Becky and I (Joe) had the pleasure of sharing a sermon at First United Methodist Church of Enterprise on their annual Missions Sunday worship service on Sunday, March 1st. We both preached from John 15:9-17. Since these messages were so close to the heart of our ministry at ARM, we wanted to share them online.
Before I begin, I want to first say thank you again for inviting me and my friend Becky Dean to share a word with you this morning, and to tell you a little about ARM’s ministry in rural Alabama. It’s an honor to be here with you for your annual missions conference.
I’d like to begin by telling you about a friend of mine. His name is JB. I met JB almost 10 years ago now, in the summer of 2005. JB lives in Bellamy, AL, which is in Sumter County near York, AL, my hometown. We’re over in West Alabama, real close to Mississippi, about an hour southwest of Tuscaloosa. My family moved to York in 1987, when I was one year old, so it took me about 18 years to find JB. We met during the summer I worked for ARM as a summer camp intern managing home repair projects. Working with ARM’s summer camp was special all by itself, but what made it so powerful for me was being back in my home town doing mission work. ARM actually started in Sumter County back in 1998. Lisa Pierce, our director, was serving as a campus minister at UWA. She simply realized a need in the community for home repair and wanted to respond in love; the rest is history.
It was a busy summer. Youth groups were coming in and out week after week. We woke up early to cook breakfast and load the trucks, worked on homes all day, and came back to worship and learn together in the evenings. I’ve never been so tired. One day I was sitting in the office with the other home repair intern and our site leader (all of us college students), and we got a call from the Sumter County mental health clinic. I answered. A nurse said one of her patients needed to speak with us about home repair. She put him on the line and that’s when I met JB for the first time. I asked him what kind of repair he needed – was it roof leaks, bad walls, rotten floors, bad doors/windows, a porch? After I rattled off these suggestions for the kinds of repair we usually do, JB replied, “Yes.” I responded, a bit nervously, “Yes, as in, you need all of those repairs?” Again, he just said “Yes, that’s right.” Not really knowing what to say next, I just went ahead and planned a home visit a few days later. It would turn out to be the most difficult, and the most blessed, home visit I would make.
JB lives in a mobile home that’s barely visible from the road because of the overgrowth. When we finally found his little driveway, JB came out to meet us full of joy. A very nice man, African-American, in his fifties, who lived alone. He has a little trouble speaking clearly, but loves to write. JB’s a poet and, according to him, earned a degree in creative writing from UWA back in 80s. When he showed me his home, I was shocked. JB lived in one room of his trailer, slept on a beat up couch, heated food on a single gas burner on the floor, had no electricity and no running water. His roof leaked so bad he had just abandoned one half of the trailer. There were holes in the walls, windows, and doors; the floor was weak; there was no kitchen. The living conditions in JB’s home were by far the worst I had ever seen in rural Alabama.
Over the next few weeks of camp, ARM sent several youth mission teams to work with JB and he loved having the company. He especially loved sharing his poems with more and more people. One team was able to build a shingle roof on top of his leaky trailer roof. By the end of the summer, we had restored one bedroom and bathroom, got the electricity and water turned back on, and built him a bed. I got to spend a lot of time with JB over those few weeks. Every Wednesday night, I’d drive out to Bellamy to pick him up for our family dinner night – the night when we invite all the families we’re working with that week to share dinner with the camp staff and youth mission team at a local church. JB enjoyed several of those dinners and I enjoyed the brief moments alone with him in the truck going back and forth each time. By the end of the summer, JB and I had developed a friendship that I knew was very special. Many good things had changed on JB’s home, but I knew my own life had been changed even more. I left JB my phone number at the end of the summer and thought maybe I could help him get his poems published one day. That’s the least a friend would do.
