"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you....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..."
May 7, 2021, Words By: Joel Aguilar, Image By: unknown
One of the fears that still holds my heart captive at times is the fear of going to hell. My “judgment anxiety” was the outcome of the formative years I spent in a soul-saving evangelical tradition; it left me a dent in my soul.
For that reason, I have to be extra careful when I read Scripture. Even though I’m less anxious these days, my old self still has a tendency to view God’s story through the lens of condemnation and legalism. I can feel it happening when I encounter individual verses like this one from last week’s Gospel passage: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” When I read that out of context, I can easily see myself burning like one of those branches who did not carry much fruit.
Fear of not bearing fruit and burning in hell is what fueled my life for many years. I remember one occasion in particular where I was talking with a friend, David, in the slums of Guatemala City. I was desperately trying to persuade him to open his heart to Jesus. David was a very skinny looking guy. I think that’s why he always tried to look like a tough gangster. He had a gun, but he didn’t even know how to take the safety off. David was always high, and in the early years of our friendship, his blood-shot eyes hid the true color and depth of his soul.
As I was telling David how terrible hell would be, he turned to me and said, “And what do you think this is?” He pointed to the rotten wood poles that held the rusty tin sheets that served as walls for his shack. The metal sheets had as many holes as a slice of swiss cheese. Then, I heard the two children he had already brought into the world even though he was just fifteen. And I smelled the rottenness of the dirt floor, wet with the sewer water that came from the toilet next to us. At that moment, I realized that I was sitting with him in hell.
That shack was our regular hangout for many years. It became his confessional. That place is where he shared some of the most horrible stories of abuse that I have heard. Sometimes, David even got high in front of me as he shared some of the most painful experiences he had endured in his short life.
One day, I realized that we had actually become friends. In a conversation we had towards the end of my years working in that specific slum community David said to me, “I ain’t gay or nothing like that, but I just wanna tell you that I like you, and you are my friend.”
I still don’t know what I did to earn that title. But, it felt as if it was Jesus himself uttering the same words of this week’s passage, “I have called you friends.”
In this week’s text, I believe that Jesus is inviting us to relate to others as he relates to us, not out of fear, but out of love and abundance. I don’t pretend to know what that means in every circumstance. After all, life is complicated. But David taught me that sometimes it means we should be willing to sit in hell alongside our friends. Maybe that’s the reason Jesus invites us to love one another—that is the fruit!
I wish I would have paid attention to this before. Silly me! And I thought the fruit was to win souls through the fear of judgment! Instead, the fruit was always there, hanging low—the friendship and love Jesus himself models for us—the love from God’s very own Holy Spirit. That is the only love that can actually transform and save us all.
Dwelling Among Us
This week, I want to invite you to think of the relationships that surround you and reflect on these questions:
Would you be willing to sit with them in hell?
How far are you willing to go to give your life for others?