Seaside, Florida is a small town that was founded in 1981. It is a planned community, perhaps as planned as any community has ever been, and is intended as a throwback to what small towns used to be. Seaside was built with 350 homes and plans for no further residential development. The idea was that Seaside would be a place where folks would visit one another, know their neighbors, walk to the store - that it would be a clean, quiet, safe place, and that a sense of community would prevail. The houses all have porches that are set exactly 16 feet from the sidewalk - close enough that porch-sitters can speak to passersby.
Commercial and retail and residential properties are mixed together. Bike paths and walking paths abound – there is less dependence on vehicles in Seaside. Everyone in town can walk to the grocery or post office in 5 minutes or less. There are no cul-de-sacs; every street is a through street so there are no arterial streets with heavy traffic. And most streets end at the ocean. Some of you may remember the movie “The Truman Show” from several years ago. The movie is set in what is an artificially perfect small town, and the movie was filmed in Seaside.
It sounds very nice, but for some, Seaside looks a lot like a haven for white flight, a kind of novelty community for rich people escaping the city. The fact that it has a lot more fancy restaurants and beautiful resorts and interesting, trendy shops than your average community of 350 homes might give some credence to those reports.
Nevertheless, the idea of a place where you don’t have to fight traffic and you know the neighbors and the streets are safe and everyone gets along is very appealing.
What Seaside and other communities like it are marketing, in a sense, is community. They are appealing to our desire for friendship. They don’t come right out and say, “Move to our town and we will be your friend,” but it seems the kind of place where friendships are more likely, more possible.
And this appeals to us because we are facing a shortage of friendship. We have colleagues and co-workers and classmates and neighbors and acquaintances and Facebook friends, but most of us, if we are honest, are not just swamped with deep friendships.
Our text from John’s gospel is a part of Jesus’ instruction given to his disciples on the Thursday night before he was arrested. In fact, we read this passage on Maundy Thursday. These are some of the last words Jesus shared with his disciples before the cross. And he speaks to them concerning relationships—with him and with one another.
He speaks of the centrality of love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus’ last word to his followers is love. And if love is the last word, there are several related words and themes that explain what this love is like.
One is permanence. “…Abide in my love,” Jesus says. Remain rooted in my love. If this sounds familiar, it is because in last week’s passage, Jesus also said, “Abide in me.” For Jesus, this abiding, continuing, rock-solid love is crucial. We are to hold fast to the sure and simple knowledge that we are loved by God and nothing can change that. God’s love for us is abiding, and when we abide in God’s love, it affects everything else in life.
To abide in God’s love is to trust God and turn to God and live in God’s presence even in the difficult times. We don’t run at the first sign of trouble. We can live with doubt and ambiguity and face trying circumstances and yet remain in an intimate relationship with God because we know God loves us. “Abide in my love,” Jesus says.
There is also a sacrificial quality to God’s love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus did just that, laying down his life for us, his friends, and in doing so Jesus set the example for us.
There is a story from the Holocaust that demonstrates the sacrificial love in which Christ calls us to live. In her book Conscience and Courage, Eva Fogelman writes:
People in hiding got sick and it required what seemed like crazy actions to get them well. You could not call in a doctor to help a sick Jew. And you could not bury one who died. That person was not supposed to exist.There is a friend with an abiding, sacrificial love.
In 1942, Wladyslaw Misiuna, a teenager from Poland, was recruited by the Germans to help inmates at the concentration camp start a rabbit farm to supply furs for soldiers at the Russian front. Misiuna felt responsible for the thirty young women he supervised. He stuffed his coat pockets with bread, milk, carrots and potatoes and smuggled in food for them.
But one day, one of his workers, Deborah Salzberg, contracted a mysterious infection. Misiuna was beside himself. He knew if the Germans discovered the open lesions on her arms they would kill her. He had to cure her, but how? He took the simplest route. He infected himself with her blood and when the lesions appeared, he went to a doctor in town. The doctor prescribed a medication, which Misiuna then shared with Deborah Salzberg. Both were cured and both survived the war.
Laying one’s life down for one’s friend can happen in different ways. Ralph Milton reminisces about his father:
Dad was a teacher. He taught high school, and one of the boys in that high school, a classmate of mine, was (to be very politically correct) socially challenged… Stan (not his real name, of course) was royally messed up. He needed help, and needed it badly.Ralph Milton said, “Whenever I look for a definition of the practical love that Jesus was talking about, I think of my dad’s love for Stan.”
Stan’s dad was chair of the school board, and hence my dad’s boss. One day Stan’s dad came by our house in that tiny Manitoba town. I was in the shed fixing my bike, so I overheard the conversation he had with my dad, who was outside in the garden.
Stan’s dad wanted to talk about my dad’s chickens, which we kept to supplement that meager teacher’s salary. My dad wanted to talk about Stan. Several times, my dad introduced the subject of Stan’s problems. Several times, Stan’s dad changed the subject to the chickens. Finally my dad lost his patience. “You are more interested in my chickens than in your own son!” he blurted out. Stan’s dad turned on his heels and left. That night, dad was called to a special meeting of the school board. He was fired.
When he came home from that meeting, after telling mom what happened, he went and wrote a long letter to Stan’s dad. Not about being fired. About Stan. “The boy will wind up in jail,” said my dad. And he was right. That’s exactly where Stan wound up.
