XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

Spiritual Friendship

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, May 13

The Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 15: 9-17

It is said of the great poet and writer W.H. Auden that he returned to the Anglican Church after many years away partly because of an experience he had one fine summer evening in June 1933. He was sharing conversation with a few friends while sitting on the lawn after dinner. With him were two women and one man. He made it clear there was no sexual attraction among them and he also made it clear that no one had been drinking, though Auden himself was far from a teetotaler. Listen to his extraordinary recounting of an otherwise ordinary night:

"We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. . . . My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it. I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed of this spirit, it would literally be impossible for me to deliberately injure another human being."

Have you ever had an experience like that? Auden called it a “Vision of Agape.” Have you ever, when in the company of others, experienced such a manifestation of love, such that it that stretches you beyond yourself, and such that the ideal of divine love that you’ve heard about for so long suddenly becomes real and deep and true? I dare say I have, even more than once. I wonder if many of you have as well.

Though I never did take Greek in divinity school, I do know that the Greeks had several words for love, agape is just one of them. Agape is what the ancients considered to be the highest of loves. The word was adopted by Christians to describe the unconditional love of God. There’s also eros, sometimes said to be a particular manifestation of agape love, or God’s love. Eros is the passionate, romantic love shared by couples, whether same sex or opposite. Apparently now even the White House recognizes the love of same sex couples and their right to marry! Allelulia, and its about time! A third kind of love is called storge, which refers to the so-called natural or familial affection; this is the love parents feel for offspring. And a fourth is called philia which is love shared between friends.

At the risk of disappointing some mothers in the house, this is not a sermon about storge, or motherly love! Instead, our scripture for today invites us philia, or brotherly love, and it connects to agape, or God’s love. We’ve heard the line from John’s Gospel in one version or another so many times that they may lose their punch. “Love one another as I have loved you.” The word here in vs. 12 is agape. But what follows in this passage is all about friendship, a word we hear far less about in scripture.

Jesus at first brings up friendship almost as a footnote. After his exhortation to love one another, he adds “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But then the theme of friendship continues. “And you are my friends, no longer servants. I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from God.” Maybe its because we hear and read more about God’s love or the love between couples than we do about love between friends or maybe it because I’m looking forward to reconnecting with friends over the course of my sabbatical in a few months, or maybe it’s just because, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of friendship lately and about what our tradition has to say about it.

Well over a thousand years before what some are calling the decline of friendship in our post-modern, technology driven world, long before the dawn of digital friendships and online social networks, the 12th century Cistercian monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, once wrote a relatively rare treatise on philia love, simply titled, Spiritual Friendship.

Making reference to today’s scripture from John, Aelred says: :what is true of agape love, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship.” “He that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him.” “God is friendship.” Aelred virtually equates friendship with the love of God. These are strong words, and not especially orthodox, but they are echoed by Thomas Aquinas two centuries later, and are likely rooted in the ethics of Aristotle over 1000 plus year before.

You see Aristotle spoke about three kinds of friends. Friends of utility are those companions who are useful to us-- those who can provide some function for us. Then there are friends of pleasure, companions with whom one share’s some enjoyment, say a tennis partner or someone with whom you enjoy music, food or drink. Both of these, Aristotle contends, are unstable for when the motives of utility or pleasure are gone, friendship wanes. The third kind of friend, however, is the most lasting, its a friendship allows us to practice virtue.

Aristotle goes so far as to say that having a true friend is like having another self for the joy and sorrow, success and failure of a friend becomes just as our own. We can’t have this level of friendship with many as we’d be stretched too thin, but don’t you love that idea of a friend being like another self, extending our capacity for compassion, empathy and joy? Do you have friends whether here or elsewhere that stretch you in this way? This kind of love surely touches upon, participates in and practices that agape-style, transformative love of God. It’s also the only other form of love that is not necessary for human survival. Arguably, humans don’t need friends to survive, neither as individuals nor as a species. This in some ways makes the endeavor of true friendship all the more an act of gratuitous love, one that mirror’s God’s love and grace. And yet, friendship without a touchstone in God’s love can become problematic.

Just this past week, a dear friend and secular soul mate was visiting us from Toronto. He was in town for a conference. I hadn’t seen him for 3 years. His name is Sunit and he is to me a ‘brother from another mother’. C.S. Lewis once noted that true friendships can be schools of virtue, but they can also be schools of vice. This is not my problem with Sunit. I have other friends like that. But with Sunit, there is another liability involved. The fact is Sunit is a brain surgeon, and whenever he comes to visit, he brings photos and videos from his research. These are pictures and movies of real live brains and brain surgery (no names attached, of course)! The kids love it! I love it! I’m so happy and humbled to know the guy that I have to resist a certain pride I feel when I think about him and remind myself, on occasion, that my friendship with him is a gift that has nothing to do with what he does for a living. He says he wrestles with the same thing with me. I think he considers it a quaint novelty to befriend a beer drinking and open-minded minister given the secular, scientific world he runs in.

