Sunday, 10 May 2015

Easter 6: I have called you friends.

Jesus said “ I have called you friends”

Friendship – it’s one of the most powerful and important relationships we have. A good friendship can last a lifetime. You may not see each other often, but when you do you can pick up where you left off as if it’s been no time at all. Recent research shows that loneliness can damage not only your mental health, but your physical health too. Apparently, it is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, so friends can be lifesavers as well as good fun to be with.

The value we put on friendship is nothing new. Ancient civilisations rated it very highly.
One of the oldest stories in the world is called the Epic of Gilgamesh. It comes from ancient Mesopotamia, and basically it is a buddy movie. Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk. He was phenomenally strong, and the gods thought he needed taking down a peg or two. So they created a wild man, Enkidu, who was just as strong. Eventually the two men met and fought, but neither could defeat the other, and instead of becoming enemies, they became friends. The story describes the adventures they had together, defeating various monstrous creatures, but in the end, Gilgamesh offends the gods again and to punish him they kill Enkidu. The story is at least 3500 years old, but the description of Gilgamesh’s grief for his friend could have been written yesterday. 
“He was my battle-axe at my side, in which my hand trusted. The sword in my belt was he. He was the shield which was my protection, He was my festive robes and my most precious jewel.” Gilgamesh roars out his sorrow, we are told, like a lioness who has lost her cubs.

So friendship is nothing new, and the Bible gives us pictures of equally intense and deep friendships too, like that of David and Jonathan. Friendship is one of few social relationships that hasn’t really changed much over the centuries. Marriage has changed almost constantly and appears in many forms through history and across the world –arranged marriages, forced marriages, polygamy, marriage between close relatives, marriages of people we would consider as children and now same sex marriages. They have all counted as marriage at some time in some part of the world. Parent/child relationships have changed too. Roman fathers had power of life and death over their children – if they decided not to raise them or acknowledge them as their own they could abandon them at birth. Previous generations would have been astonished at the change in our economic relationships too – the idea that employees had rights or that slavery was wrong.

All these relationships have changed, but friendship is remarkably recognisable, remarkably similar over time and culture. It is a relationship of freedom. It doesn’t carry any legal baggage; friends have no rights over each other. We may hope our friends will be loyal and kind and generous, but we can’t enforce it if they aren’t. There are no formal ways into friendship, and no divorce proceedings if it all goes wrong. It’s a relationship of equality – even if friends have very different status in the world’s eyes, they relate to each other on the same level. Gilgamesh had riches beyond imagination; Enkidu had nothing. Yet their friendship made them equals. Friends value each other for who they are, not for what they possess or what they can do for the other. And friends will willingly give to each other, make sacrifices – listen late into the night, go with them to the chemo appointment, stand up for them when they need it. That’s friendship.

And it is this relationship which Jesus calls his disciples to in today’s Gospel passage. That is a staggering thought – this is how he sees us. I do not call you servants any longer… I have called you friends.

Today’s Gospel passage is part of John’s account of the Last Supper. On the night before he dies Jesus speaks to his followers for the last time. Last words are always important, and these are no exception. The words we find in these chapters sum up the essence of Jesus’ ministry. And what is it? It is “I have called you friends”  He hasn’t come to present people with a list of rules that will keep an angry God off their backs; he’s come to call them into a friendship with God.

Like all friendships, this one will shape and change those who accept it. If you are going to be a friend to someone it is important that you share values in common.  If your friend is an animal lover, your friendship won’t last long if you kick her cat every time you visit. It sounds a bit strange when Jesus says  “you are my friends if you do what I command you” – commanding isn’t the language we expect of friendship – but this is really about letting our lives be shaped by the pattern and the priorities of Jesus, loving others as he has loved us. If we don’t do this then what does our friendship with him mean? 

This week is the beginning of Christian Aid week, and it’s a great week to be thinking about the friendship of Christ because if that friendship is genuine it has to spill over to those around us and encompass those who we may never meet, but whom Jesus also calls friend.

This year’s Christian Aid week appeal focuses on the stories of women from one of the poorest communities in Ethiopia. The Borena people are pastoralists. They keep livestock, especially cows, for a living. Having a cow is vital to them. If you have a cow, you don’t just have milk for your family, you also have respect in your community, and a voice at community meetings. Without one, people see you as not worth listening to. Christian Aid tells the story of one woman, Loko, who is in this position. She hasn’t got any livestock of her own, and the only way she can provide for her three children and three step-children is by collecting firewood and selling it at the market. Four times a week she makes an eight hour trip on foot to gather it from the mountains. These are her words.
The worst thing about collecting firewood is being all alone. I travel to a place on the mountain where there is good fuel wood. It’s an eight-hour walk to get there. I pray to God as I walk: ‘God, please clear all the thorny plants from my way. God, please help me to find good firewood, then I can sell it. God please bring me good buyers who can give me money. God, please open the paths in front of me.’ …It is very difficult to collect firewood and sell it. There are many thorns that stab my legs and my body. Sometimes I accidentally cut my leg or hand with the axe and there’s no one to help. There are wild animals like hyenas, cheetahs and snakes. When the rainy season comes it’s particularly frightening because all the grasses grow, the trees have big leaves, and it’s dark so you don’t know what’s going to come out of the bush. It’s scary and I feel very alone.”

It’s only by my striving, by my support, that all of the family are surviving. The lives of women in the Borena community are really difficult when we compare them to men. Women have to build the house, collect firewood, fetch the water, do all the housework and prepare the food. The men look after their cattle; they come back home, wash their faces and say, ‘Bring me something to eat.’ It really makes a difference whether you have cattle or not. You are perceived very badly if you don’t have any livestock. Even if you have only one cow, people say, ‘At least she has a cow, if nothing else.’ If I don’t have an animal of my own then nobody will invite me to participate in social events. I can’t go to the pond to fetch water when the others do because they say, ‘She has no cattle, why is she coming and disturbing us? She can fetch water when we’ve had enough.’ I can’t even speak in the community meetings. No one will allow me.”

Loko is hoping that a local Christian Aid partner organisation will be able to help her, as they have other women in her community, by giving her livestock to get started with. Just a little help will make all the difference in the world to this brave, strong woman not just because it will give her family milk to drink and butter to sell, but also because it will give her status and a voice.

The overwhelming impression we get from Loko’s words is her sense that she is alone and friendless. That’s why, as well as giving livestock, Christian Aid are working to empower women like her to challenge the assumptions of her society, and to challenge our assumptions too. It is easy to feel pity for someone who is in need, to feel sorry for them, whether they are in Ethiopia or in our own neighbourhoods. The real change comes when we start to see them as we would our friends, as people we can’t bear to see suffer, people for whom we would go the extra mile without even thinking about it. It is all very well for us to rejoice in Jesus’ words, “I have called you friends”, but they mean nothing if we don’t recognise that they aren’t just for us, but for all people. Being a friend of Christ means treating everyone as we would our friends, with respect, as equals, with sacrificial love. If we saw Loko like that, she would have had her own cow long ago.

The same is true for those in our own community who are in need. Would we let our friends get so desperate they had to use a foodbank? Would we let our friends sit alone at home, housebound by disability, not speaking to anyone for days or even weeks at a time as some elderly and disabled people do? Would we let our friends sleep on the streets because it would cost us a little more in taxes to provide them with housing?

None of us has a magic wand. We can’t solve the problems of the world in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. And it starts, it seems to me, with the simple but life-changing realisation that Christ has called us friends. And if we are called into his friendship, we are called into friendship with all his people too. Amen.

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