May 6, 2018

CALLED TO BE FRIENDS

BIBLE READINGS
John 15:9-17

Acts 8:26-39

REFLECTION

A survey once found that around 60% of men over 30 could not identify a single person as their close friend. Of the 40% who could identify a person as their close friend, most of their friends were made during their childhood or time in school. On the other hand, most women could identify not only one, but five or six people as their close friends. And a lot of these relationships were still functioning.[1]

This is not surprising. We do know that women are more sociable than men. Some say that girls learn how to talk before they learn how to play. On the other hand, boys learn how to play before they learn how talk. This is an over exaggeration and generalization, but I think we cannot dismiss it completely. In general, women have more friends, long-lasting friends, than men.

I can see this in my own life. My wife and I went to the same university. And she still keeps in contact regularly with many of the friends she made there. On the other hand, I don’t keep in contact with any of my friends in university anymore (except on very rare occasions on Facebook).

But, friends are necessary for our well-being, whether we are males or females. Jesus called his closest followers “friends” long before they were called Christians. For Jesus, it was important not only to have friends, but also to be a friend to his disciples.

In ancient time, there were two kinds of friendships. The first was the kind of friendship between a patron and his/her client. There was no mutuality in this relationship. One had more power than the other in this friendship.

The second kind of friendship was a relationship that was more egalitarian in character. In this kind of friendship, one would always look for the well-being of his/her friend. One would defend one’s friend with one’s own life in.[2] There was no hierarchy in this relationship. One was equal to the other.

When Jesus called his disciples as his friends, he must have had the second kind of friendship in his mind. Jesus was talking about an egalitarian kind friendship. He was talking about the kind of friendship that we often warmly describe as ‘mate-ship’ today.

Yes, Jesus and his disciples were mates. Jesus was still their leader and teacher, but he did not want to create any barrier between him and them. He never treated his disciples as those who should only obey and listen to his directions. He treated them with respect as his mates.

And how did they know that Jesus was truly their mate? They knew it because Jesus sacrificed his own life for them on the cross.

But Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not the end. The community of believers that he created must also become a community of friends. It must become a community where people are ready to give themselves for one another as friends, no matter who they are.

Every year on ANZAC Day, more and more people commemorated indigenous soldiers who served in wars. Indigenous people were exempted from war service, but many voluntarily joined the military. They fought side by side with their non-indigenous mates. Many didn’t return home.

Those who did faced another ‘war’. They faced racial discrimination and were treated as second class citizens in a land that they had fought for.

One of them was Cecil Grant, a Wiradjuri man in his early 30s from New South Wales. He fought Hitler’s army in the Middle East and was known as one of the ‘rats of Tobruk’. He survived the war, but lost his brother in it.

Upon returning home, the country he fought for still didn’t fully recognize him. He struggled to send his kids to the town school. He even had to fight to get the settlement block of land that was his right as a soldier who served in the war.

One day, after marching with his mates during ANZAC Day parade, he went to a local pub with them. Despite his war medals, local police stopped him from entering the pub because of his skin colour. But his digger mates formed a circle around him and walked him inside, defying the police. That is what true friendship is all about. True friends will look after one another and protect one another in the face of adversity.

Despite all of its horrors, war is the great leveler of social disparities. When you are in a battlefield, it doesn’t matter whether the person next to you is black or white or purple. When you are in a battlefield, it doesn’t matter whether the person next to you went to the same school or not. When you are in a battlefield, you are there for one another, regardless of skin colour, creed, or gender.

The Gospel too is the great breakers of social walls. It crosses all the boundaries that we create to separate and differentiate ourselves from one another. It makes strangers into family, rivals into partners, enemies into friends.

We can see this in the brief relationship that Phillip had with the Ethiopian eunuch, told in the book of Acts. Ancient world had an ambiguous relationship with eunuchs. On one hand, they were often the people whom kings and queens most trusted. As such, they often held important positions in palaces.

For example, the eunuch whom Philip met on the road was in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia, a powerful kingdom in Africa in ancient time. This important man was travelling in his chariot, perhaps the equivalent of a Ferrari in modern world.

On the other hand, eunuchs were ostracized. The Ethiopian eunuch that Phillip met was what then known as a ‘God-fearer’. They were non-Jewish people who had embraced the Jewish faith and worshipped with other Jewish people.

But a eunuch like him would have been excluded in the ritual in the temple in Jerusalem. Even as someone who had embraced the Jewish faith, he would never be fully admitted into Israel’s community. A eunuch like him would forever be someone who was seen as ‘far off’ in ancient Jewish religion.[3]

But the Gospel breaks all kinds of barriers. It created an opportunity in which a Jewish commoner, like Phillip, met a high-ranking Ethiopian eunuch. In the chariot, they sat side by side as equals. In the chariot, there were no longer a Jew or an Ethiopian, a commoner or a high-ranking official, a castrated or non-castrated man. In the chariot, they both were just people who had received the grace and mercy of God through Jesus. Through the baptism, the eunuch finally found a community that fully embraced him as who he was.

Friends, Jesus calls all of us as his mates. That is our true identity. That is one thing that truly defines who each one of us is. We are not defined by how much we have or where we come from or how we look. We are defined by who we are in God’s eyes.

And because we are Jesus’ mates, we are mates to one another. And true mates will care for one another and protect one another. Just like Cecil Grant mates formed a circle around him to defend his dignity, we are to form a circle of love around one another in times of adversity. Only then that we can truly say that Jesus lives in us and we live in him.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] David Leininger, Jesus’ Friend, in www.sermon.com

[2] Osvaldo Vena, Commentary on John 15:9-17, on www.workingpreacher.org (May 6 2018)[3] Mitzi J. Smith, Commentary on Acts 8:26-40, www.workingpreacher.org (May 6, 2012)