The love Jesus is describing here, an abiding love, a sacrificial love, is very practical. It is not mere sentimentality, but desiring and working for the very best for the other.
It is exemplified in true friendship. We are to be such friends to each other, and amazingly, Jesus has called us friend. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.”
There is a world of difference between a servant and a friend. It is the difference between obligation and love. It is the difference between involvement and detachment. A servant, a hired hand, just does the job and that’s it. There is no deep personal investment. But a friend is vitally involved and has a deep concern for what happens.
There was a contest involving a young female pop music star. High school guys could enter this contest and if they won, this singer would come and sing at their high school prom and be their date for the evening.
I’m sure that this sounded like a great prize for a number of high school boys. Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t. This singer showed up but that is about all that can be said. She half-heartedly sang two songs, showed little enthusiasm, and didn’t give her “date” the time of day. She didn’t talk to him and wanted nothing to do with him. She was there because she was obligated to be there and the promotion helped to sell records.
He would have been better off with a friend.
To be a friend involves mutuality. To be friends places two on equal footing. Which makes it all the more amazing that Jesus has called us friend.
This is not the first we hear of such a thing in the Bible. In Exodus, we read that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend,” and in Isaiah, God speaks of “Abraham, my friend.”
Frederick Buechner says that “not even God can be a friend by himself apparently. You see Abraham, say, not standing at all but sitting down, loosening his prayer shawl, trimming the end of his cigar. He is not being Creature for the moment, and God is not being Creator. There is no agenda. They are simply being together, the two of them, and being themselves.
And it is not simply a privilege for the patriarchs. Jesus says, “I have called you friend.” Friendship with Jesus, requires a mutual relationship. Jesus could run the show and we could be the servants, the hired hands, and maybe that’s the way we would prefer to think of Christian faith. It’s easier that way. It requires a lot less of us. We have less invested. But for whatever reason, Jesus places trust in us and calls us friends.
We relate to Jesus not out of obligation, but out of love, and rather than being detached, we are intimately involved in God’s work in this world. God has placed trust in us. God has called us friend.
Jesus says that we are his friends if we do what he commands, which at first doesn’t sound like friendship at all—what kind of conditional friendship is this? But then we look at what he commands: love one another. That’s it. That’s the new commandment. That’s the great commandment. We love Jesus as we love one another. Our friendship with Jesus grows as our friendship with one another grows.
Leonard Sweet says “the greatest decision facing the 21st-century church is whether it will function as a law-based community of faith or as a grace-based community of love. Will we be defined by some carefully articulated, theologically sophisticated, logically delineated ‘Articles of Faith?’ Or will the church welcome its role as a living, breathing, healing, helping organism known for its ‘Acts of Love?’”
The story is told of a man who died and went to hell. His family and friends formed a committee to enlist influential people to go to the iron gates of hell and plead for his release. His pastor was the first emissary to go. He stood at the iron gates and shouted to Satan, “Open the gates and let him out. He was a pretty good church member. He never missed an Easter or Christmas service. He always put a dollar in the offering plate when he was in church. He was a good man. Open the gates and let him out!” The gates of hell did not move.
Next they sent his golfing partner, who explained what a good golfer he had been. He was excellent with the fairway irons, he observed proper golf etiquette, didn’t cheat much, and he let faster groups play through. His golfing partner cried to Satan, “Open the gates and let him out.” The gates did not budge. Several other influential people went to hell to plead his case and ask Satan to let him out, but to no avail.
Frustrated, the man’s mother charged down to hell, yelling “Open the gates and let my son out, or I’m coming in!” The iron gates opened.
You didn’t think that I would forget that today is Mother’s Day, did you? Today is a good day to give thanks for those who would charge the gates of hell for us. I got out my Greek Bible this week, which I really hate to do because I am so rusty at it, but the word translated “friends” here is a form of the verb “to love.” When Jesus speaks of those who would lay down their lives for their friends, it could be more literally translated “lay down their lives for those whom they love.” Now, who would lay down their very life for one whom they love? Many of us think of our mothers, who in a very real sense lay down their lives for their children in all of the ways they give of themselves for us.
Yesterday we had a work day here at church. We got a lot of work accomplished. I was trimming the bushes in the front yard. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but some of them have gotten pretty tall. I was on a ladder cutting back the top of an overgrown bush when I noticed a bird nest. It looked to be in pretty good shape and I wondered if it was occupied. There were some leaves on top from the hedge trimmer and I pulled them back to reveal a pile of nearly featherless babies – they must have been just a couple of days old.
I was surprised that I hadn’t been attacked. Then, I noticed a robin on the rail by the window well nearby. And then I saw her again on the edge of the roof, right above the nest, where she hung out most of the morning. We ran a chain saw and hedge trimmers, Jon had a blower vac cleaning out window wells, Bob and Joe were cleaning out gutters, there was a lot of noise, a lot of commotion, but through it all, that mother was looking out for her babies – like a lot of human mothers.
Abiding, sacrificial love.
Jesus says, “I have called you friends,” but it is really even deeper than that. “I have called you my beloved ones,” he says. We are beloved by Jesus, and his instruction to us is clear: love one another. Love one another. It is that easy. It is that hard. Amen.