As Peter Gomes used to say when he’d invite people to find their seats at the table for dinner at his house “Remember, you all are sitting next to the most interesting person in the room. Think about it!” It works for any setting, even church. Go ahead, and think about it! If you think the person next to you is boring, chances are you aren’t going to be interesting to them either. If you think the person next to you is the most fascinating person ever, you might just find that feeling reciprocated!

Now, setting aside whatever pride Sunit and I may and may not have felt sitting next to each other over a few meals this week, my connection with this man runs deep. I do love him, truly and deeply and I tell him and other friends of mine just this when I see them. C.S. Lewis wrote: In this kind of love, as Emerson said, “do you love me?” means more like “do you see the same truth?” Or at least “do you care about the same truth?” It matters not whether there is agreement in the answer. I’m convinced that though Sunit was born and raised a Hindu and is now a philosophical atheist, I know we are always seeking to see and care about the same questions of truth, beauty, justice, and love, even when the language of our answers may differ widely. When I’m with him, I know my sense of self stretches, and my love and generosity for others and for myself grows.

Again to quote C.S. Lewis, “Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others! They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men and by friendship God opens our eyes to them.” Perhaps this is what Auden was describing. And I do feel this when I am with Sunit, and also when we are at our best with each other here in this community of friends. I feel this often when I am sharing communion and worship and moments of sorrow and joy with many of you. Though the dangers of friendship to which we are not immune include the creation of an in-crowd, a tribe, a self-satisfied social club, and these things should be avoided at all costs, the potential of spiritual friendship even partially realized can surely practice us and train us and open us to virtue of God’s love which is for all of our neighbors.

So just what is the role of friendship in our community of faith? Is it okay for us to have some friends that are closer than others without being exclusive? Can we recognize the limits of true friendship while remaining open the infinite value inherent therein? I think Jesus calls us in this and so many other dimensions of our faith to live out a paradox and to find a both/and way of befriending ourselves, others and God! There are many scriptural references to Jesus having closer friends amongst the disciples and the disciples themselves could be seen as the quintessential in-crowd but it was one that used their practice of tight-knit community to learn about and share God’s love with the wider world. If Christ’s model is any example, those he would call friends weren’t merely those who chose him, or those who would commit to following in his ways. As Jesus says, you did not choose me but I chose you! By extension, perhaps its best when we don’t choose our friends either, but when we let God choose for us, let God put people in our path, in our pew, or in the apartment across the hall. When we remember that they are the most interesting person in the world, if only because they surely are when seen in the light of God’s love, visions of both philia and agape love can grow within us and help to strengthen and form our communities.

One of things that I hear again and again is how we come together in this congregation and share our lives with people we would not otherwise encounter. While we must be watchful of friendship’s liabilities, of becoming in-groups or tribes, and especially when it comes to race, class and education, I know we as a church have at times been possessed, inhabited by that power of which Auden wrote, wherein we can look upon one another and rejoice in our all being creatures of infinite value. Indeed, we can and should inhabit deep friendships and in so doing form habits of virtue so that we can ever more touch upon that great, agape love that bears one another’s sorrow and joy as our own, that treat’s another’s life as precious, and that would consider putting our second selves before our first selves not so we can be martyrs but so that we can better and more fearlessly become our best, most generous, most joyful selves, holding nothing back, willing to lay it all on the line, in the name of love. Maybe this is what John meant when he speaks of making joy complete!

The fact is that seeing my friend Sunit for a few days has been what I hope will be a foreshadowing of my upcoming sabbatical in which I will be delving deeper into friendships I have had over the years and to form new ones. My plan has been inspired by an ancient practice of Jewish Study called Havruta which is the Aramaic word for befriend. In Havruta, which many of you have now tried in small groups here, we are invited to befriend ourselves, one another and also scripture, bringing our full selves, our faith and doubt and our disagreement and our questions about shared truth. If not in Havruta or small groups, there are ample other opportunities we have here and beyond to practice spiritual friendship in such a way that we can learn better what it means to love one another as God has loved us. Indeed, these friendships and groups are already forming. Do stay tuned for more opportunities.

For now, I leave us with an invitation to imagine that this community can be a place in which to practice our own visions of agape and philia, a place in which to practice this kind of spiritual friendship so that we can carry the virtues of love we learn into ever our wider circles of relationship. If you haven’t found such friends here yet, stick around and please let us know! If you have friends here or elsewhere that you think could be this kind of friend, let them know and practice this love with one another all the more intentionally, and not just whenever there’s time left over! Imagine the kind of open heart it might take with even a few of our colleagues in faith, in truth and in beauty to let ourselves be invaded by that irresistible power of which Auden spoke. Through what may at first appear a perfectly ordinary conversation, we too might come to find the very joy of God. We too can remember that their existence and ours is of infinite value. And in so doing we too can come to experience “exactly” what it means to love one another as God loves us. Amen.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...