Sixth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b, 2021
ACTS 10:44-48; PSALM 98; 1 JOHN 5:1-6; JOHN 15:9-17

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.

There’s something a bit odd hidden in this week’s reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus says to his disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Does that sound right to you? It sounds odd to me. I don’t usually imagine myself obedient to my friends. My boss? Sure. My bishop? Theoretically. But obedient to a friend? Is obedience really a prerequisite to friendship Enjoyment of one another, and a sense of mutuality, most certainly. But obedience? Not so much.

Nevertheless, this is how Jesus describes our relationship with him—as an obedient friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you, says Jesus.

Last week I preached a bit on another two other conflicting images in John’s Gospel: on the one hand, we are the branches on the vine that is Jesus, and the Father is the vinegrower who prunes the branches. The implication there is that, though we may sometimes be tempted to pick up the pruning shears and decide which branches are fit to prune, that this is not for us to do.

On the other hand, in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a good shepherd caring for a flock, where Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the ones cared for. But in this instance, John is more willing to imagine that the Christian community does have shepherds who are called to be good shepherds. And that sometimes this does mean protecting the flock from the wolf, from that which is opposed to life in its fulness.

In that case of these conflicting images of the church, I wasn’t sure if these two could be reconciled. And so we are left to sometimes take a deep breath and act, and sometimes to take a deep breath and refrain from acting—each time with humility and a prayer for wisdom.

The reason I say this again today is that this kind of layering, this kind of combining of different images is something that we find elsewhere in John’s Gospel—including today. This week we have Jesus describing our relationship with him in terms of friendship, and of obedience—and it’s made me wonder what we might discover if we spent some time reflecting this apparent contradiction.

The New Testament most often describes our relationships with God, and Jesus, and one another, as family. Jesus is the Son of the Father, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we are sons and daughters of God by adoption, Christ is our brother. We are much more used to imagining these sorts of relationships as ones where we might be obedient. We are obedient to parents, and to elder siblings, for a good portion of our lives. We trust them, usually; and do as asked, usually. Because we have learned that they have our best interests in mind. And when we experience the opposite, where our parents don’t have our best interests in mind or are neglectful, and we lose trust, we know this to be deeply dysfunctional and damaging.

But friendship is a bit different. Friendship isn’t so much about obedience, but mutuality, and even freedom. Friendships don’t come with the same sort of obligation we feel to family. Which in many ways makes friendship so enjoyable, because we serve our friends and do as they ask with a sense of freedom, and without the same sense of obedience, as we often do with family.

So how do we make sense out of what Jesus says here? “You are my friends,” says Jesus, “if you do what I command you.”

There’s a hint in what Jesus says a few verses down: “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.” As the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas grapples with this question, in this same passage—the relationship between friendship and obedience—he points out that we may be obedient to Jesus, but it’s not a blind obedience. Jesus is not a distant master who asks things of his servants that the servants don’t understand.

So our obedience to Jesus is much like the obedience we feel towards a good parent—the parent we trust, the parent we know has our best interests in mind when they ask us to do, or not do something. And even more so than a parent, God has made known his saving purpose for us in Jesus, Jesus expresses his Father’s desire that we have life, and have it abundantly. So we believe in Jesus, we trust in Jesus. And this knowledge leads us, quite naturally, to the desire to do as he commands.

But this relationship also has the character of friendship; that is, we aren’t obligated to do what Jesus asks. We choose to, which means there’s still a kind of freedom in this kind of obedience. And so we can be both a friend of, and obedient to Jesus—because knowing that God’s saving work is in Christ, and that we love and trust Jesus on account of this knowledge, we choose to follow Jesus and do as he asks.

There is something else that is distinct about the sort of friendship about which Jesus speaks: “No one has greater love than this,” says Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We’ve heard this last week about the Good Shepherd—“The good shepherd,” says Jesus, “lays down his life for the sheep.”

This gives us insight into Christian leadership, where Christian leadership takes on a sacrificial character. (Much more could be said about the pitfalls of imagining Christian leadership this way—perhaps we should say again, at least, that this would not be a sacrifice that leads to death. If it is to be truly sacrificial, it would be costly, yes; but it would also, necessarily, lead to the fulness of life.)

But here, Jesus speaks of the “greatest love” as laying down one’s life for a friend. Making all Christian relationships potentially sacrificial in character. It’s not just leaders who make sacrifices for others. Rather we are all called to make sacrifices for each other, mutually and reciprocally. As friends do so for one another.

Laying down one’s life can be done for a friend, and to do so makes it the greatest kind of love, and a love we see most fully and completely in Jesus, the Good Shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep, and in Jesus, the friend who lays down his life, that we might not die, but have life abundantly.

The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons