Friends on Earth
Recently I had a speaking opportunity with an organization I have known for decades. It is a Quaker group that gathers annually. Typically, there are a couple speakers and that was the role to which I had been invited. Earlier in my career, this was a group I would have visited every year they gather. On most of those occasions, I would not have been the speaker, but I did get to know many of the folks.
Of course, over time many of the ones I would have known have moved or died. And over time many new faces have moved into the area or simply have joined that Quaker gang. So there were more faces I did not know that I could claim I knew. That is a good thing! But I also was more than happy to be back where some old friendships were rekindled, if only for a short period of time. It led me to think about friendship, one of my favorite themes.
I have thought a great deal about friendship and have read much over the years. And anyone my age clearly has had many friends. Unfortunately, the term, “friend,” is used quite loosely and, often, without much meaning. I know students and others who would claim to have more than five hundred Facebook friends. According to the classical definition of friendship, having five hundred friends is impossible.
I do not want to belabor the definition of friendship here. What I would like to do is pick up the wonderful words of Jesus, which come to us in John’s Gospel. At one point Jesus turns to the small group of his followers and says, “No longer do I call you servants; I call you friends.” (Jn 15:15) This has been an important reference for my own Quaker gang, because our technical name is the Religious Society of Friends. We take this passage as our understanding of discipleship.
Our understanding of discipleship sees the call to be a disciple as a call to be a friend. When Jesus told so many, “follow me,” essentially he was calling them into a relationship of friendship. But was not to be a tepid, loose affiliation that Jesus had in mind. It was to be a serious relationship with significant implications for us, his friends. It is upon this I was led to reflect. What was I, as a friend of Jesus, and all those others I called friends (and who were trying to be friends of Jesus) to think and to do?
Immediately, I thought of a key resource on this matter. Some years ago I met and became an acquaintance of Liz Carmichael, a theology professor at St. John’s College, Oxford University. She wrote a book on friendship, Friendship: Interpreting Christian Love. I would like to cite one passage that summarizes the nature of friendship---at least, the way Jesus might have wanted it. Carmichael says it is “to be friends on earth, to offer love which may be in the truest sense sacrificial, to build community, to be peacemakers and healers, to seek and promote compassion and justice, to walk with the oppressed and help their voice be heard, to celebrate with all.” (197) Let’s look at this in a little more detail.
I like the idea of friends on earth. It does not discount we might be friends in heaven---after death, but it does not speculate on that. To be friends on earth is to offer love. It may even ask for sacrificial love. That is clearly what one of the Greek words for love, agape, means. It is the deep kind of love that parents have for their children. It is the kind of love that does not worry about the price to pay to help someone else. It is the opposite of selfish love.
The next idea is to build community. A whole book could be written on this. The work of friends---especially, if it is demanding work---cannot be done alone. It requires the support of community. Community refreshes us in the moment and provides momentum for the long haul. Community picks me up when I don’t feel like I can do any more. And community asks for me to pick up others when their zeal is flagging. I could not do it without community.
I like the idea that Carmichael gets fairly specific about the ministry. It is to be peacemakers and healers. We seek and promote compassion and justice. Compassion is nothing less than love---sacrificial love in action. And justice is the work of those who have more than enough as we try to ensure those who have less than enough get a fair deal. Certainly I am in that category of those who have enough. The ministry of justice is a serious calling.
That is closely linked to seeking opportunities to walk with the oppressed and helping all those who are silent to find their voices. I have learned how to do this in the classroom. I need to learn how to do it better in the bigger world. I still feel like a neophyte. And the final word is the challenge to celebrate. It does not have to be thankless, grim work.
There are times we need to recognize and appreciate those who are friends in the community of ministry. This helps us go forward as friends on earth. So be it.