Sermon March 16

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

March 16, 2014

“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”

John 15:12-17

This passage in John’s Gospel is a wonderful statement about friends and the meaning of friendship. That’s a subject that we care about. Our friends mean a lot to us. And friendship is one of the real joys and blessings of life. Helen Keller once said: “With the death of every friend I love… a part of me has been buried… but their contribution to my being of happiness, strength and understanding remains to sustain me in an altered world.”

Nowadays anyone can open up a Facebook account on the internet and vastly expand their circle of friends. At least they are called friends. It just means that this is a person who can look at the pictures and writings you post on your Facebook page and you can look at theirs. The word friend has now become a verb; you friend someone else. But a Facebook friend just means someone you have a relationship with or at least a connection to, however tenuous. They may actually be an acquaintance, a colleague, a co-worker, a neighbor, a fellow member of a club or organization, or just a relative. The average person with a Facebook page has 130 friends. I even saw a survey that said that one-third of the friends people count on their Facebook pages are people they wouldn’t actually desire to spend any time with.

I say all this about friendship just to set us up for the question – Is God our friend? Jesus was known as a friend of sinners. Is he your friend?

One of the most loved and most sung hymns of the church is: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. It was written by Joseph Scriven in the mid-1800s. Scriven understood all about suffering and heartache. He was born in Ireland in 1819 and at the age of 25, the day before his wedding, his fiancé drowned. Scriven moved to Canada to start a new life and worked as a teacher. Years later, when he heard that his mother in Ireland was seriously ill he wrote her a letter and included this poem that he had written: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. Much later in life when Scriven was ill, a friend, who was caring for him, came across the poem at his bedside and asked if he had written it. He replied: “The Lord and I did it between us.” He said that he had written it to comfort his mother, never intending that anyone else should see it. The resulting hymn has been a comfort to a great many people ever since.

Our passage in John’s Gospel becomes all the more compelling for us when we understand the occasion and the setting. It took place on the evening of Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In the upper room they had shared a last meal together. There, Jesus their master, once again taught them by example, by washing their feet, to be servant leaders. He told them that one of them would betray him and he tried to prepare them for what would happen next – his death and resurrection.

After the last supper, Jesus and his disciples made their way through the city to the garden of Gethsemane. In the light of the bright full moon of the Passover season, Jesus used this opportunity for his last teaching to his disciples before his death. Earlier that night Jesus had given them a new commandment. He said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The paragraph we are looking at is bracketed by the same command. It starts off: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And the last sentence is: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

In this passage the Lord calls us friends. And in these verses I think we see four evidences or signs of that friendship. Two proofs of friendship are on his side and two are on our side. Jesus gives us two reasons why he calls us friends. The first one is in verse 13 – “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

How do we really know the love of God? Is it not in the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? I said last week that the cross is a window through which we see the love of God poured out for us. That Jesus gave his life on the cross for you and me is proof of his friendship.

Throughout this chapter, Jesus continually emphasizes his command that his disciples, the members of his church, are to love one another. The supreme demonstration of that love, what makes us his friends, is that Jesus gave his life for you and me.

How do we decide if someone is a real friend? The one unmistakable proof is sacrifice. A friend is someone for whom we are willing to make a sacrifice. Who do you call if you need help? – not an acquaintance. That’s just someone you nod and say hello to when your paths cross. If someone is going to go out of their way to help you, then chances are – that person is your friend.

Sometimes this is how we discover whether or not someone is a friend. When you have to give up something – like money, perhaps it will cost you something to help; or maybe it’s time, it takes you away from what you want to be doing; or it’s convenience, the effort and struggle takes a toll on you. But when you see someone make a sacrifice for you, you know you’ve got a friend. A friend is someone you can count on; the person who will give you the shirt off their back.

Jesus is saying – you can tell I’m your friend by what I have done for you. We might think – well actually Jesus died for the whole world. Jesus died for humanity. I’m just one tiny piece of this huge mass of people for which Jesus died. We might be tempted to think that way, but in this passage Jesus won’t let us. Yes, Jesus died for the world, but Jesus also died for you. If you were the only person in the world, he would have gone to the cross for you.

The second evidence of friendship we see from Jesus comes in verse 15. Jesus said: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

A friend is someone who takes you into his or her confidence; someone who talks things over with you. Jesus says – you are my friends and the proof of it is that I take you into my confidence and I make you partners with me in my mission. Friendship thrives on self-revelation. What Jesus modeled for his disciples was openness and self-revelation.

We may not be interested in having someone call us a servant. But when it comes to the God of the universe, that’s a description that we would welcome. Our highest honor would be to hear God declare to us – “Well done, good and faithful servant.” New Testament writers did not have any problem being called a servant. Paul starts off his letter to the Romans by saying: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” James begins his letter by saying: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But Jesus says something to us so much greater and more profound than that. He said: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” “I have called you friends.”

That makes me think of the way Jesus teaches us to pray. He said we are to call God – Father. That was a radical new thought for the Jews. The Jews were reluctant to even say God’s name. Jesus says to call God – Father. Today some people refer to God as the force, or the universal principle, or the higher power. But we know God as Father. There is an intimacy there. God is personal and loving. God knows all about me and God loves me. And God calls me – friend.

There are also two proofs of friendship that come from our side. The first one is in verse 14 and it may come off sounding awkward, like it’s not really about friendship. Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Are you a little disappointed to hear that? You are my friend – if; if you do what I command you. That sounds like – you do everything I tell you to do and I’ll let you be my friend.

Generally speaking, friendship is built on common interests and goals. We are usually traveling in the same direction with our friends. Jesus was saying – you are my friends when you do the things I am doing. To paraphrase a previous verse, Jesus said: by loving one another, everyone will know that you are my friends.

This whole chapter is built on Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you”. This isn’t a passage about obedience; it’s about friendship. If keeping all of God’s commandments was a condition of friendship, then it would be impossible for us. The only commandment here is to love.
Just as Jesus takes the Father’s love and gives it out to others, we are to take Jesus’ love and give it to others. That’s how we show that we are his friends. Jesus gives us what is his and he expects us to share it with others. Only someone who is really and truly a friend can give away what belongs to his friend. When we love just as Jesus has loved us, then we demonstrate that we are a friend of Jesus.

The second proof of friendship that comes from our side is found in verse 16. Jesus said: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”

The final evidence of our friendship with God is prayer. “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” Have you ever thought of your prayers as proof of your friendship with Jesus? Jesus invites his friends to pray. He is saying – use my name with the Father. Only someone who is a friend can do that.

Prayer is something that happens between friends. It is not a technique or an art form. It’s a relationship with someone who knows you and loves you so much that that person wants you to ask favors of him.

That’s what we see in the hymn we’ve focused on today. In the first verse it says: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” And then in the next two verses the line is repeated: “Take it to the Lord in prayer!”

Because you are a friend, God invites you to come to him. You are not a problem to God. He invites you to pray, to unburden your heart to him. And God promises that he will always be there to listen to you. We will not always get what we want, but that is only because God is wise and good. But he says – don’t give up; don’t be discouraged. Pray – and know that you have God’s whole attention and complete affection. There is nothing else in the universe that matters as much to God as you.

The good news of the gospel is that we have a friend in Jesus.

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