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Faith In Real Life Blog: “Holy Friendships”
Faith In Real Life Blog
Vitial Congregations Initiative: Caring Relationships
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 15, 2022
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
This week we are looking at caring relationships as a marker for a vital congregation. The first scripture presents the ‘new commandment—love others as I have loved you.’—and seems clear enough. We say “I love you all of the time.’ But, saying ‘I love you’ can mean many things’ and, to make matters worse,, what is said is not necessarily what is heard. For Christians, the important qualifier is ‘as I have loved you.’ We are called to follow Jesus’ example when we seek to love. Following such guidelines reduces the ambiguity but does not eliminate it.
The second scripture is a conversation of Jesus with Simon Peter. It illustrates both the way Jesus loved as well as Simon Peter’s inability to grasp what Jesus was about. To appreciate this exchange, we need to spend a minute looking at Peter. Peter is an impetuous, eager to please disciple. On multiple occasions, he jumps in, only to discover he is off base. Most famously, he is the disciple who answers Jesus’s question—’Who do you say that I am?’ with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” But unfortunately, both men spoke too soon. Just a couple of verses later after Jesus started to tell the disciples that the messiah must suffer and die, “…Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter used the right words—You are the Messiah—but he did not comprehend what Jesus meant by the term. Peter, as most of us, was stuck in his secular assumptions about what it meant to be the messiah and what it meant to be saved.
It happens again when Jesus reveals his identity in the transfiguration. Awed by the experience, Peter wants to memorialize the event—-4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, Iwill set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Matt 17:4) Matthew is cut off when “a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”. Then, “when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” Peter wanted to memorialize the mountain top experience. Jesus wanted him, and the other disciples, to realize that God’s work was being manifested in the same man that went up the mountain—and the same man that went down the mountain. Mountain tops may inspire but the work is done in the valley. This, again, was an unexpected way to see God.
Finally, when Jesus was washing the disciples feet, Jesus inverted human conceptions of ranking. Peter held on to them—first by saying he wasn’t good enough compared to Jesus and then by saying, “Oh, if this is what it takes, wash my whole body.” Peter again missed the point. As devoted as he was, Peter repeatedly failed to comprehend what Jesus was trying to teach him. As long as Peter is in the bible, there is hope for all of us. Virtually all of us seek a savior that removes pain rather than one who shares it. Most of us think of God as above and beyond rather than in the relationships of ordinary life. And few of us think of leaders as people who are servants.
This is the ‘everyman/every woman that Jesus is talking to in this passage. Though he followed him for three years, Peter did not understand Jesus.. Peter denied he even knew Jesus. But none of this was held against him. Even after Jesus was crucified, the Christ in him was still engaging Peter to teach him what Jesus, and ultimately God, was all about. This is a paradigm of a holy friendship—a relationship of deep acceptance based in love rather than our understanding or our accomplishment. Jesus does not give up on Peter—or us.
There is an interesting detail in the Greek that illustrates this point further. There are different words for ‘love’ in the text. Jesus asks about agape love and Peter responds with “yes, I ‘phileo’ love you. Many commentators make a big deal about this difference because ‘agape’ love is understood as a sacrificial love whereas ‘phileo’ love is understood as brotherly love. (FYI there is also ‘eros’ but we don’t talk about that in church—a blog for another time). In our never ending need to rank things, ‘agape’ love is the higher, deeper love. However, in the Gospel of John, this distinction does not hold. A careful word study of how the two are used reveals the two could be used interchangeably.
So without adding our assumptions about which love is ‘better than’, it does seem important that Jesus matches Peter’s vocabulary. The third time Jesus asks Peter ‘do you ‘phileo’ love me?’ Peter answers in kind. Good listening requires that we enter the frame of the person we are speaking with—rather than insisting the other accept our definitions. Jesus met Peter where he was and did not insist on his own way. Jesus lived what he taught and left the door open for Peter to come to understand as he experienced life.
After telling Peter that to be a disciple means to ‘Feed my lambs; Tend my sheep; and Feed my sheep’, Jesus adds what seems like a non sequitur. There is a time in life in which we can be relatively self-sufficient. We can cinch our belts and go where we wish. But it will not always be so.
Life includes many unsavory truths we do not want to face. If we live long enough we will progressively lose autonomy in our own lives. If we live long enough, we will be entirely dependent upon others. We will be completely helpless. We may be able to give intellectual assent to this idea but living it is extremely hard. These past few weeks has had an elder who lived helpless for almost a year before he died. Another whose body and mind took several years to deteriorate into death. One of the saints of our community is entering Hospice care this week. And these are but a few of the losses.
None of us are immune. Neither our ‘goodness’ nor our religious affiliation can protect us. We cannot explain why life can be so hard but we can be present to one another in it. That is what Jesus taught and what he offered. Even the son of God suffered. It had nothing to do with deserving or punishment. It is hard enough to endure life’s hardships without thinking we are somehow responsible or bad.
Though a popular secular focus for living, our illusions of control and self sufficiency will fail us. Jesus made it clear to Peter and to us, that the life that gives life is a life of feeding and tending to one another. But this is not a one way street. He goes on to point out that all of us will need such care. The willingness to receive is every bit as important as the willingness to give. It is a false pride to insist upon self sufficiency and a false humility to act as if everyone else’s needs are more important than our own. A holy friendship (to borrow a phrase Todd has been using this week) meets people where they are and invites them into a relationship.
The Christian faith gives us direction for what to live for. And, whether we like it or not, it gives us straight talk about what we must face in real life. Jesus offered Peter both. Credibility and care are the heart and foundation for ‘holy friendships’. May we seek them and may we offer them.
Let it be so.
PS. In our discussion Monday night, we discussed how important it was to receive. Linda Huffine commented that we need to learn to say yes to the casserole. People need to be able to offer something and that something is often food. Saying no to the casserole is often an unwillingness to receive. We deny another the joy of giving. Hence, practice saying yes to casserole.