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. Here’s Becky’s sermon!
I moved to Alabama almost one year ago today. Having grown up in Indiana and attended college in Michigan, I had never experienced living in the rural South. For us outsiders, the South is known for being the land where country music, endearing accents, and sweet tea abound. But over the past year, I have found that Alabama is much more than this: it is a place of hospitality, community, and deep friendships. Today I’m going to tell you a story about a lady I met last summer, and how we became friends.
When I began working with Alabama Rural Ministry, I went one day with our construction coordinator to visit Ms. Wood at her home outside of Auburn. That day we would be looking at some urgent repair needs in her home. We pulled up to her house, a small, one-story building with a decent sized yard. Ms. Wood and her son were waiting for us. They showed us into the small, cramped living room, kept warm with gas heaters. From the moment she opened the door, I knew Ms. Wood was one of those kind ladies that can bring a smile to anyone’s face when they’re having a bad day. We sat done and began to chat. With Ms. Wood, the connection was immediate and I felt that we had known each other for months.
Later we walked into Ms. Wood’s bedroom to take some measurements, and I remember being shocked to see the damage in her floor. Termites had eaten away the wood and much of the walls. Ms. Wood could not even stay in her own bedroom at night – she was sleeping on the sofa. I was told that soon a group would be coming to put in new boards and laminate floor. There was certainly a lot of progress to be made. That day my heart went out to this kind woman. But I was struck by her positive attitude in her situation.
After a few minutes of conversation, it was time to go. Before we left, I remember that Ms. Wood stood up to pray with us. She shared with us a concern that her son was looking for work, and asked that we would pray for the family. I was touched by her genuine care and her openness in sharing her personal life with us. I asked her to pray for me as well. Ms. Wood said to me, “Oh Becky, I will. God is so faithful.” In talking with Ms. Wood, we had both allowed ourselves to be vulnerable in sharing life with each other. A friendship formed between us that was rooted in God’s love.
Let’s hear about a time Jesus talks to his disciples about the difference between servants and friends. Please turn with me in your Bibles to John chapter 15, verses 9-17.
As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 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. 16 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. 17 I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.
Today we’re going to talk about what it means to be in ministry with others, not as servants, but as friends. Walking alongside people who have as much to give to the relationship as we do. There are several principles about service that we can learn from today’s text. The first is has to do with humility.
Humility: serving for the right reasons
Where we began reading, Jesus is talking to his twelve disciples, trying to explain to them that he would soon be leaving and encouraging them to continue spreading the gospel message in his absence. Just before this passage, John writes about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. When Jesus explained what he was about to do, Peter began to protest, because Jesus was their master, not a lowly servant. But Jesus explained that serving was a necessary part of his work, and Peter yielded. This is a perfect example of Jesus demonstrating humility by performing a lowly task that would normally be fit only for servants.
The example of servant-hood is crucial to the Christian lifestyle. Yet sometimes we view service as one-sided. When we go on mission trips, do we go thinking about the relationships we will build or the tasks we will accomplish? Do we only consider what we will give to others or realize that we may also receive? I remember distinctly the first mission trip I ever went on. A group from my college campus ministry went to Tijuana, Mexico, where we worked with a family and his church doing tasks ranging from feeding the homeless, to building a foundation to a house, to performing a Bible skit on the street. After the trip I remember feeling proud at the small tasks my team had completed. We had mixed cement. We had fed hungry people. We had made a difference! But it left me wondering, what did the church and Mexican family think when we left? Were they as excited as I was at the results? Did they expect us to keep in touch for years to come? I’m not so sure.
So what was missing on this mission trip? Among other things, humility. My group had gone to a foreign country, with our expensive suitcases and big ideas, thinking we were going to bring hope to some helpless poor people. And we came back with the perception that we had done just that. We never stopped to think about how our actions might be supporting the systems that caused these families to be poor in the first place. And with all the work we were doing, we certainly didn’t have time to actually listen to the stories of those homeless men at the ranch. To become friends with them. To allow them to minister to us in our brokenness. We were so busy doing that we never got around to truly serving. We serve with humility when we admit that we don’t always have the solution.
Love: the Christ-like motive for serving
The second principle is that love should be our motive for serving. At times when we serve with good intentions, we can abuse the power it gives us to control others. Service then becomes exploitation and commercialization – for every thing we do, there is a second motive. This can take many forms: wanderlust, curiosity, pity, or even a genuine desire to help people. These motives are not necessarily bad, but can have negative effects on those we come to serve. Bob Lupton puts it this way: “I wonder if the reality of humanness will always make servant hood into lordship. It may be that there is no way to define service in order to keep from making it a system of control.” Thinking about this quote, I wonder…does service always have to perpetuate the sense that those coming into a community are superior to those who are already there? I would argue that it doesn’t.
So if experiencing a new culture and feeling sorry for someone are not ideal reasons to serve others, what is? John claims in verse 9 that our motive should be love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love…” Jesus understood that God never wanted him to loose sight of God’s love for him. Similarly, Jesus expressed his love for the disciples and desired for them to remain in his love for all eternity. Then in verse 12 he says: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” Christ commands us to remain in his love and share it with others. But loving someone does not mean making them feel poor or lesser. The kind of love Jesus calls us to values the individual and their contribution to a mutually loving relationship.