As we turn to our text this morning from John 15:9-17, we find Jesus sharing his heart, his last words if you will, with his disciples, who we come to find out, are also his friends…
As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
I’d like to share a word about mission this morning since this is a missions conference. Particularly, about what it looks like to join God’s mission right here in Enterprise or down the road in Tuskegee. Now, this isn’t international missions or national missions; this is “local mission.” I believe our text this morning invites us to consider how participating in local mission begins and ends in friendship – God’s friendship with us and our friendships with each other, especially with those who struggle in situations of material poverty. Local mission begins and ends in friendship.
Let’s return to our text to briefly unpack this claim together. The first thing to notice is this: serving others is good. Serving others is good. Again, serving others is good! But, Jesus calls us beyond serving others. At ARM, we are all about service! We talk about serving others all the time. We organize community service days every month! After all, Jesus says throughout the gospels that we, his followers, should be known as servants because he “came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). We also remember that our text in John 15 comes just after a very important event in the gospel story: Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus’ long speech in this section of John’s gospel begins with that quintessential act of service in John 13. Jesus, God in the flesh, takes up the towel and the basin, kneels down, and cleanses the dusty, ragged feet of his followers. The host takes the place of the servant. In John 13:15-16, just after finishing this act, Jesus tells them, “I have given you an example: just as I have done, you must also do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master.” Jesus, the master, becomes the servant. Certainly Jesus’ disciples – both then and now – should be servants too. Right?
Yes, service is good! We need more servants in the world! But, for Jesus, serving others is not the end goal. The love of Christ calls us one step further. In verse 15 Jesus tells the disciples he no longer calls them servants. He’s going further; he calls them friends. The love of Christ doesn’t stop with serving the disciples, as good and necessary as that is. The end goal of Jesus’ love for us and our love for others is friendship. Friendship is the destination of local mission.
But that’s not all: friendship – the destination of our journey on local mission – is also where we begin. Do you remember the first story John’s gospel tells about Jesus and his disciples? Jesus turns the water into wine. What was happening in that story? A wedding. A celebration, a festival among friends and family. After Jesus chooses his disciples, he doesn’t sit them all down to serve them by washing their feet; he takes them to a wedding. Jesus’ ultimate act of service, the foot washing, is situated within a context of friendship that developed over the course of three years of intense ministry together. Service is good, but Jesus’ most profound act of service was simply one step in a long journey among friends. My college pastor, Rev David Goolsby, used to always tell me to “begin with the end in mind.” If we want to arrive at the destination of friendship on our local mission journey, we need to make intentional efforts at the beginning to build relationships along the way as we serve others.
Of course, there were times all throughout the gospels where Jesus sees someone in need, stops what he’s doing to “serve” them, especially through healing, and then moves on. There’s no “friendship” there; just an act of compassionate service. I’m not trying to say these kinds of unplanned, compassionate acts of service are bad or unnecessary. After all, we can’t be friends with everyone right? Of course not. But, if we’re going to sit down to think and plan out a strategy for how we, as a church, can do local mission, let’s not stop our plans with “service” or random acts of kindness. Let’s make friendship our local mission strategy!
But we all know that “friendship” can mean lots of different things, right? We have all kinds of friends; some that we love and others that we just tolerate. What makes a good friend? More importantly, what does Jesus mean when he calls his disciples his friends? There’s at least two characteristics of friendship we find in this passage. Let’s explore those briefly.
Christlike friendship is also characterized by mutuality. Mutuality. Reciprocity. Give and take. Cooperation. Standing on common ground. Being interrelated and interconnected. Depending on each other. In verse 15, we hear Jesus saying “I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.” In other words, you guys are in on the secret, you’re with me now, we’re on the same team. Servants don’t need to know the big picture behind what they do; they just complete the tasks assigned by their master. But friends are different. Friends work together, they seek to understand one another, they share a common goal and motivation; they want the same things for each other. Friends treat each other as equals.
