Friends in Christ
“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.” John 15:15
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Christ Church Cambridge
6 Easter 2012
I take as my text this morning the 15th verse of the 15th chapter of John, where Jesus for the first time calls his disciples “friends” and invites them into friendship with himself and with each other. No longer are they servants, bound by a law that constrains, but now they are friends, bound instead by a love that abides. Jesus reminds his disciples that long before they chose to follow him, he chose them as his beloved friends, not because they deserve such favor, but rather out of an extravagant and indiscriminate love that desires nothing other than their complete joy.
There is a great risk here, I realize, of falling into an easy sentimentality with all this talk of love and friendship, as countless country and western songs with titles like “You’ve got a friend in Jesus” can attest. I hope we can avoid that danger, and probe just a bit deeper into the nature of Christian friendship, but the proof will be in the pudding, as they say. My aim is to suggest that something really quite revolutionary is taking place when Jesus creates a community of “friends” in John’s gospel, that Jesus is using the word “friend” in a radically new way, and that the “friendship” Jesus has in mind for his followers is nothing less than a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
But let me start with a more modest observation: When Jesus uses the word “friend” in the first century of the Common Era, he was by no means writing on a blank slate. The Hellenistic culture that shaped Jesus’ time in fact had a rich and nuanced understanding of “friendship,” expressed nowhere more eloquently than by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, the vital role of friendship in the ancient world is evidenced by the simple fact that Aristotle’s classic treatise on ethics devotes two of its ten books to the topic. “No one,” Aristotle writes, “would choose to live without friends even if he had all other goods.” Or, as Cicero was to put it a few centuries later, the great joy and importance of friendship is that it “improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.” The literature of the Greeks and Romans is, of course, replete with many examples of noble and virtuous friendships, and conversely, the great sin of that culture was to betray the loyalty of true friendship. The plots of many of the great tragedies are premised on just such betrayals. Classical writers by and large regarded friendship as the single highest form of human relationship.
Today we value friends too, yet I fear that our Facebook culture of friendship pales in comparison to the heights of Athenian or Roman civilization. Mark Zuckerberg may in some Facebook-sense of the word have more friends than anyone in the history of the world, but I seriously doubt that either Aristotle or Cicero would be impressed.
And this brings to mind a story: Prior to coming to Harvard, I spent several years as a chaplain in an Episcopal school and, among my assignments, was the task of teaching ethics to middle schoolers. As any parent knows, adolescence and moral reasoning go together about as well as oil and vinegar; and yet, there is possibly no time in life when it is more important to figure out how to make good choices, and that is particularly true when it comes to choosing friends. And so, I would spend a good couple of weeks in my ethics course exploring the nature of friendship, using both classical and Christian sources, in an effort to convince my students that long before “friend” became a verb involving the click of a mouse it was a noun denoting a certain quality of human relationship involving face-to-face encounters over time. One of the simple exercises I asked my students to complete was to compose a short essay in which they were to name their best friend and then explain what precisely made this person such a good friend.
The results were usually both funny and instructive. A young seventh grade boy whom I will call “Tim” once submitted this wonderfully succinct essay: “I love Sam as a friend because he gets me free tickets to Orioles games. I love Sam because he plays lacrosse with me. I love Sam because he is kind. I love Sam because we like helping each other.”
What Tim’s little essay lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in pedagogic utility because it perfectly illustrated for the class the key points of Aristotle’s theory of friendship. Any bond, Aristotle writes, that gives people something in common and brings them together is a form of philia, or friendship. Sometimes we make friends with people simply because they are useful to us; they give us something we need. Thus, Sam is a friend because he gets Tim into Camden Yards. This may be a slight and meager form of friendship, Aristotle notes, but it is a type of philia nonetheless. At other times, we make friends with people because they share an interest with us, a somewhat firmer and more enduring basis for friendship. Thus, Sam is someone with whom Tim can enjoy the game of lacrosse. And then there are people with whom we become friends because of some appealing aspect of their character – kindness in Sam’s case – and this, for Aristotle, is the firmest foundation for true friendship. We choose friends well when we choose them not merely for pleasure or advantage, but because of their character. And finally, Aristotle observes, true friendship requires reciprocity, a give and take between two persons of commensurate if not identical gifts. Tim and Sam are well-suited as friends precisely because they enjoy the back and forth of teaching and learning together, caring for and sharing with each other, and being content in each other’s company. In Tim’s words, they enjoy helping each other.
Aristotle’s theory of friendship, as even this simple summary shows, is deservedly famous for its rich insights into why we need and treasure friends, and why friendship is at the heart of human well-being. And yet, you do not need to study the Nicomachean Ethics long to see that, from the perspective of the gospels, there is a problem. For Aristotle’s account of friendship fundamentally rests on a theory of preferential love: we choose friends based on their very particular qualities in relation to who we are. We love our friends when they are able to meet our particular needs, share our particular interests, and embody the qualities of character we find most appealing. But when we do that we are necessarily excluding everyone else who do not meet those needs or criteria. Indeed, Aristotle is quite explicit about this implication, arguing in terms that we today find offensive that broad categories of folk are “obviously” incapable of the highest form of human friendship, including women, slaves, the illiterate and uneducated, the disabled, the physically unattractive, and other broad bands of humanity failing to conform to Hellenistic ideals of intelligence, ability, and ethnic and social station. In this sense, however beautiful Aristotle’s vision of friendship may be within its own narrow orbit, it is a theory of “contented exclusivity.” And this is exactly what the Anglican thinker, Jeremy Taylor, was getting at when he quipped: “When friendships were the noblest things in the world, charity was little.”
