“I Have Called You Friends…”

John 15:9-17

I got thinking about friends in these last days. Certainly because Jesus speaks of his disciples as ‘friends’ in this week’s Gospel. Maybe because last week I got to spend precious time with a couple of friends who live so far from where I do. But also because of a five minute conversation I shared on an airplane Friday afternoon.

Here is how it was. I wasn’t sitting next to her at first. Rather I had snagged the aisle seat in the row in front of her. I had been late in checking in online with Southwest, so I was way down the line in boarding. I expected to land in whatever seat was available, but instead there were still seats near the back. I always prefer the aisle seat. Not because I am tall… you who know me know that my height doesn’t really require it. To be honest, I always ask for the aisle seat because I don’t like to be trapped in unwanted conversation. I’m just enough of an introvert, you see. Sitting on the aisle gives me an easy escape.
Only there I was all settled into my aisle seat near the back of the plane. Others were still boarding. A couple who was clearly together caught my eye. On an impulse, I offered them my seat so they could travel next to one another. When I looked around I realized that all that was left was the middle seat right behind me. I climbed in over the man on the aisle, opened my book, plugged my ear-buds into my phone and settled in to read and listen to some favorite music.
Forty-five minutes later our plane landed in Raleigh. I wasn’t getting off, but everyone else was. Up to that point, I had shared no conversation with the woman by the window other than to tap her arm to see if she wanted a soft drink when the flight attendant couldn’t get her to raise her eyes from the magazine which seemed to have her undivided attention. Only as the rest of the passengers shifted in their seats, anxious to get on to various destinations, she looked at me sheepishly as she pulled a grocery bag out from under the seat in front of her. She offered then that her sister had asked for the kind of hot dog buns which split on the top. She’s turning sixty on Monday and it’s all she wants. With just a couple of sentences spoken, I picked up on the sharp edge of her New England accent: one shared by family as my dad had roots in Massachusetts. Before we knew it we were sharing all sorts of details about our lives. In five minutes time I learned that her mother just turned 80 and lives with her younger sister and her husband. That her dad had died the year before. During his last years in a nursing home her mother visited him every day. I heard about her disdain for winter (and it has been a tough one in Massachusetts), but their grandchildren are there and they won’t be quick to move away from them. I learned that she has her great-grandmother’s very extensive shell collection in her home… and that on a first visit last summer, a grand-niece of her husband’s thought her name should be “Shelly” instead of Chris. And she wasn’t the only one talking.  It was an utterly easy and unexpectedly rich conversation I shared with a stranger that afternoon. And I found I couldn’t help but wonder if given the chance to really get to know one another, if we might just be ‘friends.’
So it is that I find myself wondering at what makes some people friends and leaves others as mere acquaintances. What is it, do you think? Common values? A shared sense of humor? Just plain history? Is it a similar world view? Is it just that you find yourself sharing a common time and place and it is merely convenient? Or is it some combination of any or all of these?
Today Jesus calls his disciples ‘friends.’ At least in John’s telling now, his criteria for what makes a friend a friend is three-fold. Jesus’ friends are those who love one another. His friends are not merely servants (although we do serve him) because he has pulled us up to a level on par with his own. He does not leave us in the dark. Rather, he shares what it is he knows from the Father. And, finally to be Jesus’ friend means that he chose us to be this. Indeed, he chose us long before we chose him.

And so I think again of those I call friend. If I’m honest, my first criteria is not whether they love others, but whether they love me and I can find it in myself to love them in return. At the same time, it is so that I only call ‘friends’ those whom I trust to share what is dearest to my heart, what is truest in my understanding — as Jesus did with his friends. As for the choosing? I know it is so that we choose our friends, but more often than not I seem to have come upon them by accident. Like that woman in the window seat on Friday afternoon.

Only maybe it is no accident. Oh, it is not so that I believe God sits on a royal throne pulling strings so that I will encounter one person and not another. Not at all. Rather, I can’t help but wonder if a small kind gesture (and it really was small. I’m only 5.3″, after all) somehow opened me up to receiving kindness in turn. In this case a woman who told me the dearest parts of her life story in five minutes. One who I most likely will never see again, but who got me to thinking about friends. And who knows what sharing happened between the two I gave up my seat for? I do know that the woman caught my eye again as they inched their way to the aisle and though I could not say for sure, it seemed to me her eyes were full as she thanked me for my kindness.

It was such a small thing, my impulse to give up my seat for another. And yet, it is something I would not ordinarily do. In fact, I can’t remember ever doing so before. It is such a small thing, but maybe such small things can be  the beginning of loving one another as Jesus calls us to today. For who knows what fruit even such small things may bear? This much I do know. Loving others, even strangers, in small ways, potentially makes all of our lives richer. Which I would imagine was Jesus’ intent all along when he spoke the words passed on today. So just wonder with me what would happen if our small gestures grew into larger ones. Just imagine what could happen if we did start actually ‘laying down our lives for one another’ as Jesus did. Truly. Just imagine that.

  • Jesus calls his disciples ‘friends.’  What do you think he means when he offers this? How does Jesus’ definition of friendship here compare to your own?
  • What does it mean to love one another? How much do you think the small gestures matter? How might they lead to the sort of true sacrificial love Jesus points us to today?

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