I Have Called You Friends

Today’s sermon is about identity. Who are we, really? How do we understand ourselves? How do we understand one another? In today’s Gospel Jesus’ words to his followers are powerful, and they are concerned with identity: “I have called you friends.”

Jesus makes this distinction to a diverse coalition of folks he has collected on his travels around Palestine and Syria: Fisherfolk like Peter, Andrew, James and John, Matthew, a tax collector, Religious Zealots like Simon, Rich and influential women like Mary from Magdala, along with seemingly endless group of other women all named Mary. Jesus had collected quite the diverse crowd, and today he makes an important claim on their common identity: “I have called you friends.”

Jesus draws a distinction here. “I call you servants”  “no longer.” This word for servant, (doulos in Greek) is a difficult one for modern translators. The word could mean a paid servant or a person held in slavery. The term could also mean some other category of person who was subservient, like a student.

Jesus lived in a hierarchical time. It was clear who was on top, who was in charge in society. Everyone knew their place. Jesus’ band consisted largely of folks who had always been at the bottom, simple country people, fishers, women, workers. While there were a few folks who knew wealth and power in Jesus’ circle, the majority were more familiar with the identity: “doulos,” the subservient. Jesus was a teacher, he had every right to call his followers, his disciples, his students, “doulos.” But Jesus makes a different claim.

“I have called you friends.” Jesus says. He gives them a new identity. Your identity is not “less than” your master. You are not “beneath.” These words are radical. Jesus pushes back against the system of power that would put him on top. Jesus pushes back because there is work to do.

“I appointed you to go and bear fruit.” Jesus wants his followers to go and do what Jesus has done, to break down systems of power, to proclaim God’s Justice, to bring healing, grace, forgiveness and love. To do that work, the powerful and Godly work, they have to know who they are: beloved by God, chosen by Jesus. They share an identity: they are Christ’s friends.

Jesus’ radical redefinition of his followers as friends begs some questions: “How do we identify ourselves?” and “How do we identify others?” Let’s take these questions in reverse order.

How do we identify others?

I wonder how many of you thought, when I said the work identity that I was going to follow it with another word: politics. “Identity politics” was a phrase tossed around a great deal in the most recent election. Some candidates’ losses were blamed on playing “identity politics.”

Before the election and afterward, in this pulpit I carefully chose my words of caution about Donald Trump’s campaign. I said his rhetoric emboldened some of the most dangerous and hateful elements of our society. I stick by that statement. The question of “identities” was central to my caution about his candidacy. I am never sure the president’s own views. His style makes it difficult to pin down exactly what he believes, but his lack of care with identities strikes me as dangerous. This president is liable to make simplistic associations of “good” or “bad” with whole classes and categories of people.

This week a group of Central American migrants reached the US/Mexico border. On Easter morning, Easter morning, before going to services in an Episcopal Church, the president tweeted, bringing the nation’s attention to what he called a “dangerous” caravan of migrants making their way through Mexico. He used this claim of danger to advocate for tougher border enforcement and constructing a wall.

Let me tell you a bit about just one of the folks in this so called “dangerous” caravan. A young man named Hector worked in Tegucigalpa, Honduras as a mechanic. In addition to the rent on his shop, and on his home, he owed another weekly “rent.”  Hector, like thousands of small business owners in his city, was being extorted by a gang who claimed his street as their territory. The gang’s rent cost more than his house and shop together. Business was slow, so the gang took possession, kicked him out, and told him he had 32 hours to pay up, leave, or be killed.

The road to the United States is dangerous. The gangs and other criminal groups regularly harass, rob, torture, and kill migrants making their way north. Hector was looking for a safe way to escape. His only living relatives outside Honduras are already in the States. For the last several years, around Easter, a large group has gathered together, often with the help of churches along the road. The migrants travel in a group for safety, and they share resources and stories about the violence they faced back at home.

We know so much about this caravan because our partners at Cristosal in El Salvador regularly work with people like Hector, trying to escape the violence and extortion of violent gangs. Cristosal makes asylum claims for folks in courts and with the UN.

