*Note: This was a sermon I wrote for Preaching class in May.*
Sermon on John 15:9-17
Whether you watched the live streaming or not, you’ve probably heard that General Conference this year was contentious. Various delegations and caucuses fought hard and passionately for policies that they believed in. In each of the many debates, faithful Methodists from both sides of each issue argued passionately. They stood for justice, for inclusion, for responsible stewardship of funds, for biblical truth, for love, and for the spreading of the gospel. But their views of these worthy principles often brought division rather than progress. Tempers got heightened. Feelings got hurt. People felt left out, degraded, and ignored. Delegates and visitors from both sides of the debates sometimes felt so un-cared for in the process of these discussions that some gave in to their anger and used hurtful words against their fellow United Methodists.
The hurt didn’t stop there. When voting on these contentious issues, the percentages voting for and against almost always hovered near 60% and 40%. This means that the same people kept voting for the same principles all the way through the week. On the one hand, this shows an admirable commitment to consistency in principles among our delegates. On the other hand, though, it indicates that the delegates were so committed to their own perspectives that they failed to listen to the other side. Not only does this mean that neither side was truly given a fair chance, but it also means that those who fell on the losing side were made to feel thoroughly disregarded—having been voted against over and over again. From my perspective as an observer, it seemed to me that few delegates were able to listen deeply enough to both sides of issues to be able to make a balanced decision. As a result, large numbers of United Methodists are feeling harmed by the decisions of our church. The church, which is called to be one body united in love, is broken. Parts of the body are hurting, at the expense of other parts of the body. And when one part of the body is broken, we all suffer.
In our text for today, Jesus knows about such brokenness. He and the disciples are going through a rocky time. A couple chapters earlier, Judas betrays Jesus, and Jesus predicts that Peter, too, will deny him. The disciples find themselves in a situation of disarray. They’ve experienced betrayal by one of their own. And now they have just heard of their beloved leader’s impending death. The disciples don’t know what’s ahead… What will happen when Jesus is gone? So they are afraid. This fear will soon cause them to scatter, when they witness Jesus’ arrest. In their fear of the unknown and their confusion about the future, they are unable to draw together as one body. They lose the close friendships that they had once had. Friendships built upon months and years of shared experiences: living, working, and learning together. But now in this moment of tension, they lose their bonds of friendship. Instead of drawing together during this difficult time, the disciples revert to their natural human tendency of self-preservation.
I believe that we all do this, especially in times of great tension or conflict. Sensing our distress, our mind shuts down and we go into survival mode. Unfortunately for those around us, survival mode is not configured to take others’ survival into account. Just our own. In our mindset of fear and defensiveness, we are prone to lash out at one another. To express ourselves without restraint, and thus hurt others terribly. At General Conference this year, people went into survival mode. Not all the time, by any means, but much more than any of us would have liked. It happened because people were afraid of what might happen. We fear changes to what’s familiar. We fear other people taking away our power, or our voice. We fear discrimination. We fear decisions that will crush the church. But our fear-motivated behaviors do much more harm than good. We hurt one another when we should be working together to come out of the difficult situation on the other side.
But fear is not the only response we can take. It may be the easiest and the most natural, but it is not the best. Even as he approaches his death, Jesus shows us another way. He continues caring for us and teaching us, even in a time when fear would normally reign. In this passage, Jesus is able to remain calm and composed even though everything around him is falling apart. He sees the disciples’ distress and fear. So he reminds them of the way that he has been teaching all along: the way of friendship. “Love one another as I have loved you…. You are my friends if you do what I command” (v. 12, 14). You are my friends, he says. This is the key. In times of distress, when our gut response is to adopt an attitude of self-preservation at the expense of others, we must pause before we act. Pause, so that we can remember that we are called to be friends. And instead of running away, or lashing out, we can act in love toward one another.
Granted, this is not easy to do. If it were easy, Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell us to do it. It takes courage and strength to be able to remain open and vulnerable in tough situations. When we love one another, we should receive love in return. However, sometimes we don’t. If the other person is still in survival mode, he or she might not be capable of returning our love just yet. This is why we must remember who it was who gave us this commandment. It was Jesus, who himself is our friend. Just as he was a good friend of each of the disciples, he has a personal relationship with every one of us. It was Jesus who brought the twelve disciples together to form a cohesive group. Each of them was drawn in because of Jesus’ loving and wise personality. And once the disciples got to know Jesus, they too were overflowing with love. As we know from the story, this love wasn’t always enough to keep them from acting selfishly. But it was enough to keep them coming back to Jesus, the source of their love.
For they were Jesus’ friends. In this passage, Jesus explains that we—as disciples—are no longer servants, but friends (v. 15). The word for “friends” in Greek is philoi, which means “those who are loved.” Our status as friends does not depend on us. It comes from Jesus, the one who first loved us. Even when other people are incapable or unwilling to return the love that we give them, Jesus is always—constantly—loving us already. He will never abandon our friendship and will always be waiting for us, ready to fill us again. As we heard last week, Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. The life energy of the branches comes through the vine. Likewise, our ability to love comes through Jesus. His love dwells within us and overflows, giving us the ability to build friendships with others.
