“What are friends for?”
You’ve probably said this to somebody or heard it said by somebody else to you. It’s a rhetorical question that means roughly, “You’re welcome. I did this for you because of what we are to one another.”
Nobody expects you to answer the question. Well, at least, not until now. Answering this question is precisely what I want you to join me in doing. That’s because friendship is at the very heart of what it means to be a community that follows Jesus. What it means to be Church.
Don’t take my word for it. Let Jesus himself tell you. As the hour of his crucifixion approaches, Jesus tells his disciples, “ I do not call you servants any longer…; but I have called you friends.” (John 15:15)
So let’s pose the question. What are friends for? What does it mean to be the Church?
Jesus puts it this way. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12) Church is an identity and it is an activity, someone that we are and something that we do.
We’re going to take a look at identity and activity in turn, but I want to preface what I’m about to say by setting aside a common and spiritually damaging misconception. Jesus is not saying that we can be his BFF if we’ll do what he wants us to do and think how he wants us to think.
You’re going to miss his point entirely—miss what it means to be Church—if you don’t get you’re head around this from the very start. Jesus has already extended the hand of friendship and will never take it back. His relationship with us was his initiative, will always be his initiative, and all that we’re talking about now is our response to what he has already done.
And so, when we talk about our identity as followers of Jesus, we should begin by saying that we are the ones that Jesus has chosen to befriend. This is true for us both as community of followers and as individual followers of Jesus.
We are so accustomed to looking for our personal identity deep within ourselves that I had better risk being a little repetitive on this point. Who we are as individuals and as Church is not a function of traits deep within the hidden chambers of our souls. Our true self as community and as individual derives from the relationships to which we surrender ourselves.
This isn’t to say that I don’t have thoughts and desires that I would have to take pains to share (or hide). And I readily admit that each of us has gifts and experiences that differentiate us one from the other. Nevertheless, I still say that relationships make us who we are.
I’m the Bishop of Western Louisiana because of my place within the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, the Church catholic, and the hometown viewers of Duck Dynasty. I’m Joy’s husband, Dad to Andrew, Meredith, and Patrick, and son to Trudy and Sam.
But most essentially, I’m the one that Jesus loves in the way that only God can love. As Jesus puts it, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God has emptied himself for me, and for us his Church. We are marked as Christ’s own forever not by what we say or think or even do. Christ has done the marking.
We belong to Christ. That is our enduring identity. But, to borrow a phrase from the Existentialists, a human being is not a human being the way that a rock is a rock. A rock is just that. A rock. You would never say to a rock, “You’re not yourself today.”
However, we human beings can fail to be ourselves, and despite what a clever series of ads suggests it is not our hunger for a Snickers bar that’s to blame. Instead, it’s our failure to respond in kind to Jesus’ initiative toward us. And this brings us to the activity, to what we do, that makes us Church.
Who we are is found in the relationships to which we surrender ourselves. The Church is the community who responds to Christ’s love with love. He has befriended us, so now we act like his friends in return.
Aristotle outlined three kinds of friendship.
There are friends of utility, like business associates or colleagues. We can do something practical for one another.
Then there are people we enjoy doing things with, like hunting or playing golf, traveling or knitting. These are friendships of pleasure.
Finally, Aristotle says that we form friendships of the Good. We respect and admire others who share our highest values and our worldview.
Some of us assume that this last item on Aristotle’s list is what Jesus means by friendship. This would mean that we are friends of Jesus (and friends with each other in Jesus) when we agree about theological doctrine and adhere to the same moral teachings.
But Jesus doesn’t say this at all. He understands that whenever two or three are gathered in his Name there will be disputes about what it means to gather in his Name. But what we can share as a response—as the activity that shows the world that we are marked as Christ’s own—is love. Love in the way that Jesus has modeled for us.
And what does that love look like? Jesus doesn’t merely acknowledge the lovable. He transforms the unlovely into the Beloved. He makes the shattered whole.
We live in a world filled with those who feel unloved and unloveable. A world filled with the forgotten and the ignored. Worldly powers reckon certain kinds of people as expendable and inconvenient.
To love Jesus is to refuse to forget or to ignore anyone. No one is expendable. No one is inconvenient. To love Jesus is to make precisely those at the margins and those at the bottom of the heap aware that they are the beloved. They are somebody. Marked as Christ own forever.
The Church is the Church when we respond to Christ’s love for us by being the instruments of God’s mission. We not only feed the poor but help raise the poor out of poverty. We give shelter to the homeless but also work to make the word “homelessness” an archaic remnant of a time gone by. We seek not only to take advantage of our own opportunities in this life, but we work with all of our might to maximize the opportunities for everyone.
The Church is the community devoted to extending Jesus’ friendship to the world. After all, that’s what friends are for.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Monroe, Louisiana, at the Celebration of New Ministry with new rector The Rev. Richard Norman.