The second characteristic is this: friendship is costly. Jesus tells his disciples in verse 14 that “you are my friends if you do what I command you.” What is Jesus’ command? We find it in verses 12 and 13 where Jesus tells his disciples to love each other as he loves them, which is by giving up his life for them. “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” We immediately think of Jesus’ crucifixion, but Jesus began laying down his life for his friends long before his death. It began the day he was born when God Almighty made the radical decision to become one of us in all our weakness and frailty and suffering. God heard humanity’s cry for a savior and God came close, as close as possible. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that Christ, in his riches, became poor for us and our salvation. Christlike friendship is always costly because it leads us to walk closely with others; close enough to feel their hurts and pains, close enough to share their burdens and help bear them up.
Being friends with Jesus asks us to see others as our equals and to work together, giving and receiving. Being friends with Jesus is costly because we are called to get close to the suffering of others. Finally, being friends with Jesus leads us into the deepest, most profound experiences of joy. Friends have fun together, do they not? Friends stay close in the hard times, but there also the folks you want to share the good times with! But more than fun, the joy Jesus desired for his disciples was meant to be the driving force, the core, of their lives after his departure. Remember in John 10:10, Jesus says that he came that we would have abundant life. Getting close to the suffering of others is hard; building a relationship of mutuality in that context is even harder. But joy, pure joy, overflowing in abundance, awaits us.
Local mission begins and ends in friendship; a friendship that is costly, shared among equals, and full of joy. What does that mean in practical terms? Maybe it means getting to know someone before you serve them and staying in touch when the work is complete? A friend doesn’t just show up one day, cook a meal for you, and then leave to never come back! Friends get to know you, hang around for awhile, are there when you need them, and keep sticking around afterwards just because they want to be with you. Maybe this kind of friendship means working with others instead of for them? Too often, when we consider how we should love those who struggle in situations of material poverty, we can only think of what we have to give, of what they can gain from us. Too often, we don’t consider our own poverty and how much they have to give us. The reality is that we need each other – rich and poor, black and white – because we’re all wounded people. Part of the reason we resist mutual relationships with people in material poverty is that our own poverty, our own wounds, often get exposed. We’d rather go on believing that we have it all together. Maybe part of the cost of Christlike friendship is being willing to face our own needs? To step out of our comfort zones and get close enough to the pain and suffering of others that we choose to take on some of it ourselves, that we bear with others, and help carry their load. That we become a community known for the way we care for others. They’ll know we’re Christians by our love, right?
So, what about my friend JB? About a year ago, I was sitting in a library working on a paper for my final seminary class. I was reflecting on the moments in my life where I met Jesus. My time with JB came to mind. Wouldn’t you know that my phone rang? I ignored it because I didn’t recognize the number. They left a voicemail. Can you guess who it was? JB, of course. He had never called me before and we hadn’t talked in almost ten years. I wasn’t a very good friend. But I called him back and now we stay in touch pretty regularly. We had lunch together one day last fall when I was visiting Sumter County. Despite our repairs in 2005, his mobile home has deteriorated even further. It’s no longer fit for living, but it’s all JB has. He’s been on my mind and in my prayers a lot recently during these cold nights. His only heat is an electric blanket. JB calls me his best friend but I know I’m not worthy of that title. I’m trying though, and, by the Spirit, I hope our friendship continues to grow as we – JB and I – participate together in God’s local mission.
We can take joy this morning because, as we’re reminded in verse 16 of our text, Jesus has already chosen us to be his friends. You are, this morning, a friend of God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. We’re invited this morning to follow Jesus on the friendship journey of local mission. He’s already taken the first step and now he’s reaching back his hand for yours. Will we follow?
What’s more, he’s appointed us all for a mission: to go and bear fruit, to love others as friends the way he has loved us. You have a unique role to play in that mission. Who are your friends this morning? Who is Jesus inviting you to befriend? Are you willing to follow him into places of pain, maybe into the homes of families marred by material poverty, to find your new friends?
Local mission begins and ends in friendship.