Easter 6 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 9th May

Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17

Jesus said:

‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. … 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 called you friends.

Last week the Vice Provost movingly reflected on what it might mean for each of us, and the Cathedral, to abide in God’s love. This week I want us to think about what it might mean to find ourselves as friends of Christ, and in that friendship, friends of one another. I have called you friends.

In the farewell discourse that we heard in our Gospel today, Jesus places this image of friendship at the heart of the new community made possible in him. We often concentrate on the words ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That moving testimony of the power of friendship is of course important, and many in the course of history have borne witness to it, but it’s also true that we may find it hard to relate to that statement ourselves, as the calling to lay down one’s life comes rarely, or rarely that starkly or literally. And yet, as friends is how Jesus characterises all who follow him.

When thinking about friendship, we might use the word love, but I suspect more often we would talk about liking someone, we’re friends because we like them. One of the most interesting theologians writing today, James Alison, in his book, On Being Liked, reflects on the difference between loving and liking, particularly in the context where the word love can be over-used, or actually end up meaning something else:

The word ‘like’, he writes, is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than the word ‘love’, because we know when someone likes us. We can tell because they enjoy being with us, alongside us, want to share our time and company. What I would like to suggest is that if our understanding of being loved does not include being liked, or at least being prepared to learn to be liked, then there’s a good chance that we’re talking about the sort of love that can slip a double bind over us, that is really saying to us ‘My love for you means that I will like you if you become someone else.’

Alison suggests that seeing ourselves as friends of Christ, as being liked by Christ, helps avoid the danger of thinking that the love God has for us, is love conditional on us becoming someone other than who we are. But, Jesus says, I have called you friends.

C. S. Lewis wrote this about friendship: Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself … The point that Lewis is making is that friendship is a relationship rooted in freedom, not one bound by duty, or office, or function. We choose to be friends with someone. Friends allow you ‘to be’; friendship is based on affection and respect; it is joyful, at its best calling forth a mutual delight. It is also rooted in trust: the worst thing to happen in friendship is betrayal.

Friendship is about reciprocity. It’s another reason why it’s helpful to imagine ourselves as being friends of Christ, liked by God, rather than simply loved by God. Because, unlike love, there is no sense of charity about friendship; it’s not about being done to, but about something created together, and that is its strength.

Aristotle said, ‘Without friends no one would choose to live even though he possessed all other goods.’ That’s a statement that has echoes of the pearl of great price: friendship as something allied to the kingdom, which puts everything else into perspective, something nothing material can bring you.

And the church has at its heart that most basic activity of friends: a meal shared  together. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples do not recognise the Risen Christ, but find themselves making friends with him, inviting him to share a meal with him, and then recognising him in the moment when their new-found friend and guest suddenly becomes the host and breaks the bread.

In that moment the disciples learn anew that they are indeed friends of Christ. But this is not something to hold to themselves, instead that friendship forms a new community, the Church. And we are called into that same friendship too.

Now that can be testing, because we also think of friendship as being spontaneous – like attracts like. Friendship can be about the clique of the insiders. Our reading from Acts this morning concerns that pivotal moment in the early Church, where Peter realises the circle of Christ’s friendship, given in the gift of the Holy Spirit, is much wider than he had realised. And that that calls him into new friendships, new relationships in that gift of the Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is crucial – the spirit of freedom that takes away our fear (the fear of those who are unlike us), and open us up to others. And so the early Church grows, and we grow, as, in our joyful life together, we offer friendship, discover friendship, with the unloved, the unlikely.

That placing of friendship at the heart of who we are may seem naïve, or of little consequence. And yet, if we take it seriously, even as we relish the joy of it, we also realise the centrality of relationships of trust and mutuality to human joy and flourishing.  And that is not just true personally, but in the ways we structure society. The friendship found here needs to transcend and overcome the divisions which are all too obvious; it needs to challenge the story that we all basically out for ourselves and what we can get. For Christ has called us friends, and in that friendship is our life. Amen.

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