A SOCIETY OF FRIENDS
"You are my friends if you do what I command you."
A friend of mine in the United States, Charles Marsh, has just published a fine biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Strange Glory. Charles dedicates the book to his wife Karen whom he describes as his "most fierce and loving advocate." I rather like that description and think it admirably describes Isobel as well. A "fierce and loving advocate" certainly sums up her loving welcome to me when I returned home from Toronto this past weekend. "Congratulations on getting your sixth doctorate" she said in admiration, but then characteristically added, "pity you can't even cure ingrown toenails!" Well, I guess that is true, but at least the hood I received is quite spectacular!
The weekend prior to the graduation or convocation I was the guest of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto where a former Canadian student of mine and friend of Volmoed, Bob Faris, is now the associate pastor. On the Saturday I conducted a workshop on the Sunday I preached at the morning service. During the weekend I met some fine people, many of them engaged in various forms of ministry amongst the poor and homeless. I also met members of the Canadian TRC which is dealing with issues affecting the First Nation peoples or Native Americans. The rest of my time was spent at Knox College in the School of Theology at the University of Toronto, the College that gave me an honorary doctorate. I am telling you all this partly to save having to repeat myself later at coffee. But I know it is all a bit ego-centric and I fear that my fiercest and most loving advocate might have something to say to me later in the day. But it does provide a platform for what I want to share with you this morning. Aside from the convocation the nicest part of my trip as always was meeting old friends, and making new ones. So when I read the gospel for today in which Jesus calls his followers "friends" I knew that this had to be the theme of my meditation.
Normally we think of Jesus as "Lord" and "Master," "Saviour" and "Redeemer," and of our relationship to God as "sons and daughters," and to each other in the church as "sisters and brothers," rather than friends. But Jesus' use of the word "friend" changes our understanding of these terms and of our relationship with him and one another. A clue to its meaning is found in the book of Proverbs. "Some friends play at friendship," we are told, "but a true friend sticks closer than one's nearest kin." (18:24) A true friend is not just a playmate, nor a brother, sister, father or mother even though parents and children do sometimes also become friends. But we don't choose our siblings, parents or other blood relations, whereas we do choose our friends, and true friends stick by us through thick and thin. We don't have to do this; we choose to do so.
When Jesus is described as the "friend of sinners" he is being paid the highest compliment. He is not only their Lord and Master, their healer and saviour, but the one who chooses to care deeply for them. In calling his disciples his friends, Jesus is taking their relationship as disciples or followers onto a new level, into a new. more intimate relationship that carries with it a freely accepted obligation to care for and support each other in tough times as well as good ones, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Love at its most profound within a marriage is not about passion but the flowering of friendship that arises out of our choice of and commitment to a partner. How sad it is, then, that sometimes couples don't allow their first love as playmates to deepen beyond attraction into friendship. And how sad it is that sometimes friendship seems to flourish only after a divorce rather than in the marriage itself. Friendship is not a lesser form of love; it is a way of loving, Just as friendship can grow into love; so love reaches maturity in friendship when someone becomes your fiercest and most lovable advocate who stands beside you in thick and thin.
Bonhoeffer goes to the heart of the matter in a deeply moving poem on friendship he wrote from prison for his friend Eberhard Bethge. It is a long poem, but let me read some extracts from Isobel's translation:
... not from earth’s solid soil,
but from the desire and yearning
of the spirit,
without the sanction of earth and law,
is the friend to the friend....
Alongside the field of wheat,
plowed and tilled by human hands
to provide our food,
where the farmer offers up the sweat of his brow,
and, if need be, his very blood,
alongside the field of our daily bread,
the lovely cornflower is left to bloom...
Rarest, most precious blossom of all,
sprung in a blessed hour
from the freedom of a playful,
daring, trusting spirit,
such is the friend to the friend.
It is not surprising, then, that Bonhoeffer regarded such friendship as central to the renewal of the of church. Friendship freely chosen, expressed and shared is a mark of the true church of Jesus Christ. Of course, such friendship also exists outside the church. How could it be otherwise for friendship is part of being truly human and not all my friends are Christians. But a church that is not a society of the friends of Jesus who care for each other, is a pale shadow of what the church is meant to be.
Of course, not all friendships within the church reach the same depth of relationship aided by a natural inclination. But Christians should care for each other and for others beyond their immediate circle of those to whom they are naturally attracted. The church is not meant to be a clique, a closed circle of friends that excludes others, but a community of friends that seeks to include others even if it means loving enemies to do so. This church, this society of the friends of Jesus, is tangible, it is real, it is the church I believe in, the church I experienced for a brief moment in Toronto. It is the church that gathers here at Volmoed every Thursday to share in this Eucharist. You are my friends, Jesus told his disciples, if you love one another as I have commanded you. Thanks be to God for true friends who enrich our lives and stand by us in our hour of need just as they share with us in our times of celebration and joy. They are our most fierce and lovable advocates.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 22 May 2014