Easter VI: Christian Friendship
Sixth Sunday of Easter 2018 (Year B)
by the Rev’d Dr Hugh Kempster
“My friend isn’t back from the battlefied, sir. Request permission to go out and get him.”
“Permission refused,” said the officer. “I don’t want you to risk your life for a man who is probably dead.”
The soldier goes anyway; and an hour later returns mortally wounded, carrying the corpse of his friend. The officer is furious.
“I told you he was dead. Now I’ve lost both of you. Tell me, was it worth going out there to bring in a corpse?”
“Oh, it was, sir.” The dying man replied. “When I got to him, he was still alive. And he said to me, ‘Jack, I was sure you’d come.’”
Anthony De Mello, Prayer of the Frog, p.201
In the synoptic gospels the concept of “friend” (Greek philos) is not nearly as prominent or admirable as it is in the gospel of John. In Luke and Matthew the concept is portrayed in rather negative terms. Luke warns of friends who hand over Christians in times of persecution (21:16). In Matthew, Jesus as friend is a source of criticism for his opponents; he is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19).
But in the gospel of John it is a different story. Jesus celebrates the “friend of the bridegroom” (3:29) and refers lovingly to Lazarus as “our Friend” (11:11). We are told that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for his friends” (10:11). And in today’s gospel reading our Lord elevates the disciples to the higher status of “friend” (15:15):
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.
The writer of John’s gospel, and Jesus himself, are no doubt drawing from Old Testament themes. Abraham was known as God’s friend (2 Chr. 20:7; Is. 41:8) as was Moses (Ex. 33:11). Friendship was a favorite topic among the Greek philosophers too; part of the historical intellectual context of the early church. Pythagoras founded a community that emphasized friendship as the epitome of all virtues. Friendship, he believed, called for the obliteration of estrangement and an ethic of non-retaliation. Competition and rivalry have no place in friendship. Trust is essential. Falsehood is not to be born. Socrates viewed friendship as the most precious of all possessions, the greatest blessing that a person can possess. A friend shows generosity and courage in supplying every need of his friend. For some friends, one would even sacrifice one’s own life.
Sallie McFague, in her book Models of God, writes beautifully about friendship as central to our lived reality of a Trinitarian God (McFague, pp.157ff). Friendship does not arise from necessity. We enter into it freely. As such it represents the very essence of divine election in which God chooses to enter into a relationship of friendship with Israel. Friendship is based on a disinterested love for the unique characteristics of the other. Friendship forms strong bonds, and the betrayal of a friend ranks as the most dastardly of deeds. McFague points out that Dante reserves the inner circle of Hell for the great betrayers of friendship: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.
Friendship is one of the great challenges to our lived expression of Christianity in parish life. God-willing we will never have to know the challenges of war or violent persecution in this generation. I trust that we will never have to experience first hand the need to literally sacrifice our lives for our friends, as did the man in my opening story. But in Christian community we are often called to lay down our lives in different ways; to give sacrificially of ourselves for our friends, for our fellow Christians, even for the stranger and the outcast.
We don’t choose one another as Christians in a parish. Ours is an open door. Anyone can come and join us in worship. The Governor of Victoria may be seated next to a woman who is homeless. A question we should always be asking of ourselves is: am I a friend to my neighbour? How good are we as a parish at befriending the stranger, making friends with the person who we perceive as different from ourselves, or even our enemy?
I have on loan in my study this wonderful book of handwritten quotes compiled by Fr Maynard from 1918. I imagine that he was still adding to them in 1964 when he retired as Vicar of St Peter’s. Under the heading of “Love” he quotes Tolstoi: “We constantly think there are circumstances in which a human being can be treated without affection, and there are no such circumstances.”
So, beloved, let us love one another, let us be friends, let us work at our friendships; because love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Amen.