God is apparently not a helicopter parent. He does not hover over our every move like a mother who does every homework assignment with her child, walks her child to the mailbox, and watches her at every meal to insure that she’s chewing with her mouth closed.
And yet God is present. Deists—you know, the gang who say that God created everything and then became an idle spectator—are so 2005 (and 1776).
Shockingly, God is along on the pub crawl and during Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
. Mind you, he probably thinks that this is not such a great idea, but he’s in it with us for the long haul and all of that long haul’s less than stellar moments.
In other words, God’s love doesn’t always take the form of a spiritual fitness trainer or a theological tutor. Sure, God’s love transforms us. It stretches us and molds us. But God also spends a lot of time just getting us. He is that into us.
In Christ, God sits with us in whatever juniper patch or crummy dump or tornadic wreck that our life has become at the moment. And he is all in. He lays his life down for us. As The Message puts it, he puts his life on the line for us. (John 15:13) God makes himself vulnerable, infinitely vulnerable to our circumstances. He responds not in judgment but compassion.
Jesus, you see, says that we are his friends. And he really means it. (John 15:15) The Greek word translated as “friend” can be translated as “the beloved.” And that word is derived from one of the three words commonly used for love: philia.
In other words, Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s love for us, only that love looks different from what most of us have been taught.
It is traditional to distinguish love into three kinds: agape, eros, and philia. The former refers to God’s love for the creation. Such love is not a response to the characteristics or value of the beloved. Instead, agape bestows value. Agape is unconditional precisely because it arises from who God is, not from what we have done or accomplished, who we know or how we look or what we think.
By contrast, we generally understand eros and philia to be responses to the attributes of a person. For instance, someone’s beautiful face or athletic build or flowing hair may attract us. That’s erotic love. A shared interest or social cause or work place can create bonds of affection. Those bonds are filial love.
Since erotic love can fade with a person’s looks or build or with the discovery of initially hidden traits that put us off, it is considered conditional. We’ve probably all developed a crush on a person from afar only to wonder what on earth attracted us to that person once we became aware of his narrow-mindedness or her unkind sense of humor.
Similarly, filial love is conditioned by circumstances. Jeff Tierney and Rob Arnett were once my dearest friends on earth. We attended middle school and high school together. Jeff and I were even college roommates. As the years passed we moved away from each other. While we have warm regard for each other, the distance in miles and time and experience separates us emotionally in ways that we would not have imagined in our youth.
When Jesus calls us friends, he shakes up our understanding of God’s love. Yes, God is agape. He gives his love freely not in response to us but from his very essence as God. Agape brings us into existence. Agape redeems us. It is unconditional.
But God’s philia is unconditional as well. God responds in compassion to every single moment of our lives. When we leap for joy, God kicks up his heels. Our heartache and headache and pigheaded blunders rend God’s heart, furrow his brow, and make him feel the blood rush to his face.
God gets all tangled up with our lives. Whether we’re a jumbled mess or a living work of art, God is all in. That’s what friends are for.
Now being Jesus’ friend does not make life a perpetual party. It’s pretty clear that he’s not my good time buddy. And he’s certainly not my codependent caretaker.
Once, Teresa of Avila fell off her mount into a mud puddle. She looked to the heavens and said, “If that’s how you treat your friends no wonder you have so few of them.”
Sometimes I find myself channeling Anne Lamott. Turmoil breaks out in all three of my kids’ lives. The phone rings with the day’s fifth complaint about a clergy person’s style of preaching or pastoral care or unreasonable decision to follow the rubrics of the Prayer Book. An old friend tells me about a wretched diagnosis. And a zit the size of Tahiti breaks out on my nose. I look to the sky and say, “Would it kill you to give me a break here!”
After all, that’s how we can talk to friends. Honest. A bit stressed out. Unguarded. Maybe even a little whiney and weak and self-absorbed.
As one wag put it, “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
Jesus might have liked what Bob Marley said. “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Only Jesus would have added this. Everyone is worth it.
That is what friends are for.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.