About 2300 years ago, a philosophical work was published that changed the field of ethics forever. The year was 350 BCE. The author was the philosopher Aristotle. And the work was titled the Nicomachean Ethics. One of Aristotle’s most basic assumptions is that everything has a form and a function, including humans. For humanity, Aristotle would say that we have a purpose and a practice. For human beings, our purpose, our “greatest good,” is something Arisitotle called eudemonia, best translated as “flourishing” or “well-being”. Eudemonia is our purpose – what we are meant to do. And the way that we accomplish that purpose is the practice of what he called contemplation. For Aristotle, contemplation is the practice of fully activating one’s reasoning capabilities. Contemplation is theoretical reasoning about things like science and philosophy, independent of practical affairs. It is practicing this moral virtue, without any practical reason for doing so. If and when humans are able to do this, Aristotle argued, they become more than human, they become in some sense, divine. Every human being shares this ideal purpose – flourishing – and should strive of this ideal practice – contemplation.
Now, I just reduced one of the most significant work on ethics in history to a paragraph, a fact that I am sure is causing Dr. Gillette and any other philosophy professor in the vicinity to scream horrific screams inside their head. But I wanted to give a quick overview because Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethic is a significant backdrop to the passage that we just read.
The writer of the Gospel of John is the most philosophical of the four Gospel writers, and his writings tend to reflect many of the philosophical arguments of the day. Remember that the event that John describes here took place about 400 years after Aristotle published his groundbreaking work. And it appears to have had an effect on the Gospel writer as he portrays this scene of the final moments that Jesus had with the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. I would argue that Jesus’ words here in John 15 show a awareness of Aristotle, and represent a some ways a reflection upon, if not a revision of, his principles. This morning, I hope to use this comparison not only to show Jesus as a phenomenal teacher, but also to glean wisdom for our own sense of purpose and flourishing.
It seems that Jesus would have agreed with Aristotle that we have a purpose and a practice. But he would likely tweak the nature of each, as he set out his own ethic to the disciples. Jesus teaches them: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Of course, in the context of Jesus and the upper room, the meaning is obvious: Jesus was about to do just that for his friends – and for the world – as he submitted to the power of the Roman authorities and the cross. As he laid down his life for his friends, he was naming what was essentially an Aristotelian model of the “greatest good.” Just like Aristotle, Jesus was saying here that there is a highest good, a greatest good. But for us to flourish, for us to accomplish our greatest purpose, we are meant…to love.
Jesus was telling the disciples “we are built to love, and love sacrificially.” That is our greatest good, our highest purpose. And it should come to no surprise that the guy who just took off his cloak and knelt down at the feet of his inferiors and washed their feet, understands what practical love is supposed to look like. It should come to no surprise that the guy who is getting ready to follow his commitment into the courtroom, into the flogging yard, and onto the cross, understands what practical love is supposed to look like. It should come to no surprise that the guy who repeatedly preached about love of God and neighbor understands what practical love is supposed to look like. That is our highest purpose. “There is no greater love than this.”
And yet, these 2,000 years later, we can still look around and find no shortage of alternate “greater goods.” There is no shortage of other ideas about what our highest purpose, our greatest good, should be.
• Our economy-driven culture suggests that our greatest good ought to be money, the possession of it, and the drive to achieve it. Jesus, meanwhile, says, “you cannot serve God and money.”
• Super Bowl commercials and the ESPN culture suggest that our greatest good ought to be leisure and entertainment. Jesus, meanwhile, says life must be about service and sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”
• Our family-centric culture, with Hallmark leading the way on Mother’s Day, suggests that the greatest good for all women ought to be the ability to have perfect children. But what of those who choose differently, or what of those who are unable for one of many reasons to be a mother? What of those whose children do not meet every expectation that society says that they must to be the perfect child? For many women, Mother’s Day can be filled with shame and pain, as they face the fact that they have not achieved the purpose that much of the world assigns them. And Jesus, meanwhile, says, “who are my mother and brothers, but those who hear God’s word and put it into practice?”
Which brings us to the second part of Jesus ethic. If our purpose is practical love, then what is our practice? For Aristotle, it was the practice of contemplation. For Jesus, it is the practice of interdependence. “Love one another,” Jesus preached again and again. It wasn’t just about the individual, but about the community, and about our reliance upon one another.
