When I was seven years old, I had two life-changing experiences in one fateful week. I received my first pair of glasses, and I immediately became best friends with the only other nearsighted girl in my glass. My new friend and I were inextricably linked by the bond of nerdiness. We spent indoor recesses working on what became a 40-page mystery story with a laughably predictable plot. We spent outdoor recesses pretending we were shipwrecked on desert islands, modeling adventures for ourselves after the protagonists of our favorite novels. Though we never seemed to find the imaginary riches marked with exes on our homemade maps of the schoolyard, we had indeed discovered a treasure. As the author of Sirach declared, “faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth.” My friend and I wept together when she told me her family was moving to Chicago; even at nine, we recognized the singularity of our friendship.
Friendship is a rather peculiar form of relationship. In his classic essay The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis characterized friendship as “the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary.” Friendship lacks the familial bond of the parent-child relationship, and platonic friendships are bereft of the passion inherent to erotic relationships. Friendship is preferential; even when friends are marked by difference, they usually share interests and visions. Friends often work together; many of the activists in the civil rights and women’s movements in this country have written about the depth of the relationships they forged while marching and organizing for justice. The bond of friendship is necessarily mutual; it quickly disintegrates when effort, trust, and care are not reciprocated. A good friend suffers and laughs with us, companioning us through our most painful and joyful journeys.
Although humans have befriended one another for millennia, friendship increasingly became a topic for philosophical consideration in the Hellenistic world. While the Hebrew Bible recounts tales of friends like David and Jonathan, the meaning of friendship is contemplated in the deutero-canonical books. The scripture we heard this morning is the conclusion of an extended poem about true and false friends, a topic that is visited repeatedly in the Book of Sirach. It was in this Hellenistic context that Jesus spoke the words that still engender wonder in human hearts: “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.” Jesus called his disciples friends. The intimacy of this declaration is nothing short of miracle. After all, Jesus was no ordinary human being. He was imbued with the very presence of God. The ramifications of the incarnation are as extensive as they are radical, but for this moment I ask you to fix your hearts to just one: through Christ Jesus, we are befriended by God.
Friendship with God is possible because the Triune God is fundamentally relational. Though the mystical fellowship of the Trinity is most often interpreted in familial terms, the three persons of the Godhead can also be imagined as friends. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity implies such a relationship of mutuality. The persons of the Trinity are gathered around a table, heads bowed in a gesture of reverence toward one another. However, the circle is not closed. As we meditate on the icon, we realize that we, too, are invited to the table. We, too, are summoned to commune with this holy alliance. Just as Jesus called his disciples friends, so too does this icon draw us into fellowship with the divine.
When we endeavor to live our lives in the Light of Christ, we enter into an ever-deepening friendship with our Creator. Sustained by the vision entrusted to us through the gospels, we are invited to share in the work the master is doing. Though we serve a living God, we do so not as slaves but as friends, co-creators of God’s Kingdom. This working relationship is humbling and challenging. How does one attempt to reciprocate the love and care of the divine? Is it really possible to share God’s vision for creation? And yet, this is precisely what Jesus beckons us to do by calling us friends.
When we work for and with friends, we do so not out of obligation, but out of genuine concern and affection. As a people befriended by God, we are coaxed into participating in God’s joys as well as God’s sorrows. We rejoice in the goodness of the earth, and we weep at her continued destruction. We hope desperately for peace, and we despair at humanity’s predilection for violence. We immerse ourselves in the holiness of communion, and we moan with compassion for the multitude of lonesome souls. When we accept the friendship offered by God, we more closely align ourselves with God’s being and purpose.
Unfortunately, we often spurn friendships, even the friendship extended by God. The consequences of violating the trust of a friend are profound. Sallie McFague writes that “the sin against the friend is betrayal.” The sting felt by Jesus when the disciples fled would have been searing enough had his betrayers been mere servants. That Jesus had called the men his friends made their denial of him all the more excruciating. The disciples’ disloyalty reverberates in our liturgies; each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded that Jesus was sharing a meal with friends on the night that he was betrayed. One of the great marvels of the resurrection is that even after the treacherous actions of his friends, Jesus again shared bread with them, speaking words of peace, forgiveness, and love. Even after the disciples’ abject failure, Jesus remained a faithful friend.
God takes a phenomenal risk by befriending humanity, and certainly, time and time again the risk has resulted in betrayal. For most folks, friendship is worth whatever pain it causes, and apparently the same is true of God. The desire for the unmistakable joy of mutual relationship is simply woven into the fabric of the universe.
Through the grace of God, broken friendships are regenerated. The table of fellowship is perennially open. The thanksgiving feast is set, and the invitation is extended to all of creation. We take the bread and cup in remembrance of Jesus, and in hope for the realization of God’s holy Kingdom. We gather around the table as friends often do, with camaraderie and mutuality. The host is present. Let us be gracious guests and faithful friends to the God who befriends us.