This week, Hector and that caravan reached Friendship Park in Tijuana. That park has a special place in my own story. Many of you know that before I went to seminary, as a young lay person working for the church in San Diego, I was part of a community that held weekly Eucharist in Friendship park. Ten years ago now, in that park, we celebrated eucharist, and each week we violated international law, passing the body and blood through cracks in the fence (thereby illegally importing food).

There in Friendship park, Eucharist took on a new meaning for me. The juxtaposition of the fence and the sacrament brought a theological conflict clearly to light. In a world that builds fences and walls of division between friends our worship became political. The Eucharist made us imagine a different possibility, a gathering of people not divided by a border, but united by prayer, united around a table, united in one identity as friends of Jesus.

Walking back to our cars from the fence many of us shared a sense that at the fence we were faced with a decision. Two conflicting symbol systems competed for our loyalties. We could choose to uphold the divisions of the border through our passive acceptance of the world as it was. But the sacramental signs of Eucharist invited us to more fruitful work, to give ourselves to a vision of the world that demanded protest, activism, and work to better know and serve the immigrant community.

I tell you these stories, about Hector nervously making his way north, and about my own experiences in the park he reached this week, because identity matters. How do we identify this young Honduran man? Do we see him as a victim of violence or do we classify him as an “illegal alien,” only looking to come cause trouble and take an American job? How we choose to identify Hector has real consequences.

Jesus’ words challenged his disciples. “I have called you friends.” Jesus was inviting them to examine, to slow down, to re-think. If my teacher calls me a friend, what do I call my student? What do I call my custodian? What do I call my mechanic? What does that mean about me?

What if my identity was not bound up in a game of above and beneath? What if we were not defined by our position on top or below? What if our identity rested on the common ground we share, all of us, as Christ’s friends? Re-thinking how we identify others moves us to re-think our own identity.

How do we identify our selves?

If you were to describe yourself in 5 words, what words would they be? In St. Louis, you’d probably name what high school you attended. Right, that’s the short hand here? In Washington DC, where I lived before here, you’d say where you worked: Senator so-and-so’s office, the department of energy, CNN. In both places an Episcopal priest from Colorado is met with a: “oh, that’s not what I expected you to say.” I know.

We all have short hand for identity. Jesus’ choice of “friends” rocks that system. Looking around at the strange collective of followers, these people who had little else in common besides a shared love of Jesus of Nazareth. They couldn’t use short hand. They couldn’t compare high schools. I venture Jesus was inviting his followers to something new. I have called you friends. Be friends to one another. Learn to see the beauty in your diversity. Learn to love, laugh at, and glimpse the breadth of God’s creation in your diversity.

Aristotle said that “a friend is another self.” In the closest friendship, identity becomes a porous boundary. We rub off on one another. I have been blessed with a number of these friendships, and I can testify that Aristotle is right. Much of the music I love, the food I love, many of my opinions, come from my close friends. To this day people mistake one of my best friends from high school as gay (he’s not). When they ask why he seems gay, he often says, “well I spent a lot of time with my friend Mike growing up.” True friendship, deep friendship changes us, forms us.

Deep friendship, life-altering friendship, that’s what Jesus uses to identify his relationship to his followers, to you and to me. Jesus’ statement is theologically profound. We believe Jesus to be the fullness of God. We don’t worship a bearded king in the sky. Our God is not some far off, untouchable, unknowable, deity. God does not look down on us with contempt. We are God’s friends. Jesus invites us to be shaped by God’s presence, by God’s love. Jesus invites us to learn to love as God does.

What would it mean to know, deeply, truly, that God loves us? Not just that, but that God likes us? God chooses us as friends? What would it mean if two of the first five words we used to identify ourselves were “Jesus’ friends?” Could we treat ourselves a little more gently? Could we give ourselves a little bit more grace? Could we encounter others, wildly different other people, and see them first as “God’s friends?” What would it mean for how we treated one another?

Jesus invites his followers to join a movement, to migrate, to make their way to another world. Christ’s friendship carries us to a new country, a new way of living, of being. Jesus proposed moving society to a place where everyone, every class and kind and age, and race and orientation and gender and ability, where everyone was gathered together around a table. Indeed Christ said that this sharing, this friendship, was already how God sees us. Jesus announced that in God’s country all people were welcome. In God’s country no one is subservient. No one is “less than.” In God’s country, all people are valued, and everyone, everyone is called “friend.”

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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