Easter VI, 9 May 21
“Who are you?” the caterpillar asks Alice during her adventures in Wonderland. The poor girl is a little flummoxed: it’s the last question she felt up to answering as she was changing her height quite dramatically every few minutes since she’d fallen down the rabbit hole and started drinking from the bottle which said on it, “Drink me.” She was now only ten inches tall! She says to the caterpillar, who’s a little awkward in its conversation, that it will know exactly how she feels when it goes from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. He doesn’t accept this, of course. Alice is realising the new world she’s entered is odd indeed.
Hopefully these last few weeks have got each one of us thinking about our Christian identity. Two weeks ago, we were sheep of the Good Shepherd. Last Sunday, we were branches of the one true Vine. Today, Jesus continues this by giving us another image to ponder, that of friendship: “You are my friends,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us, members of His Bride, the Church.
Unsurprisingly Jesus links this to the issue of choice. “You can’t choose your family,” the saying goes ,contrasting it with friendship. Jesus turns it slightly on its head because He is clear He has chosen us, we have not chosen Him. It’s a common misunderstanding for us to think that we could be somewhere else on a Sunday, that we don’t need to be a Christian, especially given so many in the world seem to be alright without it. The point is though, that God prepared a place for us, as Jesus has told Thomas a few chapters earlier in St John’s Gospel (14:3).
We were chosen by God before we were friends with Him. We’ll have friends, I’m sure, whom we’ll remember meeting for the first time, perhaps not even liking them very much initially, but then this was said, or that was shared, and years later we’re incredibly thankful for their love. St Aelred of Rievaulx, an English saint, wrote 950 years ago a short pamphlet about friendship. He wrote that there are three stages to forming friendship: attraction, interaction and fruition. And of spiritual friendship, he said there were four: selection, probation, admission and perfect harmony. God chooses us before we were friends with Him, in the words of St Paul, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8).
This makes the concept of predestination quite a natural element of God’s interaction with us. There’s a lovely line in the Acts of the Apostles where St Luke writes that all “as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers,” (Acts 13:48). Our faith is in response to an invitation, not something we need to work out from scratch for ourselves or by ourselves. Again, rather beautifully Paul puts it like this elsewhere, “Those whom God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son … And those whom He predestined He also called,” (Romans 8:29-30). This doesn’t obliterate our freedom to choose. The comparison I normally make is that if you know someone really well you will know whether they want tea or coffee, or chips or rice. They’re still free to choose to do something different but you know which they’ll want. God’s knowledge of us is a million times more intimate and thorough. In knowing us, He predestines us.
We see examples of friendship in the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints. We might think, for example, of David and Jonathan in the first book of Samuel. Jonathan is Saul’s son and Saul is threatened by David’s ascendancy. Saul and Jonathan die, as reported at the start of second book of Samuel. David laments, “Jonathan lies slain … I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women,” (1:26). Unfortunately some commentators of our own day have sought to make that statement mean something it doesn’t, which shows something of the crisis of our appreciation of friendship.
One of the characteristics of friendship is that the individuals are usually bound together in a shared endeavour which requires a common outlook on life. A married couple can have widely different interests and views on things but that is less common with friends. It should not surprise us then that many of the saints engaged in the missionary work of the Church have been good friends. We might look to the examples of St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier who met as students and were then separated for the rest of their earthly lives as their call took them off in different directions across the globe, but they stayed in touch through letters and were united in being canonised - made saints - on the same day, 12th March 1622. Remember too St Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross became friends in their shared desire to reform and make more rigorous the Carmelite Order of sixteenth century Spain. In the Scriptures, we see Paul especially working for the Gospel with folk with whom he had clearly formed a friendship, including Barnabas as we heard at Mass during this past week in Acts 15.
Friendship is a participation in the God who is love. St Aelred begins, On Spiritual Friendship, in a dialogue with a younger monk of the same monastery, Ivo. He writes with a lovely informality, “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst.” One of the interesting observations of his writings is that friendship is eternal if it is true friendship. We perhaps think of friendship as something that comes and goes: we know people at particular times of life with whom we get along well and who then drop out of our circulation. But the the tie of friendship should not be seen as so easily severed and this makes perfect sense once we put our friendships in the context of the eternal love of God for us.
We heard earlier from one of the letters of St John, who also wrote the Gospel that bears his name: “My dear people, let us love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God.” The word Paul used to addressed the Church is rather poorly translated, “My dear people,” when “Beloved” would be much better in my humble opinion. The nature of love is explained to us in our Lord’s words in the Gospel, that we “can have have no greater love than to lay down life for friends.” We might think that that is some sort of extreme love reserved for our nearest and dearest. Our Lord is quite clear however: there is no such thing as a special love or an extreme love reserved for some and not others, there is simply love. As St Peter begins to realise in our first reading from Acts 10, “God does not have favourites.”
Often we will grade the people we interact with and see ourselves as loving some more than others. That may be the case but it ought not necessarily be so. Nowhere do we see God loving some more than others and nor are we told we should. But we are to love people in different ways: parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, those temporarily in our daily life, the person driving the bus, the person who steals our handbag, the politician we don’t like. It’s not that we don’t have to love them but it is the case that our obligations to love them will look different depending on the relationship we have with them. All love necessitates laying down life. All our interactions with others are to be filled with love.
This is one of the reasons the Church celebrates the lives of the martyrs, those whose death gave glory to God. This week, we celebrate St Pancras, after whom the railway station is named a few miles down the road, and the apostle chose to replace Judas as we read in Acts 1, St Matthias. They remind us what our love for Jesus is to look like, they show us how the Cross is to be replicated in our day-to-day existence. Some churches in an attempt to be “relevant” have got rid of their altars and have comfy chairs and tables and business style lecterns. Very shiny they look too. But the altar is a place of offering, of sacrifice, of denying our self so that love might abound. Within the altars are the relics of saints to remind us that in their deaths they glorified God. Love without the Cross, love without altars doesn’t work.
So, who are you? I pray we will know ourselves more clearly to be God’s friend, trustworthy and reliable, knowing more and more of His ways, with a clear sense of what love looks like and how without the Cross it’s not true love.