In contrast to Aristotle, Jesus’ conception of friendship in today’s gospel is wildly different: it rests on an invitation to love our neighbor, whomever he or she may be, as ourselves; to love even our enemies; and to love all such persons in the same manner as Christ has loved us. The Good Samaritan does not rush to the aid of only those persons with whom he has a preferred relationship; indeed, the whole point of the parable is that he loves and cares for whomever is in need. Our neighbors are defined by their need, not by their character, qualities, or interests. In short, the broad trajectory of the gospels, and of our specific text today, seems to call us to be “friends to the world”: to love indiscriminately, non-preferentially, and with abandon. For this is the nature of divine love, or agape.
Here, then, is the crux of the problem for any Christian account of friendship. On the one hand – and as to this Aristotle appears to be right – the most precious good in human life seems to lie in our very particular relationships with those relatively few people we hold close to our hearts and call our friends, those people with whom we prefer to share ourselves, to the exclusion of others. And yet, on the other hand, there is no question that Christ calls us to love everyone without preference, and extravagantly so. How do we bring these twin ideals together?
The beginning of an answer to this conundrum is suggested in a famous exchange recounted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson between Dr. Johnson and a Mrs. Knowles. Mrs. Knowles was of the view that friendship is a praiseworthy Christian virtue. Ever one to like a debate, Dr. Johnson challenges her: “Why, madam, how can that be when all friendship is preferring the interest of a friend to the neglect of another? Does not Christianity teach universal benevolence, that we are to treat our brothers and sisters equally well? And isn’t that contrary to classical theories of friendship?” Pausing, Mrs. Knowles replies: “yes, that is true, but it is also true that Jesus picked only twelve to be his disciples, and of those we are told that one was especially beloved. What does that tell you?” Taken aback, and uncharacteristically tongue-tied, Dr. Johnson responds: “You have spoken well, Madam. I had not thought of that.”
Mrs. Knowles is on to something. While the gospels certainly teach unconditional and indiscriminate love of neighbor, these teachings must be read together with the many stories where we see Jesus expressing such love in the context of particular and very human relationships: with the twelve; with the beloved disciple of John’s gospel; with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John; and with the small group of women disciples with whom Jesus has specific and different kinds of loving relationships.
The resolution of this tension between the universal and the particular dimensions of divine love is more formally explained by St. Augustine in the Confessions. Because we are finite human beings living at a particular place and time, Augustine observes, our opportunities to love are necessarily through the particular relationships of the family and friends we are given. These particular loves are the means God uses to lead his creatures toward a deeper love of Him and all humanity. We cannot leap over particular, preferential loves to a love more universal in scope; indeed, to think we can is a form of hubris, as if we could love just as God loves. In this sense, our particular friendships school us in love; they are a sign and a call by which God draws us to a love more universal in scope. They are the school in which learn what it would be like to love anyone, and in which, as we mature, we learn to become increasingly open and available to receive others in love.
Importantly, our particular loves are transcended but not destroyed in the love of God. It is not as if our closest relationships are merely a means to an end, to then be discarded. Rather, there is a triple movement: God uses these relationships both to draw us more deeply into relationship with Him and then to return us to the delight of loving our particular friends. But at the same time, we are constantly beckoned to enlarge our circle of loving, pushing past the contented exclusivity of Aristotle’s view, in a continuing effort to draw everyone into God’s love and to eradicate the barriers of gender, race, class, economics, and other socially constructed systems we humans inevitably erect in our sinful attempts to contain a divine love that knows no boundaries.
The love of my family and friends sustains and nourishes me. But these loves also point me to the love of God that makes them possible. And that love of God in turns invites me to open myself to love still more and still others.
Augustine may well be right in his analysis of friendship, and I think he is, but I also appreciate that all of this high-falutin’ theology is sorely tested when we suddenly lose a friend and experience the anguish of death. I witnessed this for myself again last week when I attended the memorial service of Wendy Chang, a Harvard senior who lived not too far from here in Lowell House and who, just three weeks ago, ended her own life. Wendy’s heartbreakingly tragic death has cast a long shadow over the otherwise joyful festivities surrounding the end of the year on Harvard’s campus.
I did not know Wendy, but showed up at her service merely to offer what little support I could for those who mourned her loss. Hundreds of her friends were there, and shared beautiful and often funny stories of the joy friendship with Wendy brought. Although Wendy was a Buddhist with a very different understanding of life and death from mine, as I sat there and heard one poignant story after another from her friends, and listened to them sing and chant songs of remembrance and lamentation, I could feel the abiding love that animated her life and that sustained all of those relationships, even in the midst of the intense pain and awful mystery of that moment. The vast web of friends that encircled her that day in Memorial Church was a reflection, I am convinced, of the heavenly choir of angels who sing to her now. Surely, I prayed, as I sat in my pew, a love powerful enough to make such friendships possible in this world, and to sustain these dear friends in their grief, is also powerful enough to overcome death itself. That, at least, is the Christian hope. And, that is, I think, what we mean by friendship in Christ. Amen.
A Note on Sources: I am deeply indebted to my former teacher Gilbert Meilaender for much of what I know about Christian friendship, particularly Gil's gem of a book Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).