Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook to connect people. According to Facebook, I have literally hundreds of friends.
Mind you, I have never met some of my friends. We have never exchanged a spoken word, shared a meal, gone to a movie together, or laid eyes on each other. For that matter, we have never even commented on each other’s status.
And yet, there you are. I have hundreds of friends. Only, this is not what any of us actually means by the word “friend” in the usual sense. Friends answer a basic need in our souls. Everybody wants to connect to somebody.
Even members of the Facebook staff and the most devoted user of the medium know that peeking at someone else’s pictures and reading their clever status updates will not save us from loneliness.
|Daniel Ridgeway Knight’s “Waiting for the Ferryman”|
They know, just like we know, that everybody wants to connect to somebody. We want someone to confide in and laugh with. Cry to and count on.
Someone with whom we’ve made memories and still make plans. Someone who will hold our hand in the dark and put sunscreen on our back.
That’s a friend. Jesus said that his followers are his friends. (John 15:13-15) That’s why Quakers call Church the Society of Friends.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us the gift of the Church. He means for it to be a community, a community of his friends, called together to be friends with each other and to be the channel through which he changes the world in the process.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve said a mouthful here, and I need to take a step back to explain myself. On this Holy Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to form, empower, and send the Church into the world.
I want us to be clear about what the Church is, and what the Church isn’t.
So let’s look first at how the community we call the Church comes about. Then we will look at the kinds of relationships that make this community what it is. And finally, we’ll look at how the community fits into the world, or perhaps doesn’t fit.
Friendship of Mercy
Let’s trace the community we call the Church to its origins. People did not start the Church. Neither do we perpetuate it. God himself created and sustains the Church.
In chapter two of Acts, we read the familiar story about the Day of Pentecost. Following the Ascension, the disciples and Mary wait for nine days in the upper room. Then, the Holy Spirit descends upon them with a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Just as the Holy Spirit had moved over the deep at the creation of all things, the Holy Spirit now fills and entwines the disciples into a new creation: the Church.
John provides a different account of the same event. Jesus himself appeared in that upper room. He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and breathed on his disciples. They become one by breathing the same holy air.
The Apostle John especially helps us to see that Jesus is creating a community of friends. Jesus reaches out in friendship. He takes the initiative. But Jesus’ friendship is like no other.
The philosopher Aristotle outlined three types of friendship. Let’s take a look at Aristotle’s list in order to show how very different friendship with Jesus is.
|Norman Rockwell’s “No Swimming”|
Aristotle begins with the most superficial sort of relationships: friendships of utility. We would normally call these relationships mere acquaintances. Our connection with another person has nothing to do with that person, but on a common interest.
For instance, she may have something to sell that I want to buy. Once the deal is done, the relationship is over. There is nothing bad about this kind of relationship. It is merely superficial and does not address our need for connection at a very deep level.
What we would normally call friendship arises when we enjoy another person’s company. We like to hunt together or drink together or shop together or play tennis together. A common activity creates a bond between us.
But when we no longer enjoy the activity we once shared, we often lose touch with each other. Aristotle called this kind of bond a friendship of pleasure.
Aristotle realized that we needed both of these kinds of friendship, but he also insisted that we need something even deeper.
We yearn to connect with someone because of who he is, and for that person to connect with us because of who we are. Friendships of the good, as Aristotle called them, are bonds of mutual affection and admiration for the enduring character of the other person.
For Aristotle, this is the highest form of friendship. But Jesus offers something more. He offers a friendship of mercy, as only he can.
Jesus does not draw near to us because we have something he needs. Nor does he reach out to us because we’re loads of fun. In fact, he comes to us precisely when our character itself is in need of some serious work, work that we cannot do ourselves.
|Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew”|
Jesus reaches his hand out to us precisely when we are flat on our backs, hard to live with, and not much use to anybody, including ourselves. He offers us a hand up when we are face down in the mess of this life.
When we take the hand of friendship that he extends, two things happen. First, who we are changes forever. Theologians call this regeneration. A new set of motives for action and lenses for seeing others and ourselves begin to take hold in our souls.
The second thing that happens when we befriend Jesus is that we become friends with all of his friends. But that leads us to the next question. Just what sort of community is the Church?