In situations of theological, or ecclesial, disagreement such as General Conference, what would friendship even look like, anyway? How can thousands of Methodists, coming from all over the world, with all sorts of different beliefs and opinions, ever be friends?? It sounds impossible. But remember what we heard back in our Sunday School days: “Nothing is impossible with God.” We don’t have to be the vine; we are the branches. Our strength, and our love, do not come from ourselves. They come from Jesus, who abides within us. It’s quite normal to be afraid of such a great task. But we need not let that fear take over. As the author of 1 John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (4:18). Let us open ourselves to the possibility of Jesus’ love moving us out of an attitude of fear, and into an attitude of love.
I believe that we can live out Jesus’ command of friendship, even in groups as huge and divided as General Conference. This friendship will have to look different than friendship in a small group of people, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t genuine. One of the high points of my time at General Conference was a long conversation I had with a young man from the Congo. His name is Joe. He’s studying for an MDiv at Drew University and served as a French translator at General Conference. In my opinion, Joe was a walking, talking example for all of us of what friendship should look like in a place like General Conference. I remember noticing right away that there was something different about him. He was always smiling. Considering how grueling General Conference is, both for the body and the soul, that’s an amazing feat. As the rest of us were sitting passively in our chairs, trying to stay alert and do our various jobs, Joe was radiating joy. For his job, he had to constantly run around the room to get working headsets to the delegates who needed translation. Not to mention he was also taking turns with the other French translator to verbally translate everything that was said. It had to be exhausting work… but you wouldn’t know it just looking at him.
You see, Joe explained to me later that he just loves humanity. Every single person. No matter what they look like, or act like, or talk like, or think like. Joe loves them. It brings him joy to be able to help them, in this case through being a translator. In fact, because of his knowledge of both English and French, he became somewhat of a bridge between the American and African delegates. African delegates would approach him to learn more about the American perspective, and American delegates would ask him about the African perspective. His smiling face and loving demeanor made people want to talk to him. Not only talk to him, but imitate him. His joy was truly contagious. He brightened the mood of those around him and helped us all remember something important: we’re all human beings. We’re not “liberals” or “conservatives” or “Americans” or “Africans.” We’re all children of God, called to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
When we think of one another as fellow human beings, fellow children of God, and fellow disciples of Jesus Christ, it becomes easier to act in love toward one another. To put it another way, we need to focus on what we have in common instead of fixating on our differences. At General Conference, we all came to the discussion table with our minds already set. We had agendas, vested interests, and personal stakes in what would be decided. So we were already geared up to convince “them” that our side was right. From the get-go, we saw one another as members of factions, not as one united body in Christ. It’s no wonder people got hurt and the body was broken; we never truly gave unity a chance.
This is where Joe’s example is so helpful. Joe came into General Conference as a liaison between different groups. His translating interpreted our words, but his conversations with various delegates were able to help us interpret our different perspectives. Instead of coming to General Conference with a legislative agenda, Joe came with the goal of loving and serving people—no matter which side of the issues they were on. For those of us fortunate enough to get to talk with him, the conversation was a breath of fresh air in the midst of highly charged strategy sessions and debates. Because of his experiences of having talked with people on all sides, he was able to remind all of us of the humanity in those with whom we disagree. Instead of seeing them solely as enemies or opponents, we can start to see them as well-meaning people with their own sets of fears.
Joe’s very presence in the room was a reminder of the goodness in humanity. His smiling face, a reminder that there is still joy in life. In the midst of tough debates, the sight of a genuine and honest smile is like salve on our wounds. Yes, we have reason to fear. We have reason to hurt. But we also have a God who comes to us in Jesus and fills us with love. Our God brought resurrection out of bitter death. How much more, then, can God bring love and goodness out of our human struggles to agree!
Granted, this General Conference was far from a resounding success. But we have four more years to prepare for the next one. And during those four years, it is more important than ever that we live out Jesus’ commandment to love one another in friendship. Friendship does not come instantaneously, and it certainly does not come through debate. Friendship comes through commonality. All of us who are involved in General Conference have at least two things in common: First, we are part of the United Methodist Church; and second, we are loved by Jesus Christ. Let us start here. Let us go about these next four years making friends with people on all sides of the theological and cultural spectrums. We need to build up these relationships so that they are strong enough to hold up in times of important decision-making. Such times of crisis put strains on relationships, as Jesus knew very well. So we need to remember what he told his disciples in their time of crisis: “Love one another.” We must leave agendas and self-preservation at the door, and just get to know one another as fellow people of God. As fellow friends of Jesus Christ, who are loved first by him so that we can also love one another.
 Gail R. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.