“Servant” is a word we throw around in the church a fair amount. We are all called to be servants of God and we are called to be of one another, we say. Also, much has been written about “servant leadership” in the church in the past few decades, as well as “servant ministry” and being a “servant church.”
The importance of the word comes from Jesus himself, of course, who in both Mathew’s and Mark’s Gospel tells us that in order to be great we must be a servant of all.
But we just heard Jesus say something (John 15:15) that does not often get remembered.
I do not call you servants 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.
What does he mean by this? A paraphrase might go like this:
I have called you servants, but I am not going to call you that anymore. I am going to call you friends. I can’t call you servants anymore because servants just do what they are told and I do not want to have that kind of relationship with you. I want you to walk with me just as I walk with God. I have shared everything with you that I have learned from God. That makes you my friends.
I think this is an incredibly important passage that does not get enough air time. Jesus does not want us to be his servants. He wants us to be his friends. That is radical.
Now, of course, he has just said in the previous verse that we are his friends if we do what he commands us to do. So is this typical religious double-talk? Is Jesus saying, “You are my friends, but only if you do what I tell you.” Which actually makes us not friends but servants, right?
I don’t think so, and here is why. I think the word “new” makes all the difference. What Jesus commands us is a “new” commandment, he says. That is how he introduced this teaching in his words immediately following the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:34).
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
How is this commandment “new?” A lot of people assume that it means that this was not something that had been commanded before, but clearly that is not true. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is a commandment from the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus did not make it up.
So what is “new” about Jesus command to love one another? I think what is “new” is that Jesus is trying to teach this commandment not as an obligation or duty, but as an offering out of a deep relationship. My love for you is not something I do because I have to, but because I want to, and I want to do it out of my own experience of Jesus’ love for me.
I love not out of obligation, but out of freedom, the freedom that is created when I am confident in God’s love for me. That love, of course, ought to include my willingness to be your servant, but this willingness is not because you are my master, but because you are my friend, and you are my friend because I know Jesus is your friend as he is mine.
This shift in attitude, perspective, and motivation is what happened to the apostle Peter in chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles. Peter’s relationship with people depended on the obligations placed on him by the law. These obligations divided up the world into “clean” and “unclean,” and this applied to people as it did to things like food.
Peter is a loyal follower of Jesus, proclaiming his resurrection wherever he went. But in chapter 10 Peter has a dream. It’s a familiar story to many of you. In his dream a sheet is lowered from heaven, in which are gathered up many animals, all of which were unclean. A voice in the dream tells him to feast on these animals. “Absolutely not,” he says, simply following what he has been taught all his life and what he knows the Scriptures say. “I will not eat anything unclean.” The voice replies, “What I have called clean, you must not call unclean.”
This scene repeats twice more, and then the voice tells him that a Roman centurion named Cornelius is going to ask Peter to visit him and he should do that. And so it happens, with Peter quite confused about why God would want him to visit a Gentile.
Peter goes and in a remarkable encounter Peter discovers what the dream means. “I now realize,” he says, “that God shows no partiality.” And if this is not radical enough, as he says this we get the words from this morning’s reading.
While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…
Astounding indeed. That was not supposed to happen. What Peter and his companions had every reason to believe was the natural and righteous order of things was violated before their eyes. And it was violated by God.
In the language of Jesus, Peter witnessed that God could be friends with anybody. The God of Israel could always be known by the company he kept, his chosen people. Suddenly it was no longer true. Friendship with God was shown not be particular, but universal.
To be fair, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves had been pointing in this direction all along. Most people had simply refused to see that. But there it was even in our psalm for today, 98, in the last verse.
In righteousness shall God judge the world and the peoples with equity.
Now I hope you can see how this is amazingly good news for all of us, although it has its very difficult side. It means that Jesus controls the word “friend” now, and not us. You have heard it said that you cannot choose your family, but you can choose your friends, but I tell you, if you are going to be a Christian, you cannot choose your friends either. They have chosen you just as Jesus has chosen you.
The good news this morning is that friendship with Jesus, and therefore with God, is given. Now friendship with God is no easy thing. In fact, it may turn out to be the hardest thing of all, at least partially because it takes away our ability to pick and choose who we befriend, because we are expected to be just as ridiculously indiscriminate as God is.
But thanks be to God for this indiscrimination, because it means ultimately that you and I can relax into God’s love, into Jesus’ embrace, into the possession of the Holy Spirit. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and relax into the friendship of God.
 Matthew 20:26, 23:11; Mark 9:35, 10:43. Interestingly enough, Luke does not contain these sayings.