Text: John 15:9-17 (RSV)
9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants,[a] for the servant[b] does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 This I command you, to love one another.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. AMEN.
There is a lot of food for thought in this passage. We almost invariably focus on Jesus’ command – as printed on the cover of our bulletin, for example – to “love one another as I have loved you.”
But there’s another statement Jesus makes that I think is just as important – and that’s where he tells his disciples that he no longer calls them servants, but friends.
The poet Arthur Mampel has this to say about friends:
Days with friends were
as my young papa
on a country road –
distance and snow
everywhere, a farmhouse
light was friendly.
Mampel’s poem evokes the warmth of friendship that can even protect us from the cold of winter. Just so does Jesus’ friendship to the disciples keep them warm in moments of fear and stress. And just so does the legacy of Jesus’ friendship keep us together in this brave and wonderful little community of ours.
For me as a pastor, one question that arises from this, though, is: Can pastors have friends among the members of their congregations? If you ask 10 pastors whether it’s “OK” to have friends among his or her church members, you will never get a uniform response – some will say “of course it is – some of my best friends are members of my church,” others will say “maybe in special circumstances,” and still others will say “never in a million years.” That last is the opinion that I have heard most often; the pastor is supposed to be aloof or always on the periphery of the congregation, that she or he can be “friendly,” but not a “friend.”
While it’s true that the pastor is always “the Other” in a church – that’s kind of baked into the profession – for the most part, I think that’s nonsense, and even more to the point, unworkable. I honestly don’t know how those pastors who live that way can do it. In fact, many of them ultimately can’t – I came across an article on the “Ministry Matters” website which quotes the alarming statistics one researcher, John Maxwell, CEO of InJoy, author of books such as Failing Forward, and former Wesleyan pastor, regarding the subject of pastors and friendship. The result of his research indicated that over 70% of pastors have no close friends at all. Indeed, many pastors live out their ministry in isolation and loneliness.  Sooner or later, they burn out.
It seems to me that you can’t preach to people about the warmth of the friendship and love of God without mirroring that in your own life and in your interactions with the people with whom you serve. I am all about relationships, and fellowship, and helping people enjoy and live out the Resurrection life Jesus calls us to share. I should be clear that all the rules and standards of professional, ethical, and moral behavior that the church has established over the years, all the boundaries that should and do exist between pastor and church member, are not negated by anything I’m saying – what I am saying, though, is that I most definitely take to heart Jesus’ words about considering his disciples to now be his friends, and the subsequent actions that flowed from that attitude, and allowing that to be a guide for me. I would go ever farther and say that not doing so, not taking Jesus’ words and example to heart, to maybe maintain some rigid sense of professionalism, perhaps, actually goes against those words and that example. In the article where I found the statistic on clergy burnout, the author, Todd Outcalt, quoting this morning’s Gospel lesson, writes that “The pastor as friend is also the model that Jesus used in his relationships. In the gospel of John, Jesus ends his earthly ministry by calling attention to these deep friendships that have marked his life. ‘No one has greater love than this,’ Jesus says, ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends … I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’ (John 15:13-15).”
So, as far as I am concerned, the idea that a pastor can’t be friends to members of a church is nonsense. Sure, there are pitfalls, just as there are pitfalls in any relationship; but I would say that the potential benefits of achieving deep and abiding relationships that reflect the relationship God through Jesus Christ calls us to share with one another by far outweigh those pitfalls. One practical example: If a person who comes to me for help senses that I am aloof and standoffish, chances are that person will be very reluctant to share with me just what it is that brought her or him to me in the first place – and an opportunity to minister to that person is lost beyond recall. And at the end of the day, everything we as the church are about, is to minister to others. Our rules, procedures, committees, even our church building, are valuable only insofar as they help us to minister; they are means to an end. They are not the end itself.
That also means, by the way, that I really don’t like the title “the Reverend.” It’s derived from the Latin term “reverendus,” and basically means that the person addressed with this honorific is “one who is to be revered/must be respected.” This makes me queasy. Although I truly believe – because I have experienced it firsthand – that ordination does indeed change the person being ordained, it does not confer any special grace or holiness upon that person, nor does it bestow some special magical powers of the Holy Spirit; neither does it confer upon the ordained some special character which sets that person apart. Ordination is the act of the church in choosing, appointing, and setting apart, through the laying on of hands, certain individuals to perform specific functions on behalf of the church. Those who are ordained are commissioned to declare the gospel of salvation.
I am no more worthy of being revered than anyone else – if anything, I think that every single one of us here today is as entitled to the title of “the reverend” as I am, because each of us has been called to serve as members of the Body of Christ. I’m like a bit of yeast that helps to make the whole loaf rise – but, again, I am by no means the only bit of yeast! Bottom line: We are all in this thing called ministry together. Things that help us minister should be fostered and strengthened. Things that don’t help us do that should be minimized or gotten rid of altogether.
What does all that have to do with being friends? Everything. When Jesus told his disciples that they were no longer his servants, his underlings, his “second string,” but his friends, he tells them this: “[F]or all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” They are no longer students. They have graduated. They are now fully equipped to do everything Jesus himself has done. What a powerful difference that one word, “friend,” makes! And he goes on: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Guess who’s a friend of Jesus today, right here, right now? All of us! The ministry that Jesus gives us is not just a set of tasks, it’s an incredible gift. We are friends with one another, and with the strength that friendship imparts to us, we can – loving each other as Jesus loves us – joyfully do our part as laborers in God’s own vineyard!
And I am honored and proud to call you all my friends!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Mampel, Arthur, “Friends,” in Silk Over Wood, London, Toronto, Chicago, International Theological & Philosophical Library Press, © 1981
 Quoted in Outcalt, Todd, “Can a Pastor Be a Friend?,” Ministry Matters, September 16th, 2016, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7747/can-a-pastor-be-a-friend
 My emphasis.