Spiritual Friendship

March 17th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn

Last Sunday I spoke about the Prodigal son and his listing and lurching through life, exhausted.  I spoke about how he “came to himself” and in remembering who he was, he came to remember how he was beloved by God and made for eternal purpose.

The point I sought to make was that when we remember who we are we regain our balance in the world as God made it. And while this regained balance may not wipe away exhaustion, the Christian hope is that it unveils for us a deeper sense of joy.

I saw a lot of joy yesterday at the big Charley Bush funeral that happened here.

The place was packed with Charley Bush friends. It was a joy-filled funeral as only funerals can be when built on the sure and certain knowledge that our good friend’s belovedness has not been diminished by death, nor has his purpose been snuffed out by the limitations of a temporal body.

What we believe as Christians is that we are beloved and we are eternal, and so is everyone else. But just knowing this is not enough to unveil the deep joy that God has in mind for us.  Which is why we are Christians. Which is why we advocate for Christianity. Christianity’s purpose is to bring joy into being in fellowship with those who walk this journey of belovedness and eternity with us.

These are spiritual friends, and this church was packed with spiritual friends yesterday and filled it with joy!

Today I’d like to preach about spiritual friendship. The Gospel of John serves it up better than any other book in the bible. Jesus is clearest about what it means to be a friend in the Gospel of John. In chapter 15 he says it this way: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  “No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends…  I do not call you students any longer, but I call you friends. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 15:11-14 para)

This theme of spiritual friendship in the Gospel of John makes its point through the friendship that exists between Jesus and Lazarus. It was a special friendship.  We know this because Lazarus was the only person who by name the scripture says, “Jesus loved.” (Jn 11:3)

The Greek translation for this love is Phileo, which can be best understood as brotherly love, the kind of love that soldiers have who fight together; the kind of love that pilgrims have who travel together; but also the kind of love young people have when they grow up together.  It is the kind of love we hope to cultivate among our children here at Epiphany. It is also the kind of love that comes when people work hard to do something beautiful together, as so well represented by the Epiphany choir.

Today, in the Gospel, we find ourselves at a party. Seeing where this story falls in the chronology of the Gospel of John, I suspect it is a party given in honor of Jesus by Mary and Martha the sisters of Lazarus, for having raised their brother from the dead.

Now from this point forward in the Gospel of John, chapter 12- 21 we see the friendship that exists between Jesus and Lazarus dancing around two defining characteristics: charity and goodwill.

These are, as noted by the 12th century British monk Aelred of Rievaulx , in his book Spiritual Friendship, the founding principles of friendship. When charity and goodwill are given away to one’s friend, Aelred argues, there is a joy so real that one is ready, at a moment’s notice, without a second thought, to lay down his or her life for a friend. For “no one has greater love than this,” remember, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (Jn 15:13)

That is the standard that Jesus set for himself. Yet, the love he uses for this defining standard is not the Phileo, but a deeper love, agape; meaning unlimited loving-kindness in a divine and eternal sense. Agape is the Greek word for this kind of love. In Latin it is translated as caritas, which is the source for our word charity.

It is charity that drives out all fear and ego and self-interest, and seeks as the highest good the belovedness of the other. Lazarus is full of charity toward Jesus. This can be seen by how Lazarus gives away his own status in favor of highlighting the mission of his dear friend, Jesus.

This plays out in the sentences just following our Gospel reading today. After Jesus’ statement about the poor being with us, the narrator’s voice comes in to say: “When the great crowd learned that Jesus was there, they came not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead.” (Jn 12:9)

It seems that the reputation of Lazarus at this point rivaled that of Jesus. And so, the narrator, which is Lazarus himself, who, after all is the author of the Gospel of John, out of loving-kindness for his dearest friend, writes himself out of the narrative. From this point forward the name Lazarus is erased from the Gospel of John and replaced only with the words “the Beloved Disciple.”

By this action we see how love moved in the heart of Lazarus from the brotherly love of Phileo to the selfless, divine love of agape. This agape love, this charity, finds its feet through the actions of goodwill, according to Aelred who defines goodwill as “kindly intent and the desire for the best outcome of the other.”  Which of course tracks perfectly with the friendship between Lazarus, now the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus.

It is Lazarus, leaning into Jesus as they sit around the table at the Last Supper, who Jesus tells that Judas will betray him.  It is Lazarus who goes with Jesus into the High Priest Caiaphas’ house, not caring a wit for the fact that Caiaphas, as noted in the Gospel of John, has also sentenced Lazarus to death as well as Jesus. (Jn 12:10).

It is Lazarus who is there when Jesus, on the cross, says to his mother Mary, “Woman, here is your son.” And to Lazarus, “here is your mother.” (Jn 19:27)

The friendship of Jesus and Lazarus is grounded in belovedness and eternity, not legacy and power. After all, it is Peter, not Lazarus, upon whom Jesus decides to build his church. Lazarus is simply asked to care for Jesus’ mother. This is a friendship infused with agape love, motivated toward the best outcome for the other, in the hope of a joy bigger than any temporal moment.

Or as Aelred says it: “spiritual friendship combines charity and goodwill around all things human and divine.” But you may have noticed, as I have, that not all friendships seem to bring joy. Some friendships lead us down a road where we find ourselves further and further out of touch with who we are. That is what happened to the Prodigal son…until he remembered, until he came to himself and he remembered. Spiritual friends are the ones who help us to remember.

Spiritual friends are the ones that always hold before us, as the highest priority, our belovedness and our eternity, and we do the same in like manner. The Church is the institution put in place, by Christ, to encourage and facilitate spiritual friendship with the hope of unleashing joy in all the world.  Now Aelred claims there are three types of friendship: carnal friendship, self-seeking friendship, and spiritual friendship. (You can guess by the titles which he favors.)

What puts these three friendships in one category is that they all have elements of charity and goodwill.  That is how the Tempter works in the world, by turning good intentions into estranged circumstances. That is how the Tempter works in the world, by taking some truth and perverting it in a way that draw us out of good, healthy, beautiful relationships.

Carnal friendship and self-seeking friendship are shadows of spiritual friendship.

Carnal friendship naturally seeks the delight of physical intimacy, but towards the ends of personal gratification without regard for the other.

Likewise self-seeking friendship pursues a good outcome for the other, but always towards a greater outcome for one’s self.  Both carnal and self-seeking friendship increase isolation and diminish joy, over time.

Spiritual friendship, as modeled by Lazarus and Jesus, seeks as the greatest good through charity and goodwill the joy of others, which is the hope of the church, to help us create spiritual friendships, that bring us greater joy. This happens by building the friendship upon the common foundation of our common belovedness and eternity, and always with the goal of bringing joy into the life of our friends.

To develop spiritual friendships requires participation and intentionality. That is what Charley Bush did and it brought great joy to his life, and filled his life with many, many spiritual friends, who were, in great part, the people who packed the church yesterday.

The fertile soil of spiritual friendships can be dug into during camping trips, pilgrimages, book groups, taking communion to shut-ins, meeting for classes and pot lucks, by taking cookies to a new neighbor, or even talking to someone at coffee hour.

Basically spiritual friendships find fertile soil when we plant ourselves in the body of Christ.  When we say this is where I am and this is where I will be and here I will remember my belovedness and eternity or better still help you remember yours.

And maybe together we can bring a little more joy into each other’s lives or better still a little more joy into the world beyond these Parish walls.