Sermon: Friendship

I’m cheating! Most of this was written and preached in the Macedon Ranges, last time this reading came up in the lectionary. But looking back at it I find that I still agree with everything I said then, and I quite like the sermon, so I’m going to preach it again. 

Sermon for Williamstown

May 10th, 2015

John 15:9-17

I’ve been thinking about marriage this week. On Tuesday I received the first mailing of papers for the national Assembly that will be held in Perth in July. Among the few proposals that came with them the papers were two about marriage, one from the Standing Committee and one from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. (Neither suggested any change in our current understanding of marriage, but both suggest that we have a lot more discussion about it.) On Wednesday, at a meeting with members of the Burmese congregation, Natalie, Bev and I heard that Pastor True has been recognised by the government as a marriage celebrant, and we rejoiced with him that he’ll be able to celebrate the marriages of members of his congregation. Most people in Australia see marriage as something churches are particularly concerned with, which is why ministers are able to be authorised by the Attorney-General to act as marriage agents for the state. Churches agree, marriage is important to us, which is why the coming Assembly will spend a fair bit of time discussing marriage. In comparison, friendship isn’t a topic that gets mentioned a lot in the church. And yet if any form of relationship can be described as particularly Christian, as the specific way that Christians live out our lives, it’s not marriage. It’s friendship.

Jesus was not married. We don’t see in Jesus the model of an ideal husband, despite descriptions of him as the bridegroom, (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34; John 3:29) and Church as his bride. (Ephesians 5:22-33) What we do see in Jesus is the example of an ideal friend. Jesus’ ministry was about befriending others – engaging in loving, accepting and transforming relationships with them. He related to those around him as an equal: refusing to make claims about himself, instead letting others identify him (Mark 8:29); refusing to play the ‘master’ role over them (John 13:1-11); encouraging his disciples to do what he did – teach, preach, heal (Mark 6:6b-7). His relationships were relationships of mutuality: he accepted food from those he helped (Mark 1:31); he allowed himself to be ministered to by women (Mark 14:3-9); and he was willing to enter into dialogue and have his mind changed by a Syrophoencian woman who demanded that her daughter be healed (Mark 7:24-30). We see in his relationship with Peter a friendship in which mutual love overcomes mutual exasperation and Peter’s misunderstandings. And in the Gospel According to John, we see a friendship in which there was no exasperation and misunderstanding to be overcome; the relationship between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple.

In all these relationships, Jesus is acting as an ideal friend as the ancient world understood it. In a world full of hierarchies, and people with power over others, friendship stood out as the only relationship based upon equality, a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality. This is why Socrates saw friendship as subversive, because it existed regardless of rank. Marriages at the time were definitely not relationships of equality; society was stratified along class lines, with patrons and clients, and masters and slaves. Friendship was the only model of equality that the ancient world knew, and it’s friendship that Jesus offered his disciples.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples: ‘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.’ One of the most important elements of friendship, according to the Greek philosophers, was the use of frank speech. Clients and slaves would flatter patrons and masters – friends would speak openly and honestly to friends. And this is what Jesus has done with his disciples – he has spoken openly and honestly to them, telling them everything. They are his friends, and he has shared his very self with them. His disciples know about the Father, because they know the Son. (John 14:9) They know Jesus; they are his friends.

Friendship has demands. Jesus articulates them: ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (John 15:13) Jesus not only describes this greater love; he goes on to embody it. In his crucifixion, Jesus is the friend who lays down his life. We, as his friends, are to embody that friendship too: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’(John 15:12) We are not merely to befriend Jesus; we are to befriend each other.

The Christian community is made up of the friends of Christ, who are also called to be friends of each other. In one of Luke’s most famous summary descriptions of the Church in the Book of Acts we find Luke drawing on Greek understandings of friendship, writing: ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’. (Acts 4:32) A well-known Greek proverb said ‘all things in common between friends’. When the early Christian community held all things in common, they were acting according to the highest ideals of Greek friendship. Similarly, the description of the community as having one heart and soul drew on another Greek proverb, that ‘friends are one soul’. What is stunning about what Luke was doing wasn’t merely that he used a Greek ideal of friendship to describe the Christian community, but that he expanded the people who could be considered ‘friends’ from adult male citizens to include women and slaves and children. After all, all of them, women and slaves and children, are also the friends of Jesus.

In that description of the church, the church is called to be a community of true friends, those who hold all things in common and who share one heart and soul. We frequently think of the church as a family of brothers and sisters, but there are definite advantages to thinking of the church as a community of friends. Friendship is, as I’ve said throughout this sermon, a relationship of equality – not all familial relationships are. And an ideal of family can leave the single and the widowed, the orphaned and the childless, on the outside. There are no outsiders in the community of friends that Luke described. This community of friendship is based on, and made possible by, the friendship that Jesus offers us; we are able to be friends with one another because we are all the friends of Christ.

Aelred of Rievaulx, the Saint of Friendship

Aelred of Rievaulx, the Saint of Friendship

There is a particular twelfth-century saint, Aelred of Rievaulx, who can be called the Saint of Friendship. Aelred was born in Northumbria, spent several years at the court of King David I of Scotland, and became abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. He wrote an amazing book called Spiritual Friendship, in which he discusses friendship as an important part of our relationship with God. ‘In friendship there is nothing dishonourable, nothing deceptive, nothing feigned; whatever there is, is holy, voluntary, and true,’[1] writes Aelred. And he sums up everything I’ve being trying to say in this sermon:

[I]n friendship are joined honour and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and good-will, affection and action. And all these take their beginning from Christ, advance through Christ, and are perfected in Christ. Therefore, not too steep or unnatural does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of the love by which we love our friend, to Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love, so that charm may follow upon charm, sweetness upon sweetness and affection upon affection. And thus, friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul, and so mounting aloft through degrees of love to friendship with Christ, he is made one spirit with him.[2]

‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends’, says Jesus to his disciples. We are Jesus’ friends, and through him friends with each other. So let us as Christians, in the words of Saint Aelred, live with ‘honour and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and good-will, affection and action’. Amen.

[1] Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), 2:18, p. 74.

[2] Ibid., 2:20-21, pp. 74-5.

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