Bruce Birch's Sermon Text from Chapel Service Celebrating Dr. Sharon Ringe

May 28

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014 8:13 AM  RssIcon

The Friendship of God


A Sermon by

Bruce C. Birch

Scripture readings:  Isaiah 41:8-10 and John 15:12-17


It is always a privilege to preach in Oxnam Chapel and never more so than today when

            we recognize and honor the contribution of Prof. Sharon Ringe to Wesley

            Theological Seminary


Now, when you are the honoree you get certain privileges so this request to preach came with a specific text

            I am to preach on John 15 “I call you no longer servants but friends.”  I have

            taken this to include the entire remarkable passage in vss 12-17 bracketing Jesus’

            declaration of friendship in the command to “love one another.”

Now this choice of text is in no way surprising

            After all Prof. Ringe has a book entitled Wisdom’s Friends that is all about

                        Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel

            This is a wonderful and important book on the Gospel of John

                        Here I could embark on a brilliant and erudite summary of the connections

                                    Prof. Ringe has insightfully made in what she describes as

“an intricate tapestry that expresses the Christology and ecclesiology of the Fourth Gospel, formed by the intertwining images of divine Wisdom and friendship.”

                        It is a truly important contribution to Johannine scholarship


But I don’t think Sharon chose this text because she wanted me to review this significant work

            I have shifted from speaking of Prof. Ringe, my esteemed colleague, to speaking

            to my cherished friend, Sharon—

                        In the midst of this community of friends we call Wesley Theological


            And behind and beneath it all lies what Sharon’s scholarly work also knew,

                        The friendship of God


In the Gospel of John Sharon has pointed through the term “friend” to a deeper, more community based experience of God than often recognized or claimed in our theological reflections on God

            I think it is that aspect of God that has animated her ministry and her teaching

            I think it is that aspect of God that has resonated for her in this community of                                students and teaching colleagues


The term “friend” itself is not common in the OT and variants and uses of two terms for “love” are more common:  ‘ahav and hesed

            John 15 also relates being a friend to loving one another

But I chose as the OT text for today, Isaiah 41:8-10 because translators have almost universally used the term “friend” to translate the declaration that God makes there of Abraham:

            “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the offspring of

            Abraham, my friend…”

                        Like John 15 the deeper roots of servanthood lie in the notion of God as


                        And Abraham is the very beginning of our story as the people of God

                                    The beginning of the promise that God will raise up a people

                                    to share in bringing blessing to “all the families of the earth”

                                    Gen. 12:3

                        Servanthood rooted in friendship is then the basis to declare:

                        “Fear not, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.”

In many ways the image of God that is more common points to the power and sovereignty of God

            Creator by command of God’s word, deliverer of the weak and powerless, giver

            of commandments, judge of all the earth, God Almighty

                        We relate to such a God with praise, worship, awe and obedience


But the friendship of God offers another set of images—for God and for our response to such a God

            I want to point to three dimensions of the friendship of God that we see from the

            very beginning of the biblical witness; that should characterize the people of God;

            and that I think Sharon has highlighted in the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of

            John and in her own witness


1.  The first of these qualities of the friendship of God is intimacy

Intimacy is not limited to the delicate or tender

By intimacy I mean ‘engaged,’ ‘involved’, ‘vulnerable’

It is the opposite of God’s transcendence and power

In Gen 1 God commands creation by a word

But in Gen 2 God gets the divine hands dirty

            Fashions an “earth creature,” ‘adam from ‘adamah

            Breathes God’s own breath into this creature

                        What could be more intimate than that picture?

Intimacy is also vulnerability

            God tells Moses from the burning bush “I know your sufferings”

                        And in Hebrew the verb to know is close to saying,

                        “I experience your sufferings”

In the Gospel of John

            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the

                        Word was God…”

            But “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in the man called Jesus

                        The one who as God become flesh declared us “friends”

When Jesus’ friend Lazurus had died, even the one confessed by Martha

            to be “the Christ, the Son of God” wept out of love and grief for his friend

            And God in Jesus Christ chose to die because “God so loved the world.”

