2018 6th May - "Knowing how your friends are"

Readings: 1 John 5-1-6; John 15:9-17

According to the Gospel writer named John, Jesus made a long after-dinner speech to his disciples on the eve of his arrest and crucifixion. Covering four chapters, this discourse focuses on the relationships between Jesus, the God he called Father, and Jesus twelve intimate friends. He spoke of their close interdependence with him and each other, and the need to stay connected as a loving community. The energy to sustain this missional community and bear the fruit of their witness to Gods love would come from him, like the life in the branches of a vine come from staying connected to the roots and main stem.

By the time these words were written, (and very few serious scholars believe that they are verbatim what Jesus actually said that fateful night) the early church was facing great hardship and persecution. In addition, if internal rifts were not already in evidence, they were surely on the way. In order to survive this and thrive, sacrificial love between them would be the key to their communal life. "This is my commandment (says Johns Jesus), that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down ones life for ones friends.

In a congregation like ours, people have long experience and clear understanding of what friendship is about. We have all, I am sure, been in challenging situations where it can be said that you quickly find out who your friends are. When the chips are down and the temperature is up, it is usually those who have been in a similar situation themselves who understand the territory and stay close when the going gets tough. When we have faced our own emotional upheavals, we are more likely to not run away when a friends starts to cry. In the three major crises of my life: the death of my parents, leaving my homeland South Africa, and in a marital separation, there were those who stayed close and stood strong and those who kept their distance or stood in judgment.

The quality of love that Jesus speaks of, that holds people together in fracturing situations, is more than just an emotional attachment. It is the "Agape that Kim spoke of last week; love that has a divine quality to it; love that can lay down its own life when it needs to.

As we consider the call of Jesus for communities of faith to love in this way, it is important to understand the differences between the community he was addressing, and a church such as we are here. For one thing, they were a group under intense pressure, both from the Roman rulers who resented them having a God other than Caesar, and from their own Jewish communities, where they were seen as traitors. For some, their lives would have been under daily threat, and "laying down ones life for another would have been a literal possibility, somewhat like soldiers in the trenches. Theirs was a community living on the edge of danger, intense in its conviction and intensive in its outreach of care.

Their community also differs from ours by degree, in that they had been together as a tight band since Jesus called them to follow him. They lived, walked, worked, camped together on a daily basis. They went through the horrors of the crucifixion together, and as a team they grappled with the mystery of the Resurrection. They were together when the Spirit fell on them at Pentecost, and lived in community after that, sharing everything they had, and serving the poor in their surrounding area.

We are not quite like that! In our very different social structure, individual living, even isolation, is more the norm. By and large, we all have, or have had, our own car (or two), our own lawnmower, clothes-dryer. We buy our own food, or grow it, and eat it ourselves. We are not called upon to share much at all. We have our own families to attend to, and many of us go away on a semi-regular basis. Most of us do not see most of the rest of us from one Sunday to another. Some know what it means to lay down their lives for their children and grandchildren, but how does "laying does our lives for our friends work in our community context?

For starters, there is actually more interaction among us that might be obvious at first glance. For example, a group of women here go to lunch together at a local hotel every Sunday after church. Every Saturday morning, a mens and a womens coffee group meet informally at harbourside venues. A group of about 30 Incredible Edibles meet for dinner and fun every two months or so. We find some of our friends at Bills Place once or twice a week. Some do craft activities, others regularly walk together. Beyond that friends catch up with each other in various places and ways. It may be worth noting that whatever else happens at these occasions, sharing a meal or refreshments is a common theme. Just as Jesus chose a shared meal to impart his wisdom abut love to his followers, so do we finds the act of eating and drinking can be a shared, bonding, even sacred experience.

