Read John 15:9-17 - I tested a theory this past week. When I was first called as your pastor I asked a lot of people how they found Holy Trinity. Lots of folks told me, and still tell me, that when they googled “friendly churches in Nashville” HTCC came up first in the search. Well, I googled friendly churches in Nashville, and sure enough…we came up as the number one friendly church in the city. Number one! What were the other churches identified as friendly churches in Nashville? Number two was Friendship Baptist Church on 32nd Avenue and number three was Friendship Pentecostal Church on 62nd Avenue in the Nations neighborhood. Seriously! I’m still at a loss how this happens. We don’t have friendly or friendship in our name, but our name comes up first in a google search for friendly churches in Nashville. And I think that is amazing! Now even if we don’t know how this happens, what is important is that being identified as a friendly church is very important to us. And it’s not just important to us…it is important to most churches. It seems that “friendly” is the quality to which most churches aspire. For the core belief behind this is; the underlying motivation for churches to be considered friendly, is that if you can be friendly, then people will feel welcome and want to come back.
It reminds me of the story of a woman who moved to a new town and began to look for a church home. She visited a nearby church that was very beautifully decorated with uniformed ushers both on the outside and the inside of the church. As the organ played she noticed there was a quietness in the church (not a sound). The organist was playing "I've Found Him". The woman stood and cried out in praise. An usher rushed over to her and said "you must be quiet in here!" Embarrassed, the woman sat down. As the song continued the woman again jumped up and cried "Yes, I've found him!" The deacon then came over to the woman and said "you must be quiet or we will ask you to leave". The woman replied, "I can't hold my peace . . . I've found the Lord." The Deacon replied "well you didn't find him in here so you must sit down, be quiet, or leave."
So what exactly does it mean to aspire to be a friendly church? Did Jesus have anything to say about it? In our text from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus is portrayed as giving "last instructions" to his friends before his final farewell. They are, of course, theological reflections of John, the author, trying to put into words the essence of Jesus teachings to his followers. Normally the gospel of John deals with deep, complex matters written in poetic, often mystical language. But, in this week's reflection Jesus sounds anything but complicated. He is putting into words what seems to be the bottom line for what our relationship with him is to be like. He tells his followers, and through his followers, tells us, that they are no longer servants but friends; and he makes an absolute, uncompromising promise to stand by us no matter what might happen. In other words, he will go on loving us, go on praying for us, go on pleading our cause in good times and bad, success and failure, trouble or joy. You can even imagine him singing the lyrics to one of the Beatles’ famous songs, "All You Need is Love." Jesus is trying to convince the disciples that he and God would stand by them no matter what. "Because that is what love is - the kind of love I am, the kind of love God is," says Jesus. "I'll never be ashamed of you, never reject you, never run out on you; because you are my friends."
But, of course, friendship is a two-way street. And that is why Jesus adds, "This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends." "If you're going to be my friends," Jesus is saying, "then I expect you to be there for one another, too, just the way I am there for you. I'm not calling you servants anymore but friends because now you know what I am all about.
Friendship, in other words, the kind of friendship Jesus expects us to demonstrate to one another is like a blank check. It is a promise of commitment with no strings attached and no holds barred. That should be enough to make people like you and me nervous. Because if we are really serious about this business of being Christian, then our commitment to one another is expected to be like that. It means that we won't head for the hills when the chips are down, won't let somebody revel in his or her self-pity or self-hatred, won't let each other quit, won't let anybody paralyze themselves with remorse or guilt. When you're somebody's friend, the way Jesus is to us, you don't desert them when they fail or do something wrong. You don't give up on them.
So if our church is really friendly, then that must mean we are all friends. We each have significant friendships with each other. We are more than just friendly; we are each real friends to one other. Now I must get one of those mushy "friendship" messages by instant message at least once a day. You know the ones that a FB friend sends to you and expects you to pass it on or you aren’t really a good friend? I hate those. I never pass them on. These messages always sound good but never actually come close to reality. Well, here is a series of quotes that really speaks to true friendship!
- One good reason to only maintain a small circle of friends is that three out of four murders are committed by people who know the victim - George Carlin, comedian.
- When you are blue ... a true friend will try to dislodge whatever is choking you.
- Friends are people who know you really well and like you anyway. - Greg Tambly, singer/song writer.
