This past week I received one of those rare treasures that seem to be getting rarer these days. A letter, in the mail, from a friend, on paper, from Mike. I met Mike in Elkhart when we were both students at seminary. Over the course of the couple years there together we connected on a love for talking theology and a common conviction that playing ultimate Frisbee is indeed a spiritual experience. During our final year there Mike lived next door to us. We would often have our doors open and wander into each other’s apartments to study, chat, or share something that had just come out of the oven. Mike introduced me to some writers and thinkers who have been very influential for me. When Eve was born he was our primary babysitter. Since graduating we have made it a point to keep in touch with each other. Mike started a blog and was the original inspiration behind thewholepeace blog that I keep up. For the last year and a half he’s been living with his wife at a study center in the Oregon wilderness, a half hour drive away from being online. So, we write letters. Not a lot of letters, but we keep up with each other’s thoughts, activities, and desires. I look forward to receiving these letters. Mike is someone I consider a close friend and one of those people that I hope to maintain ties with for the rest of my life, even if we never again live in close proximity to each other.
In the gospel reading from John, the reality of friendship is front and center. In some of his parting words to his closest allies, as they are gathered in an intimate setting, Jesus says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command 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, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” These words occur in a block of John’s gospel known as the farewell discourses. In a rather remarkable proportioning of content, John gives five chapters, nearly a quarter of his gospel, to a single evening of Jesus speaking with his disciples before he will be betrayed, tried, and crucified. This Last Supper, uniquely begins by Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, a role reserved for the servant class. After doing this, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This role reversal puts into question certain understandings of power and honor, and elevates the position of servant, something no one would choose to be, as a roll worthy of imitation. But then, further along in the discourse, later into the evening of this highly significant event the disciples are undergoing, Jesus again presents a shift in how the group is to think of themselves, something even higher than being a servant. “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.”
I have to admit that at first blush I’m not too sure what to think of what it means to be called a friend in this way and whether that’s a primary way I want to think of Jesus, or our relationship with each other in the church. Some of the connotations that have come alongside being a friend don’t feel like they jive very well here. Friendship can be experienced as a casual relationship. Those with whom we can just hang out, crack a few jokes where no one will get offended, and let down our guard. Buddies. Relax, you’re among friends. The image of Jesus as a buddy gets played up in the movie Dogma, a satire on the current state of the church. Part of the story involves the Cardinal Ignatius Glick, played by George Carlin, who starts a campaign to put new energy and excitement into the Catholic church. The campaign is called “Catholicism Wow.” Rather than keeping the crucifix as the central icon of the church, which the Cardinal deems as “wholly depressing,” he creates a more upbeat image of Jesus called Buddy Christ. Buddy Christ has a big smile, and is winking as he points with one hand and keeps a thumb up with the other hand. Buddy Christ is a kinder, gentler savior for today’s competitive marketplace of religion. Relax, Jesus is your friend. No need to change anything about your life. It’s all good.
Friend, as we sometimes refer to it, can also be a demotion in relational status. Let’s just be friends. Let’s not get too involved in each other’s lives. Let’s keep some distance, give each other some space. Just friends, please.
One of the things I think is actually reshaping our experience of friendship is coming through the Facebook phenomenon. Facebook friends have access to each other’s profiles, journals, and pictures. They can write notes on each other’s walls, and get a live feed on all of their friends status updates. Friends also have access to each other’s lists of friends. If a friend is a friend with someone I know but am not yet a friend, I can invite that person to be my friend. If they accept, we’ve become friends. It sounds sort of third grade, but it’s actually quite sophisticated! Facebook friendship can involve the frivolous — this week I learned that a friend had a funny experience with her cashier in a Wal-Mart, I learned that another friend just got home from the office in time to watch Lost; the useful – one friend posted a link to downloading a free live Coldplay album. Another posted instructions on how to make a rain barrel; the substantive – Last week a friend from high school I’ve seen only a couple times in ten years wrote, typed, me a brief note and we ended up setting up a phone conversation that lasted over an hour about her sense of calling into ministry. A while ago Facebook was how I learned of the unexpected death of Ron Blough, a pastor and the father of a recent CMF member, Bethany Blough Simpson who now lives in Denver. Personally, I have found Facebook to be a great way to keep in touch with friends I otherwise would not be crossing paths with, and to interact in new ways with those I do cross paths with. It opens up a new world of connectivity that is not dependent on geography. But, of course, it does have its limitations. It can be very wide, but not very deep. It will be interesting to see how the experience of friendship continues to develop as web-based connectivity continues to expand, and how that gets balanced with face to face relationships.