Vulnerability: serving by way of genuine relationships
The third principle in our text is the importance of vulnerability in service. Serving others means opening ourselves up to our friends. It means allowing others to be there for us in our most difficult times. John 15:13 tells us that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for friends. In this moment, Jesus knows that he will have to die. He wants the disciples to know how deep his love is for them. Jesus is real and honest and vulnerable with his disciples, his friends.
Verse 15 states “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.” The phrase “no longer” implies that Jesus had called the disciples servants before, as we see throughout the book of John. But from now on he would call them friends. He was introducing the term “friend” to signify a new stage in their relationship: the disciples had been following Jesus for years, and were beginning to truly understand and support Him. They knew his deepest concerns and prayers. Jesus’ vulnerability with his closest friends demonstrates his undying love for them. Not only was he ministering to the disciples, but he was being ministered to. In this way, Jesus modeled a mutual relationship of receiving as well as giving.
So why did Jesus tell his disciples that they would no longer be called servants, but friends? Because he had told them everything that he had learned from God. There was nothing to hide – Jesus’ heart was revealed in the final weeks before his death. Whether intentionally or not, we share part of who we are with those we call friends. They are able to see our flaws and failures, as well as our good character. They know the inside story, and can relate. They can reciprocate a sense of devotion that is not known to a servant and his master. Masters can become lords over servants, and servants can at times become lords over others, but friends cannot.
If we want to truly serve others, we as Christians must learn to become vulnerable in our relationships. When we go to “serve” on a mission trip or at a local ministry, do we go in viewing ourselves as a servant or a friend? The way we think about our neighbors can affect how we do service. Do we imagine ourselves doing all the giving and all the loving? Or can we allow ourselves to be cared for and served as well? Friendship begins the moment we allow ourselves to become vulnerable with another person. It begins when our experience resonates with that of another, and becomes not just an acquaintance, but a genuine relationship.
Community: forming lasting friendships
The final message I hope you take with you today is this: If we engage in mission work simply to accomplish tasks but do not take the time to build relationships with others, we are missing the point. God’s love is all about relationship. Christ’s work on Earth involved interacting with people from all walks of life, hearing their stories, and doing life with them. He developed lasting friendships during his years of ministry. And Jesus’ love for his disciples was evident in his interactions with them.
Looking back to the scripture, in verse 10, Jesus emphasizes that the disciples follow in his footsteps when he is gone. “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Jesus will obey God’s command to die and be raised to life again. The disciples, likewise, must obey his commands in order to remain in a loving relationship with Him. But the command doesn’t stop there: in order to remain in Christ’s love, the disciples must extend that love to others by building relationships, making friends, and living in community.
Jesus calls the disciples to go and meet others, to share the Good News with them. He says “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.” Jesus wanted his followers, his friends, to multiply the love that they had experienced, the love that God has for his Son and that Jesus has for them. He is telling them to go make friends. Go extend love to people. He doesn’t say sit at home alone, but to GO and be part of a community.
Mission work is about involving ourselves in the lives of others. Arriving at the point where we can say that we are truly friends. Think about this: what would it look like to commit to staying in touch with that lady down the street who needed help mowing her lawn last summer? What would it look like to go visit the man you repaired a roof for a few months back? Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to convert whole cities and then leave them to fend for themselves. He said, go and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. Teaching takes time. Jesus intended ministry to be about connecting with others.
Albert Camus says it this way: Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend
CS. Lewis declared: Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says: The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.
Being friends with someone often takes time. We all know that bonds don’t form immediately – you have to get to know a person before you begin to trust them. When we are engaging in missions, whether 1,000 miles away or locally, friendship is a way of showing Christ’s love to those around us.
So what does all this have to do with you and me? I’ve shared with you some ideas on how to serve with humility and love, how to be vulnerable with the people you are in ministry with, and how to build genuine friendships with those in your community. Jesus thought the idea of being a friend, and not just a servant to others, was important enough to bring up with his disciples in his last days. At Alabama Rural Ministry, we also strongly believe that Christ-like service is shown by walking alongside people we call friends.
In our mission to extend the love of Christ through home repair and children’s ministry, it’s not all about the physical work. It’s about taking time to get to know families, hearing their stories, and becoming friends. It’s about sharing in our brokenness and realizing the healing power of Christ. It’s about playing with children, modeling healthy behaviors, and showing them that they are valued. At ARM we like to say “ministry with”, because we don’t come just to give or just to receive, but to be in ministry with others, to work together to build hope and restore dreams. There is an intentionality of friendship with our families. We are not just going to do the repair work, but to build a lasting and spiritual connection.
I’d like to return now to the story of Ms. Wood. That summer, I visited Ms. Wood a few more times. Several youth groups came and helped with the repairs on her home, but it was always a partnership of mutual love. Although Ms. Wood was not physically able to tack up drywall with the teams, she offered them food and encouragement throughout the day. At times, the youth serving with her would go inside to sit with Ms. Wood and talk. In that way, a deep friendship and love developed. Serving with Ms. Wood was more than just “a mission trip”, where one group came to serve the other. It was an opportunity to experience the kingdom of Heaven here on Earth, a place where God’s broken children learn to love and live together.
I hope that after leaving today, each one of you will pray about how you can become more involved in missions at Enterprise. There are some great ministries going on here, ways for you to bring your skills and talents to the table. And maybe you’ll consider coming to serve at ARM this summer, to meet a new friend that will change your life. I also hope that as you engage in outreach in your community, you will consider this question: How can I live out Christ’s example of being not only a servant, but also a friend? To those in my neighborhood? To those who are oppressed? To those living in poverty? And how can “those people” become not “those people”, but my dear friends?