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Sermon: Evensong - 9 November 2014

Sunday 9th November 2014
John 15.9-17
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I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15.15b)


In nomine Patris…

On the recent Friends of Guildford Cathedral Pilgrimage the first place we stopped at on our way north was Rievaulx Abbey. The light was just beginning to fail and the mist was swirling. It was a beautifully evocative site. Rievaulx is scarred by the destruction and fissures of the Henrician Reformation and is a ruin, albeit a very beautiful and remarkably complete one. It was home to hundreds of monks in its time the best well known of them being Aelred. Aelred lived in the twelfth century and, in some ways, his writing was typical of the time with a deep and passionate intensity contemplating the love of God. Aelred’s distinctive gift to us is his reflection, On Spiritual Friendship.

In it Aelred says, ‘Friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that from being a friend of our neighbours, we become friends of God, according to the words of our Saviour in the Gospel: “I will not now call you servants, but friends”’. That is indeed the trajectory set by St John in our second reading this evening in which John treats friendship with others in general and Jesus in particular as the way of sharing and giving up ourselves to another person that places us in communion with God into whose love we are, in Christ, grafted like the branch into the vine. That engrafting into Christ is the source of friendship and communion with God.

It is a slightly old and tired point to make that friendship isn’t what it was. The use of the word ‘friend’ by users of Facebook has arguably changed what we mean by friendship, or, at least, we have to concede that there are different ways in which people may now use the word ‘friend’. What it does mean is that we have to negotiate new ways of understanding friendship.  Perhaps the challenge for an online generation is to ask how that friendship can be expressed in new ways of relating to other people; what does intimacy and trust look like online.

Or it may be the other way round because you could say that the Church has always modelled different forms of friendship in our life in the Body of Christ. Rather than new forms of friendship being disembodied, they are embodied in different and intriguing ways. After all, as Aelred says, ‘[even] medicine is not more powerful or efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully, so that, as the Apostle says, shoulder to shoulder, they “bear one another’s burdens”’. In that Aelred is suggesting that the ways we relate within the Body of Christ should be a model for friendship. Our fellowship and friendship with our fellow Christians is what you could call ‘remote’ or non-present friendship.

We’re not good at this. The word ‘friendship’ is sometimes used as a safe word that sidesteps issues around human sexuality. If friendship implies a relationship that is not expressed physically, and therefore seems to be safe, then awkward questions do not arise. But we can do better than that. I can say, ‘I am both your brother and your friend within the Body of Christ’, but that doesn’t mean we’re always popping out for coffee together, going shopping or exchanging intimate thoughts.  Aelred’s account of friendship is a beautiful expression, not simply about good mates, buddies or pals, but a richer level of friendship:

What happiness, what security, what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known your progress you have made in your spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans!

This sounds very much like the fullness of Christian living: communion with our fellow Christians for the sake of pointing others to the abundance of that life, which itself leads to life-giving and life-enhancing communion with God in the life of the Trinity. In this relationship Christ is present and so in turn is related to us, as our friend. Aelred alludes to Jesus’ words in St Matthew’s gospel, ‘where two or three are present in my name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18.20) as he continues to describe friendship:

What, therefore, is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.

What friendship describes, then, is sheer delight in another person, celebrating and encouraging. It is a high calling to be a friend and united by bonds of friendship, as the Psalm says, ‘Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity’ (Psalm 133.1).

All this indicates just how catastrophic it is when any friendship, especially friendship in the Body of Christ, breaks down. It is dreadful: the psalmist laments, ‘For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour, for then I could have borne it…but it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and mine own familiar friend’ (Psalm 55.12, 14). Friendship isn’t an emotional state of being based on likes or dislikes, but based on trust, confidence, intimacy of bearing one another’s burdens, eschewing furtiveness, where as Aelred puts it, ‘each one carries his own injuries even more lightly than that of his friend…it heightens the joys of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity by dividing and sharing them’. Violation of friendship devastates.

Friendship is life giving and, in the context of the Body of Christ and in the making known of the Kingdom, friendship is the way we are called to live with one another and with God. What St John writes, and indeed Aelred too, can sound like an impossible ideal, and yet is made possible in Jesus’s befriending of us. This friendship flows from the oneness of Jesus and the Father in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The height, depth, breadth and length of this friendship is in Jesus’ laying down his life for us, his friends. Friendship gives of itself.

And this friendship is in fulfilment of Jesus’ will that we are filled with joy and fully alive, ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’. (John 15.11) Jesus’ joy in being at one with the Father. There is no greater joy than being loved in friendship, and knowing that we are valued, precious and loved by God.

I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father (John 15.15b)