Today is a very special birthday. Because today, May 9th, a very famous person reaches the grand old age of 359 years old.
Today is Mr Punch’s birthday! Though I doubt very much that Judy has bought him a present! Mr Punch celebrates his birthday today because the very first record we have of him is in the diary of Samuel Pepys – on May 9th 1662 Pepys records how he saw a new Italian puppet play outside St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden – the first recorded performance of Punch and Judy.
And each year to celebrate his birthday St Paul’s Covent Garden, holds a Mayfayre in his honour and has Mayfayre service.
Mr Punch, of course, has never been noted for his good behaviour. He is notoriously rude and bad-tempered to everyone who comes his way, as well as being rather violent, though as he has got older he has toned down his behaviour a bit. In his younger days, as I remember from childhood trips to the seaside, he would throw the baby out of the window, beat his wife, murder various public servants who came to see him before finally tricking the hangman into hanging himself! And then he would follow that up by declaring: That’s the way to do it!
It’s no wonder Mr Punch doesn’t have any friends. Not easy being a friend to someone who behaves like Mr Punch. He didn’t behave in a way that was likely to get him any! And he very much behaved in a way that was definitely not the way to do it!
In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus saying that we are his friends – but only if we do what he tells us to. We are still at the Last Supper, and we hear part of what Jesus says to his disciples after the supper was over. What we hear Jesus saying today comes immediately after the passage we heard last week where Jesus talked about being the vine with us as the branches.
And he essentially tells us what being his followers means – he has shown them himself what it means by washing their feet at the Last Supper – and then he says: That’s the way to do it! Though the way to do it is, of course, the complete opposite of Mr Punch’s way. The way to do it – the way to be friends of Jesus – is through love and service and doing what Jesus tells us to by going and bearing fruit.
But being a friend of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean that life is a bed of roses. Or at least – it does, as long as you are prepared to put up with the thorns as well.
Being a friend of God – a friend of Jesus – is a way of living which costs more than many people imagine. Take the example of one who desired only to become one of God’s special friends. St Teresa of Avila lived in sixteenth century Spain. She was a mystic and a great reformer of religious life. During one of her last journeys to Burgos to found yet another convent she was obliged to undertake the journey during a period of weather so severe she had been advised not to proceed.
However, convinced of her mission, she and her sisters suffered the wet and freezing temperatures, frequently having to drag the carriages out of the mud. To keep up their spirits they recited the Creed over and over. People were more easily pleased in those days. Or perhaps, like us, they weren’t allowed to sing! Well, Teresa understood hardship, but she was ill and this experience aroused real fears for their survival.
After eventually struggling to safety Teresa complained bitterly to God that doing his will cost her so much. God is said to have replied: “But, Teresa, this is how I treat my friends!” To which Teresa responded: “Yes, My Lord, and that is why you have so few of them!”
What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? Because the reality is that being a friend of Jesus, as Saint Teresa reminds us, does not necessarily mean that he gives us a happy, carefree life without a trouble in the world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Well, Jesus is fortunately for us very clear about what being his friends is all about. You are my friends, he says, if you do what I command you.
And what does he command us? Well, he gives us two very clear commandments in today’s gospel reading.
The first? This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
And the second? Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.
Love one another, and then go and bear fruit. That’s the way to do it.
Now, I could go on and spend time explaining what those two commandments actually mean. I could go on at length to explain what it means to love one another in the way that Jesus loves us. But I don’t need to. Jesus didn’t go on at length – he simply demonstrated the way to love by washing the feet of his friends. We all know what it means to love one another. We might not always be very good at doing it, we might not always get it right, but we know what it means to love one another in the way that Jesus loves us.
I could go on at length explaining what it means to bear fruit for Jesus, fruit that will last. But again, I don’t need to. Because actually we all know. And we know that Jesus means that all of us need to bear fruit – not just some of us. We heard that last week, in the section of John’s gospel that comes right before this week’s reading. The problem is that we far too often are not very good at being fruitful..
Over these days of Easter we have heard each week in our readings from Acts how those friends of Jesus, after he was raised from the dead, went and bore fruit for him. They bore fruit because they loved one another as he had loved them, and because they then took that love and shared it with others.
They preached the good news of a crucified and risen Saviour, and they were prepared to risk opposition, persecution, and sometimes death in order to share the love of Jesus with the world and show the world how to live. They knew how to do it – they knew what it meant to be the friends of Jesus. They were people who listened to what Jesus had taught them and said YES! They put their faith in their risen Saviour into action.
Now. there is always an element of adventure when we open ourselves to God and say “Yes” to his invitation – just think what happened to Our Lady when as a young teenage girl she said “Yes” to God. When we say yesto Jesus, when we say we want to be your friends, we can never know how it will all turn out. And it may well not be easy.
But what we do know is that Jesus, as he tells the disciples in our gospel reading today, calls us his friends. Because just as the Father has loved him, so he will love us he says, and he invites us to live in his love.
And he makes this friendship he offers us so straightforward. The disciples themselves, of course, didn’t really ‘get it’ until they encountered the risen Jesus. Then they were able to look back and understand everything Jesus had taught them after the Last Supper and put it into practice. We’re here today because they did so.
And we have the advantage over them – because as we hear these words of Jesus today we know that he is risen. And we know that he means it when he calls us his friends and when he says I want you to be myfriends. And he gave the disciples, as he gives us, the gift of the Holy Spirit to cement that friendship and to enable us to live as his friends in the world.
That friendship, we are told this morning, depends on us doing two things.
One – loving one another as Jesus has loved us.
And two – going out and bearing fruit for him.
Because that’s the way to do it.