“Friends and Family”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 10, 2015 The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

John 15:9-17


I’ve always felt a little bit bad for Zebedee. Remember Zebedee? (Don’t worry, you didn’t miss it—he’s not in today’s reading. But I want to start with him anyway.) Zebedee was the Galilean fisherman whose two sons, James and John, left their nets and their boat and their father when Jesus came calling. I’ve always wondered what Zebedee did next. Where did he go? What did he do? How did he feel?

I imagine him leaping from his boat and running after them, tugging on their arms and trying to convince them to turn around and come back home, perhaps even falling to his knees on the lakeshore to plead with them. And then, when they had walked on and disappeared over the crest of the hill, I imagine him walking slowly home to tell his wife what had happened, how their two sons had left them, seemingly for good.

And then I wonder about James and John. How was that parting for them? I imagine them with tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats, emotional at the thought of leaving their home, even as they were drawn magnetically to follow Jesus. I imagine they looked over their shoulders more than once as they approached the point where the path curved and they could no longer see that stretch of shoreline they knew so well. And then, as they rounded that bend, I imagine that they would have walked quietly for a time, hearts full with memories of home and questions about what was to come.

And what about the other disciples? What about Simon Peter and his brother Andrew? We know they were from the town of Bethsaida, but we don’t know anything about their family. Were they also sad to leave their home, or were they, perhaps, relieved? Perhaps they had felt trapped in that small town where everyone knew one another’s business and there was no such thing as privacy. Perhaps they had felt stifled by the expectations put on them by their parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins. Perhaps they walked out of town sighing, “Free at last!”

What about Nathanael? Perhaps he was also relieved to leave his home. Perhaps home for him had been a place, not of safety, but of fear. Perhaps it had been the place where he learned to turn invisible while his parents fought, to slip out the back when his dad was drinking, to hide in his bed and pretend to be asleep so no one would touch him. Perhaps he had waited all his life for a chance to get away, and when Jesus came along, Nathanael saw the opportunity and seized the day.

What about Philip? Perhaps he had no parents left to leave. Perhaps his folks had died in an accident or an epidemic. Perhaps he was living alone in what had once been the family home, surrounded by memories of the ones he missed. Perhaps he came and followed Jesus in hopes of finding a new lease on life, a new purpose, a new community, a new family.

What about Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot? We don’t know the whole story of who their families were. We don’t know the whole story of why they left and followed Jesus. But we know they were human, which means they were probably like us, which means their relationships with their families were not always perfect, not always uncomplicated, sometimes really wonderful and sometimes really hard. And we know this, too: Jesus called each one of them, and he wove them into a new family, into his family, into the family of God.

And we know that Jesus gathered them together on the eve of his crucifixion and death. He spoke to them of what was to come, and they did not understand. But Jesus knew that one of his beloved friends would betray him, and indeed, Judas had already gone out to do just that. Jesus knew that families often struggle when betrayal and suffering knock at the door. So he turned to those friends of his, and he reminded them of how their shared story had begun.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he said. “From all your different experiences, from all your different family configurations, from all your different hometowns, from all your different lives—I called you to follow. I called you my own. I called you friends. I made you my family.”

And then he told them how much he loved them. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus said. “Abide in my love.” He didn’t say, “Go get the betrayer and punish him.” He didn’t say, “Chase down the denier and make him pay.” He didn’t say, “Find the one with whom you disagree and convince him that he’s wrong and you’re right.” He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

And because he knew that they had had different experiences of what familial love might mean, what it might look like, how it might feel—he gave them an example of what love looks like in his family, in the family of God. He brought them to that upper room, and he fed them a meal, and he knelt before them and washed their feet. He let go of pride, of status, of social custom. He set aside guilt and mistakes. He overcame every barrier that would keep them apart, every way in which their pasts would conspire to threaten their future.

As he washed their feet, he washed away John’s pain and sadness at leaving his home, James’ nostalgia for the favorite places of his childhood, Simon Peter’s resentment of his small-town life. He washed away Andrew’s irritation at the pesky questions his extended family used to ask. He washed away Nathanael’s fear and shame at the trauma he had experienced. He washed away Philip’s sorrow at the death of his parents. He washed away the burdens carried by Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, and he told them again who they were called to be.

“I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. And what do my friends do? How do my friends live? You love one another, you care for one another, you lay down your lives for one another if you must. You love one another as I have loved you.”


Beloved friends, disciples of Jesus, can you feel his presence, even now? As he did for those first disciples, so Jesus does for each of us. He kneels tenderly before us and washes our feet.

He washes away your pain and hurt at the sister you haven’t spoken with in years. He washes away the regrets and frustrations you feel about how your marriage did or didn’t work out. He washes away the shame you feel at the things you might have done to hurt others, and the things others might have done to hurt you. He washes away the grief you feel at the loss of loved ones whose presence you can no longer experience face to face, but whose spirits are very much alive in yours.

It’s not that he makes us forget them; it’s not that he takes them away, exactly. Rather, he weaves us into his family, the family of God—a family that stretches throughout time and space, a family in which all our earthly relationships are transformed and redeemed by the power of God’s love—a family in which, no matter what sorrows or what joys our families have held for us so far, we can live as changed people, as children of God, loving one another as Jesus loved us, as God loves us still. Jesus weaves us into his family, the family of God, so that God’s joy may be in us, and our joy may be complete.

May it be so.