Today’s Scripture: John 15:9-17
As most of you might know, Mountain View kicked off its most recent confirmation class just a couple of weeks ago. The confirmands and I started our time together that first session by talking about different images folks use to think about God. Of course we spent the bulk of our time that first evening talking about God using the most popular image of all: Creator.
The confirmands have followed that initial conversation up by searching out other images that were used for God in Scripture. They’ve found a variety of images ranging from things like “rock”, “shepherd”, and “helper and deliverer” to God as “sun and shield”, “potter”, and so on.
The point of the exercise for the confirmands was that the images we use for God not only affect the way we think about God; those images determine the kind of relationship we build with God as well.
Of course the creators of the confirmation class curriculum weren’t the only ones who knew the important role images play in the development of our spiritual lives. There was another who was keenly aware of this as well.
I know Jesus was aware of the important role images can play because in today’s passage from the Gospel of John Jesus used two images to invite us to think about very different ways we can relate to Jesus. The images can be found in verse 15 of today’s reading. The first image Jesus offered was servant.
That’s right. Friend.
Now, this morning I want to use my time with you to explore each of those images and see if perhaps shifting our focus – from a life where we’re cast in the role of servant to a life where we are cast in the role of friend – can make a difference in our spiritual journey. So let’s begin our time together exploring the notion of relating to Jesus as servant.
If I were to ask you to describe the life lived by a servant, you’d probably begin by pointing out a few characteristics of the role. You might start, for instance, by noting that servants rarely – if ever – take the initiative in the relationship. They typically sit back and wait until they are told what to do before jumping into action.
What else might you say is characteristic of a servant?
“Well,” you might continue, “a servant rarely gets a chance to do what he or she would like to do. Instead, the servant gets stuck doing all of the awful things he or she is told to do.”
Great! How about one more?
A servant also has a minimal investment in the outcome of the tasks before him or her. The servant is usually only worried about doing the bare minimum so he or she doesn’t get in trouble.
In other words, if I were to sum up the life of the servant, I might say that the goal for a servant is to simply survive, or get by.
I think most of us could agree that that’s a fairly accurate description.
So what about friend? How would the role of friend differ from that of servant?
Well, right out of the gates there would be a huge difference when it comes to taking the initiative. Unlike a servant that hangs back and waits to be told what to do, a friend often goes out of his or her way in order to take the initiative him or herself. That would be difference number one.
Let’s move on to difference two. Difference two has to do with how a friend spends his or her time. Unlike servants who spend the bulk of their time doing things they hate, friends have the luxury of spending their time doing those things they love and are passionate about. And if you have a friend where that’s not the case, then I’d say its time to start looking for a new friend.
And how about difference number three – the effort we extend. As I said earlier, servants make a huge point of doing the bare minimum – hoping to simply get by. Not so with friends. A true friend – almost by definition - goes the extra mile in order to positively touch the life of a friend.
So as you can see, when Jesus said: “I’m no longer calling you servants … I’ve named you friends…” – we’re talking about a seismic shift in how Jesus invited us to think about ourselves in relationship to him.
So let’s take all this talk of “servants” and “friends” and move it from the abstract to the personal - to see if we might take something away from this that can affect the quality of our spiritual lives.
In my first seven years of parish ministry, I’ve noticed something fascinating about the way many of us in the institutional church lead our spiritual lives.
We lead our spiritual lives primarily in the servant role. Think about that for a minute. When it comes to the matter of initiative, what do we do? We sit back and wait for a sign from God to push us into gear. “If God really wanted me in choir,” we say to ourselves, “then God would move Grey’s Anatomy from Thursdays to Tuesdays.” Same thing goes with the use of our time. We devote a significant chunk of time to doing things we hate – but think are good for us. “I know I’m called to serve at the soup kitchen because I get that sickening knot in my stomach each month when its time to report.” Ditto for our effort. “I’ll slide by in my relationship with God if I show up for worship every once in a while.” All of those things would be indicators that we’re leading our lives from a servant mentality.
So how did we get to such a point? How did we learn to settle for living as servants - rather than friends - of Christ?
Well – are you ready for this? – our churches taught us to live that way. Many of our churches, for instance, sucked the initiative right out of us when they taught us the right way to behave is to sit down, shut up, and wait for our council or one of the committees to tell us what to do. Our churches guilted us into doing what we hate – because if WE don’t do it, then NOBODY will. Our churches reinforced in us the idea that a church was successful if it could simply kept the doors opened and paid the bills. That’s how they pushed us into the role of servant.
Two years ago at Mountain View, however, we began a process designed to move us out of the servant role and into the friend role in our relationship with the God revealed in Jesus.
That process said a couple things. First, it said that – like a friend – we could actually take the initiative in beginning new ministries at the church. That process suggested that we could actually spend our time doing what we love and were passionate about - rather than what others demanded of us. That process even challenged us to rethink what success might look like.
And that process culminated with the creation of a tool that embodied this new way of being that Jesus invites us to. You’ll find a copy of that tool in your bulletin this morning.
Friends on this Sunday just before Memorial Day weekend – a Sunday that is used by many churches to mark the end of a program year – I ask you to spend some time considering the choice that lies before us in terms of how we want to lead our spiritual lives. Do we want to lead our lives as servants of Christ; or do we want to lead lives as friends of Christ?
I fervently hope that we will make the choice that will take us to new heights in our relationship with God of Jesus: both individually and collectively.