Published on 30 Apr 2012
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 29th, 2012
Archdeacon Ellen Clark-King
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon.
‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us’
‘I lay down my life for my sheep … for this reason the father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.’
Now I love the spring time image of wooly baa-lambs gamboling in the fields and the image of Jesus as the loving shepherd. But, it has to be said, it isn’t an image with great resonance in most of our daily lives. So today I want to explore a more hidden but equally rich image from the writings of John – Jesus as True Friend.
Aelred of Reivaulx, the great classic theologian of friendship defines a friend as ‘another self to whom you can speak on equal terms, to whom you can confess your failings, to whom you can make known your progress [or lack of it!] without blushing, one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart.’ Cicero, the Roman philosopher, talks about a true friend as one who will go to ‘calamity’s depths’ for their friend, one who will not stand safely aside from their disasters and vulnerabilities but who will stand with them and even stand in their place to face them for them. Both the gospel of John and the first epistle of John show us Jesus as this sort of true friend to humanity. I want to explore with you today a little about what that means for our understanding of those first verses about the laying down of Jesus’ life.
Interestingly this central metaphor of Jesus – and of God – as friend has been particularly embraced by feminist theologians. They build on Aelred’s insight that we could call God Friendship – he says ‘this would be unusual, but what is true of love, should be true of spiritual friendship since those who abide in friendship abide in God and God in them.’ Feminist theologians embrace this because it sets us free from gendered language and also because it steps aside from the parent-child relationship which Chris talked about so eloquently last week.
Friendship is a freely chosen relationship, a relationship of equality and mutuality, one that isn’t dictated by rules but is held in existence by mutual commitment and shared delight in one another’s company. It is a powerful enough force to break through barriers of race or gender and a gentle enough presence to offer solace when we are at our most wounded and vulnerable. It is to be wondered at and celebrated that the divine ground of all being invites us into this form of relationship.
Think for a moment of your own closest friend. My bff is almost a foot taller than me, now lives thousands of miles away, is witty, eccentric, still looks 30 as she approaches 50 and is someone I see eye to eye with whenever we meet however long the separation has been – and despite the height difference! Just picturing her makes me smile. Think of your closest friend – of what you mean to them and they mean to you. Think of what you would do for them and they for you.
And this freely chosen relationship is the lens through which the writer of John understands and makes sense of Jesus’ life and of his death – a death he calls Jesus’ free act of laying down his life. And this is a lens of great beauty as well as of profound truth as it leads into an understanding of the death which is liberating rather than oppressive.
Because let’s not be blind to the fact that there are ways of interpreting Jesus’ death which are indeed oppressive. Some are oppressive for folk outside the church – interpretations which blame the Jews or which threaten damnation on those who interpret it differently. And some are oppressive for folk within the church. For example, there are Christians – most often women Christians – who have been taught that they should imitate Jesus in accepting their own suffering with silence and resignation. The Roman Catholic theologian Barbara Reid met indigenous women in Chiapas Mexico who lived lives of very limited freedom dictated by their service to the men in their family. She says of them: “Her husband may beat her and insult her whenever he wants and she can only submit in silence. She has no right to speak up, and no opportunities to speak with other women. She has to ask permission to go anywhere, even to visit her mother, and her husband rarely grants it.” Dr Reid also discovered that: “The notion of sacrifice is very strong for [these women]: the self-sacrifice of Jesus is replicated in their own self-sacrifice for others. Many of the women spoke of how they identified their suffering with that of the crucified Jesus.”
So, like Jesus in the gospel of Mark, the women of Chiapas keep silent in their suffering, enduring what they assume is the will of God rather than resisting. But John, in his gospel and in the first epistle, tells a different story of the passion and its meaning – a story rooted in this central metaphor of friendship. The focus of John’s gospel is not the acceptance of suffering but the bringing of greater life – of life abundant – of making strangers into friends of God, of finding ways of making joy complete. Jesus isn’t shown as the powerless victim but as the intentional friend who walks into suffering and death out of love and through his own free will. The one, to use Cicero’s language again, who goes to ‘calamity’s depths’ for his friends.
There’s no language in John’s gospel about Jesus dying for our sins, the language is all about what love and friendship call for us to do for one another. Jesus’ choice for death is the natural result of his far more fundamental choice for life. It is death as beginning rather than as ending – as the necessary first step towards the greater resurrection life. It is the choice of a friend who needs to show his friends that violence is not the right answer and that the cycle of violence can indeed be broken. God does not send Jesus to die, God sends Jesus to live – to be the source and giver of life abundant
And in telling the story this way John gives a very different model to the women of Chiapas, and to suffering women and men throughout the world. Our calling is not to follow one who suffers in silence and tells us to do the same. Our calling is far brighter, far more energizing and liberating than that. It is to be friends of God. It is to enter into the new life that Jesus brings – a life that is characterized by the hallmarks of friendship – freedom, mutuality, love, shared pain and celebration. This new life allows us to – or, to put it more strongly, means that we should – challenge our own situations of suffering and oppression rather than accepting them in sacrificial silence.
Indeed, this is what the women of Chiapas found the strength to do as they began to understand Jesus in a different way. Dr Reid tells of a group of women who came together to confront a husband who was beating his wife. As she says: “These women had moved away from emulating the silent suffering Jesus of the Gospel of Mark and had become a community of friends who were ready to lay down their lives for their friend.” They had found a way to live into the model of friendship that illuminates and enlivens the gospel and epistle of John. And, by the way, they succeeded – the beatings stopped from that day on.
So let us also be such a community of friends – friends of God, of one another and of the suffering women and men we encounter in our daily lives. Strengthened for this task both by our awareness that God has freely chosen friendship with us and by this meal, this table fellowship, which defines our time together. In words written by an inner city church in England let us gather at this table to encounter “Not … the great judge [dispensing] his wisdom and justice But … our lover – our friend – sharing his best with us”. Amen.
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