Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   B 

About five years ago, we started noticing a “peeping tom” hanging around the rectory.  He was a resident of Vale Haven next door who began repeatedly standing outside our kitchen window: smoking his cigarette, drinking his coffee, and looking in.  He seemed harmless enough, so we didn’t worry about it too much.  And then one day, when this had been going on for awhile, as I stood at the kitchen sink looking out, I decided to wave.  The man waved back, and then scurried away. I thought, “There.  That’s the end of it.  He knows he’s been caught.”

But he came back. And he kept coming back. Because now, he wouldn’t leave until somebody waved at him.  In time, we got to know his name; I’ll call him, “Ralph.”  And we realized that Ralph wasn’t some sort of creep. Ralph was just lonely and looking for some human contact.

We knew that Ralph was innocent, but his presence did make life interesting at times.  Like whenever we had overnight guests staying on the first floor: “So don't be alarmed when you see a man standing outside your bedroom window…”  Or like the day one of us walked in and found him in church…sitting with his coffee in the presider’s chair.  Or like the night someone saw him out front and called the cops: “No, don’t worry, officer.  We know Ralph.  He peeks in our windows all the time!”

Understandably, we’re all rather uncomfortable with idea of someone watching us in our private moments.  But if you think about it, modern society thrives on this very thing.  It used to be that we’d pry into the lives of the rich and famous, curious about what celebrities do behind the scenes.  But now, with things like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where people are constantly posting personal photos, videos, and messages, you can spy on anyone—family, friend, or stranger—from anywhere at any time.

But all this virtual people-watching comes with a danger—and not just to our privacy.  It gives us a false sense of intimacy.  We can exchange quick messages and get a steady stream of visual updates from long-lost cousins or old college roommates…but without making any truly human contact.  We call lots and lots of people “friends”…but without doing the hard, messy work of friendship.  We know very personal details about their lives…but without actually getting involved in them.  We can watch from a safe distance and never have to take the risks required of entering into a relationship.

Our gospel today picks up right where we left off last Sunday, as Jesus told us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Jesus speaks these words on the night before he dies—at the Last Supper. They’re a pretty clear indication of the lasting bond—the deep communion—that he hopes to establish with those who come to eat and drink at his table.  And it is at this same meal that Jesus gets down on his knees and washes his Apostles' feet.  Based on many Holy Thursdays, I can tell you first hand: that’s a pretty up close and personal experience!  But now, just in case we didn’t understand him, Jesus comes right out and says: “You are my friends.”

Let that sink in for a moment: God himself, the Creator of heaven and earth, Almighty Ruler of the entire universe, has chosen you to be his friend.

You see, the Lord was not willing to be a celestial “peeping tom,” as if watching humanity through a window or on a little glowing screen.  He wouldn’t stay off at a safe distance.  That’s because the God we believe in—one God in three Persons: the Most Blessed Trinity—is defined within himself by relationship: the Father eternally loves the Son, and the Son eternally loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is their eternal love for each other. Love isn’t just something that God does; God is love.

And God made us in his very own image and likeness.   When he was creating the world and everything in it, he looked upon the sun and the moon, the water and the land, the plants and the animals and man, and saw that it was all good.  There’s only one thing that God said wasn’t good: “It isn’t good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).  We were made for relationship; we were made for love.

In the fullness of time, God came to dwell among us—came in our own flesh and blood.  It’s hard to get much more intimate than that! And in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God opened up his heart to us.  God made himself incredibly vulnerable—literally loving us to death.  God did that so that we might know and love him—up close and personal.  But even more, it was so that God could know and love us—from the inside out.

In Jesus Christ, God has extended to you the ultimate friend request, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”  God has chosen you, knowing everything about you—good and bad.

The question is, are you willing to take the risk of truly entering into this relationship?  Are you ready to say yes to being friends with God?

There are a few things you ought to know about this friendship before diving in.

First, you need to know that Jesus is not a friend like the others.  He tells us that he won’t be the sort of friend (unworthy of the name) who’s only looking out for what’s best for himself.  Such a person isn’t looking for a friend; he’s looking for a servant, a slave.  A true friend, we know, only wants what’s best for you.  It’s a great comfort when you have friends like that who’ve got your back.  But Jesus doesn’t only want what’s best for you; he knows what’s best for you.  That’s why he can say, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Just imagine someone else saying, “We can only be friends if you let me tell you what to do!”  No, Jesus isn’t being pushy…but his friendship is demanding: it demands complete trust—trust that he always wants and knows what is best for us.

And you need to know that this friendship can never just be about “me and Jesus.”  “This I command you: love one another.”  Loving our fellow Christians is not an optional part of the deal.  Jesus doesn’t say, “I suggest that you all try to get along”; he says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”  In our “peeping tom” culture, we often settle for an easier substitute for love called “tolerance.”  It’s the supreme virtue of the modern age.  Tolerance isn't without merit, mind you, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  How would it make you feel to hear someone say, “Yeah, I think I can tolerate you”?  And we certainly won’t hear Jesus saying, “As the Father tolerates me, so I tolerate you.” We’re not called to put up with each otherto merely coexist; we’re called to love.  Love is hard work.  Love often hurts—sometimes a whole lot.  But love for each other is the only convincing evidence that we have true friendship with Jesus.  So if we aren’t willing to reach out in genuine love to the person in the next pew, it’s little wonder we aren’t attracting more folks to come in and fill our churches.

And you also need to know that Jesus is a jealous friend—actually, as jealous as they come.  He’ll settle for nothing less than total commitment.  Jesus doesn’t want to be part of your life—one interest among many.  Jesus wants to be the very center of your life: its heart and soul; the relationship that causes all the rest of your life to make sense. And so he’ll be expecting you to spend some quality time with him.  We call that prayer. All prayer is good for this friendship, but especially fruitful are the Mass and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, where Jesus is present in a real and particular way.  And, as in any friendship, that quality time together is best spent listening to each other: finding out what makes the other one tick; getting to know the hidden, intricate workings of one another’s hearts.

Ralph moved away last year when the Vale Haven home closed down.  I’m sure our guests don’t miss the obligatory warning about a “peeping tom.”  But I do miss waving to Ralph through the kitchen window, chatting with him out front on the sidewalk, and running in to him here in church.  (He only had coffee in my chair once…as far as I know!)

Let us work hard to overcome the safe distance that so often separates us from one another these days. Above all, let us boldly take the risk of saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to close, intimate friendship with him.

Jesus, teach us to love!
* * *
After Holy Communion:
Risen Jesus, through the great Sacrament of your Body and Blood, you have come yet again to be the honored guest of our souls.  By your self-sacrifice, teach us how to truly love one another.  By your abiding presence, give us the courage we need to walk in your friendship always.

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