Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2015
Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Ps 98:1-4; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
To call another person one’s friend involves a good deal of risk, especially if by “friend” we intend the true depth of what that relationship entails. For one thing, claiming to be another’s friend sets a high bar for knowledge of that other. You’ll be the one called upon to know your friend’s desires – from substantive matters in an emergency situation to more trivial ones in the planning of a surprise party. And if you can’t deliver – if you don’t know their favorite foods, their allergies, who else should be invited, and their preferred taste in music, etc. – then it casts some real doubt on the authenticity of the relationship. If you are a true friend, you would know what brings the other joy (and, more fundamentally, what could send them into anaphylactic shock). So calling another our friend, opens us up to endless opportunities to fall short and to confront our relational shortcomings. Perhaps there are details of a friend’s life that you should know but have forgotten. But too far into the friendship, you feel it would be an insult to ask, betraying your own lapse in attentiveness and care. In other words, if you’re someone worried about being found out as a fraud, claim friends with caution!
Another danger springs from the very nature of human relationship. It is far easier to care deeply about another thing’s fate in a non-friend way. These are our possessions. They are static objects with meaning and worth that emerge from our own evaluation of them. But concern for a friend is caring for the other not as mere object of our love but as another subject. It is caring for one who possesses an identity, will, and desire of his or her own independent from our own evaluations. Through friendship, we bind ourselves – indeed we bind part of our own identity, will, and desire – to one who is far from static and is out of our control.
There are other reasons, of course, that we might find friendship risky. In John’s Gospel for this Sunday, we are reminded that there is no greater love than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Friendship can ask everything of us. But even short of this ultimate sacrifice, it is no benign enterprise. Many have written on the benefits and goodness of friendship, especially for its potential to lead us deeper into human flourishing, a life of virtue, and the love of God. But let us not move too quickly to this rosy assessment. Friendship is dangerous too.
This danger makes it all the more stunning that God would call us God’s friends as we find in this Sunday’s Gospel:
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. (John 15: 14-15)
Classical accounts of friendship suggest it is a relation between equals. Thus, to speak of friendship between God and humans should be jarring, something we can scarcely wrap our heads around. Friendship with God suggests we are invited to be something of an equal. It suggests – as does the incarnation itself – that the vast differential between our being and God’s being is no obstacle to the love that God wishes to pour out on us. We are not abandoned to be subservient, needy, and otherwise hopeless creatures. Rather, we are offered a level of participation in the life of God that approaches something of mutuality and a share in God’s dignity. Simply put, we ought to be dumbstruck when we speak of friendship with God.
And yet, the move from inequality to friendship seems to make more of an impression on us on the human level rather than in our spiritual life. It can inspire entire film plots (think Driving Miss Daisy) and it can be found in the striking transformation of a parent-child relation to one of genuine adult friendship. Yet, for some reason, we often regard the notion of friendship with God as relatively unremarkable.
Theologian Liz Carmichael has captured this well in her book, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love (165-166) when she discusses the source of embarrassment in the notion of friendship with God:
[I]t proposes God as a cosy and tolerant companion, one among many whom we might care to collect as a friend, a congenial item to add when constructing a ‘designer spirituality’ for ourselves. That reduces God to the status of an existent among other existents, trivializing a relationship that if real, affects and transforms our whole being. ‘Friendship with God’ has at times been guarded exclusively for saints. A more modern danger is to reduce it to the casual and comfortable level, where the problem is sentimental unreality rather than ‘irreverence’. If God, even as friend, is not awesome and challenging, we are not truly encountering God.
Just as it is a risk to name another as our friend, it ought to be a bit disconcerting to be called this by God. Certainly the claim to knowledge of the other is rife with opportunity to come up short. As noted in the lines from John’s Gospel, we have been given access to intimate knowledge of God (unlike the slave who doesn’t know what the master is doing). It’s difficult to think of a higher bar for knowledge of the other than the knowledge of God.
And then there is the danger of binding oneself to another who is beyond our control. One way this is often discussed is that to be God’s friend means to love as God loves. This is certainly an apt characterization, but too often it allows us to move out of the awesome and unsettling notion of friendship with God into the more familiar territory of love of neighbor or – a bit more challenging – love of enemy. But let’s remain with our friendship with God for a bit longer. Yes, to be God’s friend is to love what and who God loves (or at least to admit we ought to do so). But it also means that God, in calling us friends, is offering to love what we love. (Vindication at last – I knew God must love puns!). Taking it a bit more seriously, we find a tool for moral assessment here. Looking at our own passions and how we direct our energies, we can ask: Are our loves worthy of God extending God’s care to them? Does what we take joy in prove a hindrance to God’s friendship with us or can these joys be embraced by the one who created and sustains the universe?
Friendship with God is not just a catchy reminder that God loves us and wants us to be more loving of others. Rather, it is daunting-though-magnificent rendering of the risk of friendship writ large. It confronts us with inadequacies of our knowledge of God and reveals to us many of our petty and misguided joys. None of that undermines the relationship itself. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16). As incredible as it may be – as incredible as it should be – God has called us friends.