The one place in the gospels where Jesus refers to a specific person as a friend occurs just four chapters before his naming the group of disciples as friends. When Jesus finds out from Martha and Mary that their brother Lazarus has died Jesus says to his followers, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” When Jesus goes and finds Lazarus dead, we are told of a short but profound response. Jesus wept. Those around him comment, “see how he loved him.” Jesus is deeply moved by the loss of his friend, and miraculously asks Lazarus to come out of the tomb, resuscitated back to life. In the other three gospels, the event that triggers the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus is his demonstration in the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers. John shapes his gospel such that the trigger event is this one here, the resurrection of Lazarus, the beloved friend of Jesus. It scares the authorities into believing that because of this act everyone will flock to Jesus. They say, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (11:48) Jesus’ love and affinity for his friend is a deep, abiding, committed love of friendship, one that will cost him his life. So when Jesus later says “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” he is helping clarify just how much substance and solidity there is behind what he means by friendship.
If we have allowed our experience or notion of friendship to stray too far from this depth, then we are missing something.
This past Monday I caught part of a program on NPR’s The Story, part of a series that NPR did this week on what they called the New American Dream – what values and aspirations Americans are holding to these days amidst economic struggle. This episode was a conversation with Theresa Phillips who a number of years back had moved to a trailer park in Battle Creek, Michigan to escape an abusive relationship. She also wanted to escape just about all relationships and live as privately as she could, but she got to know a woman at her work who insisted on being her friend, even as Theresa tried to push her away. The other woman was persistent and convinced Theresa that they needed each other for support and deliverance from loneliness. At one point the women were wondering if there were other women like them who were trying to be free of an unhealthy cycle of abusive relationships, feeling isolated, so they put out word to the trailer park for anyone interested to meet them at a certain time and place. A larger than expected group turned up and from that developed what is called the Woman’s Co-op. The Woman’s Co-op is a model of a community based on committed friendship where the women have worked out ways for them to grow as independent, healing, people. They have received complaints and even threats from former boyfriends and husbands who believe the women should not be spending their time in this way. They have a child-care co-op that better enables the women to work, a food co-op, support services for escaping abuse, and many other ways of being a strong community network. Directing the co-op is now Theresa’s full time job. The focus of the show characterized this story as being indicative of the new American dream that is emerging in these difficult economic times. Rather than the white picket fence, people are seeking security in relationships. Safety, dependable friendships, camaraderie. Maybe it’s the new American dream, maybe it’s the oldest of all human dreams.
David Wood is someone who has put a lot of thought into friendship. He’s run seminars and is currently writing a book on the topic. I met him during our Engaging Pastors Colloquy events that happened over the last year. Two of his essays that we read were titled, “Towards the Recovery of Friendship as a Form of Christian Love,” and “The Promise of Friendship and the Practice of Ministry.” His argument is that friendship is a profound form of love in our lives, and that it shapes our character, develops virtue, and should be recovered for its deep roots in the Christian calling. He feels that one of our primary words we use for our relationships in the church, “fellowship,” too often ends up being a soft form of general tolerance, “a vague and comfortable term, usually too remote to have any real effect.” He goes all the way back to Aristotle’s classical writing on the virtue of friendship, tracks friendship love in Scripture, and holds up the possibility of renewing it’s place in our thinking and practice.
As a way of drawing this to a close and circling back to John 15, consider the way that being Friends serves as a central metaphor for who we are in relation to each other and relation to Christ in our sister Peace Church tradition, the Quakers, also called The Religious Society of Friends. I was interested to know how the Friends tell their own story of how they came to have this name and this week I had a phone conversation with someone who is becoming a friend of ours, Patrick Nugent, a Quaker and faculty member in Xavier University’s theology department. Patrick said that the precise origin of this name is actually something that no one really knows, but that at some point, the group that came to be the Friends, started calling themselves friends, friends of truth, and friends of the light. Quaker was a pejorative term, given them by others, but their name for themselves was Friends. Their inspiration for this name was precisely from Jesus’ words to his comrades in John 15. “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” The early Quaker George Fox stated that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” And so the Friends believed, as we also can believe, this wonderful idea that they had, in some way, been invited in to this circle of knowing. That what they needed to know, and how they needed to live, could be known. That it wasn’t hidden, but that they had been befriended by Christ. This is revealed in the life of Jesus, and also in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. And so their meetings of silence and listening to the Spirit carry the strong belief that in their collective silence, the will of Christ will be revealed to them.
God is about the work of making friends in the world, and making of us friends of one another. Despite our weakened notions of friendship, and despite the continued marketing of Buddy Christ, we are being called into a deep, substantive, virtue-forming, character enhancing friendship that mirrors the relationship Jesus expressed toward his friends. A committing of our life toward one another, and an assurance that what we need to know has been opened up to us. And that, my friends, is good news indeed.