Let me define this concept of interdependence with a metaphor. Imagine with me the tallest pine tree that you have ever seen. The tallest pine tree on record stands at 200 feet high. If you chopped it down, it would be as long as two-thirds of a football field. Amazing. Now, in order to get that tall, pine trees send roots deep down into the ground, sometimes as deep as the tree is tall. Anyone who has tried to uproot even a small pine tree knows this.
However, pine trees aren’t even close to the tallest trees around. A few years ago, Kimberly and I went on a trip to northern California where we saw the coastal redwoods. They were phenomenal. They are some of the tallest trees in the world. In fact, the largest coastal redwood – indeed the largest tree on the planet – is a specimen called Hyperion, which reaches a height of 379 feet. When I saw these, I wondered how deep those roots must go. But here is the surprise, and the point of the metaphor. I was astonished to find that the roots of the redwoods usually go only 3-6 feet deep. Mind blown. How do they do it? Interdependence. Instead of relying on only their own roots, a stand of redwoods is actually a tightly intertwined and interwoven series of roots that keeps the whole system upright, and reaching for the skies. By itself, the tree would topple with the first hard wind. But interlaced with a hundred similar trees, there is a network of strength that far surpasses that of a single tree.
The ethic of Jesus is reliant upon the practice of interdependence. “Love one another.” When John recorded these words, his community was faced with the reality of infighting and schism and internal strife. And John was trying to get the community to become interdependent, to rely upon one another.
In a culture that loves its independence, the ethic of Jesus is counter-cultural in that it calls for a life and practice of interdependence. But it’s hard. Why should we talk to others and hear their point of view, when we can listen to ourselves and never be wrong? Why risk relationship when certainty is so much easier? What would it look like if we embraced such interdependence as a church? What if we started embracing such interdependence as a larger family of faith? With our ecumenical partners in programs such as Family Promise, our upcoming Vacation Bible School, and Justice Matters? Clearly, we are not going to agree with every congregation on every matter in these partnerships. But like we saw Thursday night at the Nehemiah Action Assembly, we can capitalize on what we can agree on, have hard conversations when we don’t, and find in the interdependence a greater strength and higher reach. Like the intertwined roots of the redwoods, we must connect to one another in new and powerful ways.
And when we do, we find ourselves engaging in the practical love of interdependence, and engaging in the demonstration of that interdependence that both Aristotle and Jesus valued highly: friendship. “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. You did not choose me but I chose you.”
Jesus, who didn’t need a handful of illiterate fisherman and bossy know-it-alls, chose them anyway. Jesus, who doesn’t need us, chooses us anyway. And calls us friends.
I call this the principle of disinterested friendship. Last year, during our season of study of Job, I used the phrase from Wes Eades and Milton Horne, who referred to the concept of disinterested faith. They did not mean uninterested – or apathetic – but instead disinterested – not driven by our own interests. For Job, the struggle was to believe in God, even though his own interests were no longer met. And for Jesus, the concept of disinterested friendship – agape love – means friendship that is less about what I can get from you and more about friendship for the sake of friendship. This is love that God models for us in Christ. And this is the love that we must show one another.
And I would argue that friendship – as both Aristotle and Jesus defined it – could be found in a hundred different forms and a hundred different ways. It is practical love that is not outside the bonds of family relationship. On a day like Mother’s Day, many of us have had the wonderful example of mothers, or fathers or aunts or uncles or grandparents, who have shown us the way of practical love. Maybe they cry with us when we don’t get invited to the party. Or hold our hands when we commit the three errors in the baseball game. Or they sit with us without judgment when we tell them the marriage is over. That is practical love. That is disinterested love. That is the reason why we exist as human beings. It is our greatest good. It is our purpose.
James and Charles had been friends for as long as they could remember. Through a lifetime of marriage, deaths of their spouses, children and grandchildren, they were fast friends. Then one day, Charles got sick. Really sick. His cancer was stage four and his suffering came fast and hard. Before he knew it, he was relying on others to do things that he had always done for himself. And he relied on James more than anyone else. James was there when he needed a ride to treatments. James was there when he had to get the house ready to sell to move into a smaller place. James was there when Charles signed the DNR order and entered hospice. For Charles, it was hard to rely on someone for so much. There was no way he could pay him back. There was no way that James was getting anything out of it. And so, in one of the last days, he apologized to James for putting him through so much. James, afraid to make eye contact as he responded: “I didn’t do it for something in return. I didn’t do it to look like a hero. I did it…for my friend.”
May the God of practical love and disinterested friendship bless us with gratitude and hope this day and every day.