All of Sharon Ringe’s life and work has been shaped by her recognition of a

            God who risked intimacy and shared vulnerability especially

                        with those most vulnerable in the world

            This is the God who drew her attention whether it was in the impoverished

                        neighborhoods of New York City while she was at Union,

                        Or in the rural villages of Costa Rica where she spent many



2.  But Sharon’s work on the Gospel of John reminds us that to know the friendship of God is not to simply sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” while we “come to the garden alone”

            The friendship of God forms—demands—relationship

            We are as friends of God—of Jesus Christ—called into community

            Here’s a passage I particularly appreciate from Wisdom’s Friends

“When the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is said to have called his disciples ‘friends’ and then to connect that term to a commandment that they be willing to commit their very lives on one another’s behalf, just as he has done on their behalf, the text brings us up short.  This is far removed from the declaration of Charlie Brown…”A friend is someone who likes you.”

The intimate God of Gen. 2 created all things as interrelated

Abraham was the friend of God not as an individual privilege but because that

            friendship was the beginning of God’s formation of the community of

            God’s people

And it is love that characterizes that community and its relationships

Whether it is in Deuteronomy 7:8 “It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand.”

Or in John 15 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…I do not call you servants any longer..but I have called you friends.”

It is clear that the community of the friends of God is defined by love—God’s

            love and love of one another.

And it is equally clear that we cannot receive the friendship of God as isolated

            individuals apart from a community defined by love

Sharon Ringe has never wavered in her commitment to be a part of such


            She chose to be ordained because she sees teaching as a ministry of the

                        people of God

            And she chose to teach in theological schools because she wanted to

                        be part of the life of the friends of God, preparing to serve that God

            And I’m here to tell you, as someone who has been both her friend for

                        many years and her Dean for 12 years

                        That when she landed on you for regularly coming late into KG01

                                    it was not just that you had somehow offended her but that

                                    you had disrespected the community of friends


3.  But there is a third quality of the friendship of God that I wish to highlight

            It is diversity.

God is not Abraham’s friend as the granting of some personal privilege

            It is a friendship that initiates the formation of a community to join

                        in God’s work of bringing  “blessing to all the families of the


And according to a recent interview in Wesley’s alumni publication,

            Sharon Ringe found diversity to be her way into understanding the

                        community of Jesus’ friends in the Gospel of John

“My experiences with The Hispanic Summer Program (and I might add here, her extensive experience in Central America, particularly Costa Rica) remind me that when we talk about reading the Bible contextually we need to be aware of the diversity of the human community.  The Gospel of John was written by a community in exile—a community of immigrants…It’s written for the immigrants who are immersed in a new country.  My understanding of the Hispanic Latino experience in America helps me appreciate the twists of the language in John.”

The friendship of God forms community not as an end in itself but because “God so loved the world…

            It is the vocation of the friends of God to find ways to extend that love of

            God to all

Here I have to get a bit more personal

            Because I first became Sharon Ringe’s friend in a community of the

                        friends of God trying to extend the diversity allowed into

                        the discussion of the Bible

            We were both members of a subcommittee of the Liberation Theology

                        Working group in the AAR on Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

                        A group chaired by Letty Russell

            I don’t know what I was doing there

                        I think I just wanted to hang out with someone who would                                                 eventually co-edit The Women’s Bible Commentary

            Sharon had articles in many of the earliest collections of feminist biblical


            And when the SBL finally included a section not just of Women in the                              Biblical World but of Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible, Sharon

                        Ringe was its co-chair

The voices of women, of other cultural or racial contexts, of those marginalized in

            one way or another—these are all representative of those God in Jesus

            Christ invites into the community of friends

But here is the important point, which Sharon made so eloquently in Wisdom’s

            Friends, when Jesus declares his followers not just servants but friends

then all who become part of that community of friends become connected

to a God who extends that invitation into friendship without boundaries or exclusions


The friendship of God speaks of the constant invitation of One who is sovereign and powerful to join in a community who, with God, especially as known in Jesus

  • risk intimacy and vulnerability,
  • choose the community relationship of love,
  • and in partnership with God extends the invitation to all to become part of that community with full presence and voice.


We gather to celebrate one who helped us and many others to know the friendship

            of God and models it in so much of who she is and what she has done.


Go, as those Jesus declared friends, to extend the friendship of God to a world still broken and in need of loving friends.

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