September 14, 2008
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
with thanks to Suzanne E. Sykes for her work used here.
One of the terms we often use about the church is, it is a family. However, there is a phrase that we grow in families and then grow out of them. So many of us find that our actual social relationships have more to do with friends than families. The rise of on-line friendship sites like Facebook signals this change. When we hear the phrase, "my mother is my best friend," it suggests a shift in how see the world. Some commentators suggest this can be problematic because it confuses two important and different roles. Our friends are important to us. In a very real sense, we are who we are because of them. Our parents and families are our principal guides and inspiration when we are young; more often it is our friends who have that role when we are adults. Friends and friendship matter.
This is very different from the world of Jesus and Luke and John. In their world everything about you was determined by three circumstances. This way of organizing the world continued until the collapse of the feudal society.
In such societies one was first defined by your family, your clan. Second was the state - The Roman Empire to be precise. Third was your gender. Family determined your religion and your work. If they were Jewish, you were Jewish - no exceptions. If your family worshipped Jupiter, so did you. Family also determined your occupation if you were male, you inherited the occupation of your father. If you were female, it determined who you married. Family and clan determined all the small details of life. And it determined your social status in a world that was rigidly status conscious.
In a time of movement, guilds became the new family. People were organized by what they did - so you had tent making guilds, for example, that functioned to deal with those things a family would have taken care of, like burials. Guilds, though, were not friendship based.
The Roman Empire determined everything else. The policy of Rome when it came to the occupied territories was one of subjugation through starvation. Scholars estimate that 90% of the population was one meal away from starvation. Ensuring that you and your family would have enough food for the day was a full time occupation and a complete preoccupation for most of the nation.
Finally gender played a huge role in who you could meet, what you could do, where you could go. In Jesus’ world, men and women did not speak to one another unless they were close relations. Yet Jesus treats women as equals, free to associate and learn with men.
These three circumstances - family, state and gender - marked the limits of ones social interaction. It was so complete that the same word in Hebrew means both stranger and enemy. It was so difficult to encounter someone outside of clan or guild, someone unknown, that the logical thing was to assume that strangers were enemies.
Into this world Jesus introduces a new concept - friendship. The principal characteristic of friendships is that they are not determined at birth. Friendships are freely chosen and entered into. Friendship continues because friends decide to remain friends. Friendship is a principal characteristic of the early Christian community. And friendships characterize the nature of Paradise.
If we read the Good Samaritan story as a story about friendship, it reveals something about the kingdom. The Levite and Priest acted according to the social rules of the day. The man could be identified by his clothing so it was clear he was not of their family or guild. Under the social code of honour they were not obligated to help him - in fact they would lose honour if they did. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews - they were enemies - so the Samaritan had even less reason to help. Yet he does - he freely chooses this relationship. He acts as a friend - as a neighbour as the text says. He freely moves the injured man from the category of stranger to friend. Jesus tells this story to answer the question of what the kingdom of God is like. And kingdom of God, God’s shalom, God’s reign of peace and justice are all synonyms for Paradise - the realm of God’s goodness and grace. So paradise is like our experience in our best friendships.
The passage from John’s Gospel marks a significant shift in the relationship between Jesus and his followers. You will notice in the language a shift. Jesus says they are no longer students and teacher now they are friends. This suggests a big shift in understanding about the nature of relationships. Their position shifts from leader and follower, to peers and equals, sharing mutual commitments and concerns side by side.
Women are equal partners in paradise. No where is this more obvious than with Mary Magdalene. The bible says that Jesus freed her from demons. She was the first witness to the resurrection, a teacher and leader of the early church and a friend of Jesus. When Jesus called her friend, when he called the disciples friends, they experienced a bit of paradise.
We have still not felt the full implication of this radical shift in understanding about the nature of community. This shift is from family to friend. Now we try to capture that in the family of God but that is not the full sense of what the kingdom is. It is to move the boundaries of interaction beyond family, because family still has a sense of clan, those who belong by blood sense to it. Our society still suggests there are limits to those who belong in the family. Befriending suggests taking into ones sphere of concern those who are different and do not share our blood. It pushes our imagination beyond our circle of family.
The Beatles captured this idea in their song, "With a little help from my friends:"
What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends
The church is a community of friends. Friends of Jesus the Christ and friends to one another. In the first centuries, only in church could people encounter each other and treat one another as equals. They worshipped, celebrated the Eucharist together - they ate together - as friends. While the world required separation, not to interact, the church invited them to be part of a community of friends and to celebrate this life as part of God’s paradise together. The very act of celebrating together as equals and as friends made that paradise a greater reality.
We do struggle with the tension of who is in our circle of friends. How far will our befriending go? Will it include the environment? Will it include street people? The key to solving this tension is to begin in the idea of being befriended by God and with the help of God we go out, with a little help from God, to befriend the world.
When Jesus calls us friends he acknowledges that together we are partners together in creating paradise. We are friends working together to bring the original garden paradise to reality in this earth, in our time. We work together to create more peace and justice in the world. We are friends who care for the poor and outcast.
To experience friendship is to experience a bit of paradise. Friendship is the relationship the binds us, one to another, in the church. Whatever we may be in the world, whatever our roles that define us and confine us, whatever obligations they entail, here in church we are freed from them. Here we are equals; we are friends to one another because we are friends of Christ.