Any Friend of His is a Friend of Mine
The Church is the community of the friends of Jesus. This might take some of us a minute to get our heads around.
I have emphasized that following Jesus involves a personal relationship with him, a friendship of mercy. That might make you think that being a Christian begins and ends with our private relationship with Jesus, that it all boils down to me and Jesus.
If that were true, it would be as if the Church were simply a big sandbox. Each of us is in the sandbox to play with Jesus. We play one-on-one with him, but being with Jesus does not require that we play with each other. Church would just be a place where we all engage in parallel play.
But the Church is much more than this. St. Paul says that it is a Body, the Body of Christ. And he urges the members of this Body to be one by sharing the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Philippians 2:5-8)
Think about it this way. Each of us is a friend of Jesus. And part of being his friend is to say, “Any friend of his is a friend of mine.”
|“Last Supper with Street Children”|
In other words, we learn to see each follower of Christ as our own friend through Christ. Christ has made me a part of him. And because he has done the same for all of you, you are part of me and I am part of you through him.
Our relationships with each other intersect through him, and as long as we are devoted to him, our relationship with each other can never wither.
Look at how this explodes a common misconception of the Church. Some people think of the Church as filled with hypocrites that assume a posture of moral superiority over those outside the Church.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are people drawn together by the one who gives us the mercy we so desperately need. Jesus sees how fragile and flawed we are, and he reaches out tenderly to remold us.
Because we see each other through him, we see each other as needing mercy and being wonderfully transformed by that same mercy. At least, we do that on our best days.
That is how we relate to each other within the Church. And it shapes how we relate to those outside the Church. This leads us to our final question. How does this community of friends fit into the world?
Friendship is Countercultural
The apostle John draws a clear distinction between the followers of Jesus and the world. He says that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. (John 16:9) And he will do it through the Church.
The Church is countercultural. When we get life in community right, we show the world a different way to live. Instead of competition we model compassion. We celebrate our interdependence and admit our weakness, while the world prizes pushing one’s own agenda through strength.
We accept everyone on their own terms, waiting with joyful expectation for their transformation in Christ. The world accepts and rejects on the basis of achievements and potential usefulness.
The Church is powerful, but it does not properly use coercion. The power of the Church is attraction, because the might of the Church is Jesus Christ: love incarnate.
|Caravaggio’s “The Supper at Emmaus”|
We all yearn for connection. That loneliness that we each have felt from time to time tells us that we are not complete in isolation. Church is God’s answer to our loneliness.
In the beginning, some come to Church because of our loneliness for other people. But in time, we discover that deeper down we are lonely for God.
And when we are finally at home with God, we find that we are able to be with people in a way that we had never before imagined.
As friends of Christ, we can truly be friends with men and women. They no longer have to meet our needs in the same way they did before. Instead, leaning on Christ, we can love others as a free gift, reflecting the love for them that Christ so prodigally gives.
This sermon was preached on the Day of Pentecost, May 27, 2012, at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, LA.
Amen. Sharing this with others as you phrase here many thoughts and things shared among several of us before and also mentioned by SSJE today.
Thanks, Stephen, for sharing this. It's good to know I'm in such good company!
This is beautiful! I have neglected going to Church because of a bad time I had during a certain celebration we were having at a Church gathering, once, years ago–but tonight I got hungry for the Word and thirsty for what it means to be a true Christian, and I found your blog, read it and enjoyed it a great deal. Now I know what I really need–a good sermon–to make me happy. I have been very lonely, lately, but I need to be around good Christians who could remind me of what I was missing–Thank you!
I'm grateful that you found the blog and that reading it has moved you to seek out a church. Really, it's the Holy Spirit drawing you back to fellowship with your friends in Christ: friends you don't even know you have right now. I'm sad to hear of the bad time you had in church once. We all rightly believe that church should be a safe, accepting place for us. And mostly it is, but sometimes we are not at our best and we hurt each other. I pray that you will find a welcoming worship community and encourage you to remember that it is Jesus Christ who calls you and welcomes you. He just does it through imperfect people like me who will sometimes need your patience and forgiveness.