of the Law were considered unclean. Peter wanted to obey the Law, to stick with what he knew and understood about what was right and what was wrong. But God insists through this vision that Peter see beyond the box that he previously dwelled in. This wasn’t just about clean and unclean food. This was about people. God called people, all kinds of people. Saul, who persecuted believers, was called. Cornelius, a Roman Centurion was called. And as we read in our particular part of the chapter, the Holy Spirit descended even upon Gentiles. In other words, a whole lot of people were called and answered the call to abide in God through Christ. A whole lot of different kinds of people were now friends.
I know that this goes beyond social networking and the shallow kinds of friendships that we experience on a daily basis. I know that we can’t befriend the entire world, nor are we necessarily called to. But I do think that these passages remind us of the fact that loving God means loving God’s people. And it seems to me that when we really seek to love God, we also seek to see God, to recognize God in the people we meet. Loving God means seeing a potential friend in all of God’s children. Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another as he loved them, to share in the friendship of that love. Peter realized that God, through love, was breaking down every barrier between people that humans constructed. When we love God, we love God’s people. It sounds easy, but we know for a fact how hard it can be. But we are called to try regardless. So let us give thanks for God’s love for us, love that pushes us and challenges us to see outside of the friendship box. And let’s give thanks that the world is quite literally filled with friends. Thanks be to God. Amen.