Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
May 10, 2015
I no longer call you servants but friends. For centuries, in American Christianity there has been an emphasis upon the friendship we have with Jesus. What a friend we have in Jesus, so an old hymn goes that Christopher just worked into that little melody. What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. Over the years, however, people have begun to question this whole idea of friendship with Jesus. It’s comforting but it’s also a little too familiar. It makes Jesus a person that we can relate to a little too easily.
In 1999 in a film called Dogma, the writer and director, Kevin Smith, constructed this scene in which he wants to draw attention to this theme of Jesus as friend. And he has the comedian, George Carlin, play a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Glick, tasked with coming up with a new theme for the Roman Catholic Church, a new marketing scheme entitle Catholicism WOW! And so Carlin gives this press conference in which he says that they needed to change their visual image. Instead of the depressing image of Christ on a cross, he came up with this figuring in which you have Jesus standing without a scratch on him. And he’s pointing at the viewer and he’s holding up a thumbs up and he’s winking and he’s smiling. And Carlin says that they’re just shopping this idea but we’re calling him “Buddy Christ”.
Is Jesus your friend? When the disciples heard that term “friend” coming from the lips of Jesus, it probably shook them to the core, because friendship was something that was not something a god would need. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, which was written around this time, summarized a whole philosophy of friendship, which the ancients believed was the pinnacle of virtue. Friendship was the highest thing you could even attain, but it was also the most human thing because friendship for Aristotle is the creature of want and need. Because we lack something in us, we need a friend.
So for Jesus, whom His disciples are thinking is God, for Jesus to say that he needs a friend is to suggest that Jesus is something other than God, because it was inconceivable that a god would have needs or experience any kind of lack. The disciples were shaken to the core because here they were following this Jesus to Jerusalem where He was to die, and He is undermining their very idea of what it means to worship and trust Him as God. At the same time, the disciples knew that friendship was key.
Aristotle believed that friendship was so important that it was a kind of matter of public interest, a matter of public trust. And so he gave specific directions as to how you can develop friendship. Friends are people, who spend time together because they are united by a common love. And that bond that’s created by that common love could depend; it could change and alternate, depending on what you were after in a friendship. There are friendships that were created for the purpose of pleasure or happiness. The friends who make you laugh. The friends you can cut up with.
There were friendships that you built, according to Aristotle, for the purposes of prosperity, and these were friends of utility. These were the friends you developed in the course of becoming business partners. And finally, there were friends that were created so that you could become more excellent morally. These were friendships of virtue. These were people who brought out the best in you. A little bit like the moral equivalent of a running partner who helps you get a little faster every time you run, or a tennis partner who elevates your game.
So when Jesus says to His disciples that they are His friends, He was trying to say to them this: He was trying to say that He wanted to be their happiness. He wanted to be their prosperity. He wanted to be their virtue and ideal. This is because in the back of everything Aristotle writes that our friends are like mirrors to us. We know who our friends are and they reflect to us things about ourselves that we like and also things about ourselves that we miss. Our friends, Aristotle writes, are another self, a second self. Jesus is saying in today’s gospel that He wants to be our second self. That He wants to be our mirror so that if we want to know what we are truly like, we need to look into the mirror that is Christ. And if we would want to know who someone truly is, we must see them as the reflection of Christ. This is why Jesus says, “Love one another.”
Are you Jesus’ friend? We live in a time in which friendship is no longer viewed as a matter of public interest, and now has become a matter of private concern and choice. We can pick our friends. And this freedom is liberating many times. You can change your social group. It’s often a click of a mouse away if you belong to things like Facebook where you can friend somebody and unfriend them. The biggest moment of my life was when Bishop Tutu friended me on Facebook in the early days. I’m not making that up. I happen to be friends with his secretary. Livonia, is that you?
That disposability, that quick exchange that can bite you both ways because now friendship no longer holds cities together as it did in Aristotle’s time. When friendship becomes simply a matter of private trust, it can’t be the kind of bond that holds a community. One thing that we might think about is that the problems we face in our cities today can’t be resolved by justice so much as friendship. Our friendship has eroded and one of the problems that you and I face with all of our disposable friendships on Facebook and social media and places like that is that we can have huge numbers of friends and experience this incredible experience of isolation and loneliness.
I have 1800 Facebook friends and there are moments when I feel completely alone. I suspect that many of you are in touch with that feeling as well. Is Jesus your friend? Jesus is calling us into a friendship that is both knit within our being as natural people, but also something that is powerful and divine and overwhelming and mysterious and mystical and spiritual. This is because when Jesus came to us as God made man, he united humanity and divinity. You and I can experience a friendship that is transcendent because it is based on the rock that is Christ.
Two weeks ago as I was beginning to think about this sermon, I was trying to develop the image in my mind of this friendship, the mystery and the majesty of Christian friendship. And I actually found it in Mark Chagall’s The Birthday, which I’ve put into your bulletin for today. I got to this painting in an unusual way. It was like 3:00 in the morning. I was just obsessing about this sermon, and I was thinking to myself, I need an image of friendship. So I was reeling through my mind, and then I was reeling through my 1800 Facebook friends. And I was realizing I don’t really have a friend. It’s a silly thing, but you know what I’m talking about. So I’m thinking, I don’t have any friends. What am I going to say? Is it the friend who helped me drive across country? He was nice. All of a sudden I realized in this moment that I was sleeping next to my best friend, and so I kind of went over and whispered in Claire’s ear when I was pretty sure she was asleep. I said, “You’re my best friend,” and she turned and she said, “I know. Go back to sleep.”
Chagall paints this painting in 1915 just before he’s married to Bella Rosenfeld. They were from the same town but they were social worlds apart. Chagall’s father was a herring merchant, and that doesn’t sound as good as it does, does it? Somehow Bella Rosenfeld’s parents were not thrilled. Oh, a herring merchant! I guess all the doctors were taken. They opposed the marriage, but love won and they were married. Chagall was blissfully happy and the bond between them was so great that wanting to pain the emotion itself, he painted this painting. He wanted to question the normal dimensions of time and space, and to say that this emotion that he was experiencing with Bella was mystical and transfiguring. This is why the figures are lifted off in the air, dancing, and intertwining in ways that bodies can’t.
In his autobiography, this is what Chagall wrote about Bella. He wrote, “Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul.” Today, may you know Jesus as your friend. May you see yourself through His eyes. May you see each other through His eyes. May you see the souls that are within each of us that have been lifted up by His spirit. May you find in each other another self and a mirror that is Christ our Lord. Amen.