a sermon preached on John 15:9-17, May 17, 2009
ccording to Facebook, I have 137 friends. And I’m a very bad Facebook member. I only check in about once a month; I think I have only once invited someone to be my friend, and that was my wife; and I really only use the site when I want to connect with someone who isn’t answering their e-mail. Yet I still have 137 friends.
I’m guessing that there are people here who have many times the number of Facebook friends that I do. If Steve Bell were here tonight rather than off in Egypt, I’d put him on the spot and see what his latest count is. It would be very high, because it is one of the ways in which he networks with his audience, which makes sense in his context.
I heard a piece on CBC radio a couple of months back, in which the interviewer was having a conversation with someone about the phenomena of social networking sites. This person was talking about the rather casual way in which the word “friend” is applied, and told the story of how he’d decided to throw a bit of a party for all of his Facebook connections. His birthday was on the horizon, so he sent out a general invitation to his 70 or so friends to meet up at a local pub for a drink, some food and a bit of socializing, to which several people signaled an interest in attending. When the date rolled around, he arrived at the pub ready to really connect face to face with his friends… and not one of them showed up.
When two people seem to be in the opening stages of a romantic relationship, someone will ask one of them, “so are you two seeing each other?” To which the answer will often be, “no; we’re just friends.”
And sometimes when a romance has really crumbled, one person will sit the other down to have that very earnest and difficult conversation, during which they might just use a phrase borrowed from a 1970’s pop song by Todd Rundgren: “we can’t play this game any more, but can we still be friends?”
Just friends? Still be friends? 137 friends? The ancients would have wondered for our sanity.
The Greek philosopher Cicero ranked friendship as an eternal virtue; a sentiment echoed in the 4th Century by St Jerome. For the ancients, friendship could never be a second class status. And you certainly couldn’t contemplate sustaining 137 of them.
But we, as children of modernity, just don’t have that understanding of friendship, so it is hard for us to hear just how powerful is Jesus’ statement to his disciples that, “I no longer call you servants” – in the Greek it is actually ‘slaves’ – “I have called you friends.” With a thinned understanding of the virtue of friendship, speaking of Jesus as friend sounds dangerously close to sappy sentimentalism. What a pal; the “buddy Christ” of Kevin Smith’s deliciously irreverent film Dogma. Instead of the transformative new identity Jesus is holding out to his followers, we hear only the blandest of versions of that old chestnut of a hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
Jesus, though, is speaking to us across a kind of divide, calling us to hear him speak from the biblical landscape into ours. He speaks of befriending his disciples – and us – right after he’s given the one clear commandment that he offers in the whole of the Gospel according to John: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” And there is nothing sentimental in this mandate, “For no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As the commentator Scott Lewis observes, “This friendship is epitomized by the personal experiential knowledge of the activity and purpose of Jesus, as well as cognizance of everything that Jesus has heard from the Father. Nothing is to be hidden; nor is there any sense of the vertical or hierarchical…” (Scott M. Lewis, The Gospel according to John and the Johannine Letters: The New Collegeville Bible Commentary) It is all shared.
Friendship with Christ and in Christ is deep and real. It mandates us to pursue friendships of that kind of depth, that kind of risk, that kind of self-giving.
“God is friendship,” wrote Aelred of Rievaulx in the 12th Century, by which he meant that our human friendships can give us a foretaste of that time when such intimacy, such depth and fullness, “will be outpoured upon all and by all outpoured upon God, and God shall be all in all.” (Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship)
We’re just friends? 167 friends? Not a chance.
But here is something that has surfaced in the late modern age; something that brings both great challenge and new possibility. When the ancients wrote of friendship, it would not have occurred to them to include marriage under that banner. In fact, they would have seen friendship and marriage as being two utterly different things. In the Western world over the past fifty years or so, we have begun to develop an ideal in which one’s marriage partner is also to be one’s best friend.
There is a stained glass window tucked away in the church’s sacristy – a quite lovely window picturing Sara, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah; the Matriarchs of the tradition – which was given by someone in memory of his wife. The words on the dedication plaque catch me every time I’m in that room: “best friend, wife, lover.” Could you ask for more after a long marriage together?
Yet that can also raise the bar almost impossibly high; to expect that this one person will be my completion, on every level and in every circumstance. It is really not possible for any one person to be that for us always and in every way, and it may be one of the things that strains many a marriage to the point of implosion.
And yet to embrace friendship as part of marriage – the sharing of self and purpose, wherein “there is no sense of the vertical or hierarchical” – may well be the new thing to which God’s Spirit is inviting us in this day.
I don’t have 137 friends, and neither do you. But we have been befriended by Christ, and on account of that and through that we may be graced with a circle of people who do love and who would lay down their lives for us. And through such friendships we might just enjoy a foretaste of the fullness of life in God, “wherein God shall be all in all.”
“This is true perfection” wrote St Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th Century, “not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves; not to do good because we expect repayment, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by enforcing some business deal. On the contrary, disregarding all those good things which we do hope for and which God has promised us, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing truly worthwhile.”
May it be so for us. Amen.