- Friends are what God gives you to make up for your family. - Bruce White
- A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though they know that you are slightly cracked. - Bernard Meltzer
- A good friend will come and bail you out of jail...but, a true friend will be sitting next to you saying, "Wow...that was fun!" - Anonymous
But our text today isn’t just talking about friendship. That's not all that it means. Just as Jesus reserves the right, as a friend, to make big demands on us, if we are real friends we too will never hesitate to demand the best of others and are never satisfied with less than the best from others. Because our real friends are a joyous burden; they chain us and bind us because they will not permit us to run away from them or from that which is best in ourselves.
That is the nature of the kind of friendship Jesus commits himself to in this week's gospel; and it is the kind of friendship he demands we show to one another. Accepting the worst in each other and demanding the best. Standing by each other in times of trouble. Challenging each other when we become complacent. Never letting go of each other at those times when we desperately need a friend. If it sounds like quite a challenge, that's because it is. But it’s these kind of challenges that will create the ripples of God’s love through each other and out into the world. It’s a way to pay if forward. (Excerpts from Barry J. Robinson’s sermon, “Friendship with Jesus” from May 23, 2003 – www.fernstone.org)
Unfortunately, friendly churches have a unique challenge. Can it maintain its friendliness even when things get tough and people disappoint each other? Getting offended by each other is usually our first response when our ability to stay connected begins to wane. Some of us have been reading together in our small group studies, Unoffendable. In Chapter 10, the author Brant Hansen references an interview by the Christian hip-hop singer, Lecrae, who is an outspoken believer and shared the intense criticism he gets from working with people who are non-Christian. People judge him harshly for hiring sound engineers, or choreographers or background singers who are not professing Christians. “You can’t surround yourself with these sinners, Lecrae. That’s bad. You can’t let them participate in your ministry.” The article went on to explain this mindset. Evangelicals adopted an isolationist mindset for much of the 20th Century. Non-Christians, the thinking goes, carried sin like a virus, and the point of following Jesus was to remain as pure as possible. Christians established their own communities, educational institutions and music festivals, separate from the rest of the world. And we as Christians are to be on guard, on defense, guarding ourselves against contamination from sin. This fear of sin is based on the idea that God and the enemy, the devil, are equals…caught up in some classic melodrama of good versus evil. God on one shoulder, Satan on the other, whispering into our ear one telling us to be nice and the other telling us to be selfish. One telling us to love people, and the other telling us we need to judge them.
But here’s the truth of that fear. The kingdom of God does not need us to defend it. In fact, in our scripture Jesus is sending out his followers out to love others, and they must go everywhere, even through the gates of hell to do it. And this is why. Christians do not need to condone unbiblical beliefs and living; we redeem it. Our goals with relationships, with friendships, is not trying to change people. It’s to introduce people to a God who is already reaching toward them, right where they are. And perhaps that’s what I am most passionate about. Showing God’s grace to people who don’t believe it exists, whether they be gay, straight, in drag, drunk, or depressed. I would rather share the good news of Jesus Christ to people who are desperate for it, then with someone who wants to debate with me what it is. And that friends, is the definition of friendship…the model for being a friendly church.
If we look at some of the best literature on friendliness, one book at the top of the stack would most likely be Dale Carnegie’s famous work “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Carnegie’s eight suggestions for making friends and growing your circle of influence is really simple and easy to follow. We used these techniques in our youth program at my first church called Spirit Quest, to teach respect for the self and others. You can find them in your bulletin.
- Never criticize, condemn or complain: but instead
- Positive Reinforcement works better.
- Become genuinely interested in other people: by
- Talking to them in terms of their interests.
- Be a good listener, and give others your exclusive attention.
- Make the other person feel important.
- Use their name whenever possible. And of course, always
Good words for not just a friendly church; but for a church that is relevant and real. And churches that are relevant and real will have a ripple effect on its own people…and they will have that same effect on their own friends and community. Being a friendly church is just the beginning…and it’s really great that Google says we are the friendliest church in Nashville. But what’s more important is that God knows we are…but He also knows that we can be more than that, even when times get tough. So…let’s be real church. Let’s be friendly. Let’s be loving. That is all that God requires of us. And we can trust that God will do the rest. Amen