A lot of the fellowship that happens here is also around tasks of mission and ministry. Elders and Church Council meet regularly to guide the work of the congregation. Groups like the Christmas Tree Carnival Committee, for example, find shared satisfaction in facilitating a generous and enjoyable experience. Any community of faith worth its salt finds spaces for its members to be together, to serve and be served; to be treated as special. This is how we are when we at our best. And it all takes a certain amount of laying down of life for the sake of the greater good.

It is also worth mentioning that in the ethos of the Uniting Church, the primacy of inclusion is the most valued and valuable part of who we are in the opinion of our members. This means that our love is not confined to one another, but ideally washes in and out to the wider community. I was moved during the week to see this tweet from SBS News: "Gods Good Creation- Uniting Churchs key governing body (that is the Assembly Standing Committee) endorses same gender marriages. This was followed by affirming messages on Twitter from psychologist Dr Stuart Edser and author Dr Rachel Heath about how this congregation and others in the area stood up and spoke out for marriage equality during the traumatic experience of the postal survey. Our instinct is to say YES unless for safety reasons or matters of principle we absolutely have to say NO.

This leads me to say that while what we know of persecution is negligible compared to that early church community of Johns Gospel and Letter, there are times, which I believe are currently on the increase, where taking a stand for the love of the vulnerable might bring threats of recrimination, be it violent or coercive, legal and illegal. For example, Father Rod Bower, rector of the Gosford Anglican Church has recently received threats that his church will be burnt down, by someone who resents his stand for asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru. Rod also spoke recently about a Queensland woman who was detained while protesting against the proposed Adani Carmichael Coalmine in Queenslands Galilee Basin. Under legislation I did not know even existed, she was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation on the basis that her actions were seen by the authorities as "excessive! Now, we are used to the fact that at least most of the time, in Australia, one can speak ones convictions in relative safety. However, if these incidents do not raise red flags or ring alarm-bells for Auatralians, we are not just asleep- we are positively comatose. There are most disturbing signs of change for the worse , under a regime that makes it clear that they would prefer our fearful obedience to our courageous convictions.

Nevertheless, two things make us less afraid than they would hope. One is having a clear set of guiding principles based on Christs teaching of the common good. The other is the reassurance we get when we stand together as an alternate community of love.

I am sure we all have stories about what it means to lay down ones life for ones friend. If you wish to share such a story with the congregation, please let me know and I will make a space for you in a future service. And while I know that such generosity is frequently found in the wider community, there is something qualitatively different about the level and intensity of such self-giving in a community that actually teaches, affirms and encourages such a "laying down of ones life. For example, in the alternative form of the Lords Prayer that we will be using today in the communion service are the words "In the hurts we absorb from each other, forgive us. Now I dont take that to mean that we should just cop any and every bit of rubbish that a Christian colleague might throw at us. There is however a quality of sacrificial love that can absorb hurt, and respond in a deeply Christian way rather than react defensively on the spur of the moment. Intentional communities are mature enough to grow from conflict rather than just be torn apart by it. Laying down our lives for one another can also mean laying down our weapons, or a Jesus said it, "Put away your swords.

It should also be noted that "laying down our lives for our friends goes much further that the circles of this congregation. In our vastly different circumstances from the early church, there are times when we are challenged to lay down our privileges, lay down our advantages, lay down our conveniences for the sake of friends near and far. For example, Australia has gained a lot of prosperity from the mining and export of fossil fuels. It is now past time to consider our friends in low-lying Pacific Islands, or the deltas of Bangladesh, who are on the front line of rising sea levels. And what of our friends, the corals and clownfish and cormorants of the Great Barrier Reef? So much life is now at risk because the few have taken far too much. What advantages are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the health of our friendly creation?

"Laying down our lives means being there for one another in good times, and especially in bad, bearing one anothers burdens and sharing one anothers joy. Because we are not in the hothouse situation of the early Christian community, we may much of the time have to be more intentional than spontaneous. Obedience to God in such situations means being obedient to our spiritual values, our guiding principles that grow in us when we abide in Christ.

When we are at our best, we know who our friends are. They are here.

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