May 6, 2018

2018 May6

 

Easter 6 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

“I do not call you servants (δοῦλος should be translated “slave”)  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.”

 

In the original Greek, the word “servant” is δοῦλος, which should correctly be translated as “slave”. I wonder why the developers of the NRSV of the Bible chose “servant” instead.  Furthermore, the concept of friends and friendship in the New Testament  have quite an interesting history. The concept of being friends was not  always welcome in the Christian Church.

 

I  found this all very fascinating, and felt like today, with the two  words in the same sentence, was the best time to explore these concepts.

 

Let’s start with slavery. We have start with a different or better understanding of slavery than that of the American South and Caribbean from the 17C to 19C. The Anchor Bible Dictionary puts it most clearly:

 

“It  must be stressed that, for the most part, knowledge of slavery as  practiced in the New World in the 17-19C has hindered more than helped  achieving an appropriate, historical understanding of social-economic  life in the Mediterranean world of the 1C, knowledge which is absolutely  essential for a sound exegesis of those NT texts dealing with slaves and their owners or using slavery-related metaphors.”

 

That’s no surprise since most everything contextual in the Bible cannot be, and must not be viewed through our own cultural lens. Most slavery at the time of Jesus was not the specific racial, economic, educational, and political oppression that we know slavery to be – at all.

 

Of course, there were voices in Judaism, in Greece and in Rome, famous voices, famous writers who were opposed to, supportive of, and conflicted by the concept and  practice of slavery and people being or owning slaves. Aristotle believed that slavery was beneficial to both the master and the slave.

 

Slavery is mentioned throughout the OT, when and where the practice was taken for granted.  

 

Let me make an aside here. I had a student who was dyslexic and used that excuse to not read during worship. So, one day I remembered, and I printed the Bible reading on green paper, which helps dyslexics. I gave it to her when she arrived and was just hanging out on the couches that we had in Chapel. We had a social time before Chapel while we waited for students to get out of their evening classes. She was reviewing her OT reading, in which the 4th Commandment states, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. You shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave.” She took strong objection to the concept of slave, and refused to hear anything about the context of slavery. She drew everyone in Chapel into the conversation such that 2 things happened: We  didn’t move to the worship area and have worship because her objection took so long; and we weren’t  able to have a constructive conversation about slavery in the OT  because of her dominance over the conversation. The intended topic for that evening was how can we find rest in this 24/7 culture.

 

So, what wasn’t able to get into that conversation were the limits on the master’s powers, and rights for the slaves as part of Hebraic Law. There was some mention of the key turning point in Judeo-Christian history: the release of the Hebrews by the Lord from Egyptian slavery – the Passover and the Exodus – the origins of our Eucharistic worship. What the Exodus did was offer a powerful story liberation of enslaved people which provided a new understanding of the master-slave relationship, and the theological concept of being slaves of God, being in an honored and special relationship with God.

 

Within Judaism and Christianity that concept of being a “slave of God” continues today. But, it is clear that Jesus’ use of the term “servant” or “slave” in this passage does not refer to that. His emphasis is on slavery as a contract, and the opposite of slavery being personal freedom.

 

This is where we transition to concepts around “friends”.  Jesus used the concept of friendship to describe the superlative of relationships:  

 

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  

 

To lay down one’s life comes from an unbelievably strong bond, and Jesus is foreshadowing His own laying down of life for the world in the Crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t speaking of friends like gym buddies or my mother’s quilting group affectionately referred to “stitch ‘n bitch.” When using “friends”, Jesus is talking about something deeper.

 

Like with the concept and practice of slavery, our 21C understanding of friends and friendship is quite different than the concepts that were around in New Testament times. Outside of Judaism and Christianity, friendship was something that was key to shaping a person’s life and his attitudes, that put a mark on his identity, and a friend was like a mirror to self-knowledge. We have all had those friends who reflect back to us the characteristics of ourselves that we would rather not be conscious of. Those who can be that mirror to self-knowledge and remain friends are certainly part of our inner circles.

 

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, there are friendships between the Bible’s main characters. Jesus is described as a ‘friend’ of tax collectors and sinners, and He also describes the Disciples as friends. The term “friends” can refer to the “wise” who are “friends of God” (as in the Old Testament meaning): the “wise” are God’s friends.  

 

In the Early Church, Augustine stressed the importance of friendship as loving God and loving friends in God. Aquinas expressed charity as “friendship with God”, as well as one of the virtues that shapes Christian friendship. Aelred of Rievauh’s goes so far as to characterize “God as friendship”, and had a concept of spiritual friendship, which is to see others as “friends in God”. I’m sure all of us have used a phrase like “friends in Christ.”

 

It’s hard to believe, but at
various points, Christianity has
been hostile to friendship.

 

The Gospel teaches agape as the virtue which all Christians should strive to achieve with one another, a type of love that is so broad and encompassing that we love – have agape with – even our enemies. So, some Christians believed that friendship gets in the way of agape. As if a friend would be like a teachers’ pet – teachers are supposed to treat every student the same. Or at summer camp when we were told before each weekly cohort came in: You don’t have to like them, you just have to love them. The “like” would be reserved for campers that you are friendly with, but “love” was agape for all campers, even the obnoxious ones. Some Christians, therefore, found no place for the “like”, because that’s earthly, and we should all be striving for agape, which is heavenly.

 

So, as we delve into the history and context of both slavery and friendship, we discover that neither  were defined in New Testament times as they are now, and neither have  always been viewed as universally bad, or universally good. That seems pretty consistent with real life.

Today, Jesus proclaims:  

 

“I do not call you slaves any longer, because the slave 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.”  

 

With our 21C understandings of “slave” and “friend”, we breathe a sigh of relief and shout “Hurray!” But what Jesus is actually doing is changing our relationship with God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before, that honored and special relationship we had as “Slaves to God” after the Exodus was a relationship in which we could be passive. Now, we are friends who are entrusted with everything in His Divinity that the Human Jesus has imparted upon us…and with that we are to go and bear fruit. This is a new, more special and deeper relationship…with a lot  more demanded of us. There is a lot more demanded of us because of what God as Jesus is about to do. We are now friends of Christ in which there is a bond of mutuality that makes every interaction deeply significant – Jesus’ Death will be more than His Death, but a death – and a Resurrection – shared among friends.

 

We are no longer in a relationship of fealty, but one of mutuality. What Jesus is doing is re-establishing the Covenant: it’s not a contract in which the two parties are separate but equal; it’s not a hierarchy in which we simply wait for God to tell us what to do; it’s a mutuality in which both parties have shared responsibility for the Covenant. Jesus’ end of the Covenant was to lay down His life; our end of the Covenant is to the Love the Lord our God, and to bear fruit.

 

So, “What a friend we have in Jesus” had nothing to do with this passage, it contains some of the elements that help us understand it. In this new way of relating to God, who, for the first and only time, stood before humanity as human, we have a friend on whom we can rely, through whom we can take it to the Lord in prayer, and God will give us whatever we ask. (As that sinks in, I just want to clarify that I’m not preaching that God answers our shopping list of prayers. We’ll talk about prayer another time.)

 

Our sequence hymn emphasizes this new friendship we have with Jesus, one  through which we have access to the Godhead in prayer. Our final hymn (#593) brings back the notion of servant in a version of the Prayer of St  Francis in which we plead to be made servants of God’s peace.

 

But we are no longer slaves,
but friends!

 

Despite being called back into a different kind of relationship through the metaphors in the song, the Prayer of St. Francis is our asking for the strength to live up to our appointment within this new Covenantal relationship to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last: To be the peace of God that surpasses all understanding to the world and to love one another

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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