Friendship

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this story about Jesus and Peter troublesome.  Maybe that’s why its a Lenten reading — none of this stuff as we approach the execution of Jesus is easy reading.    But for Jesus to cut down someone who seems to be his best friend with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!” has always seemed a bit harsh.

That’s the treatment, though that Peter received after expressing his concern that Jesus was heading into dangerous territory.  Did he realize how negative he was being and didn’t he know that nobody likes seriousness of purpose, that we all prefer our religion lightly? I grew up thinking that Jesus probably was angry at Peter and bellowed those infamous words, “Get behind me, Satan!”  But the more I’ve thought about this lately, the more it seems he must have spoken to him a bit more quietly, as a friend to another.

Remembering that the gospels were never intended to be an historical account of things that happened, but a theological retelling of the meaning of Jesus, it seems a more appropriate to read the phrase with a certain loving inflection. “Get . . . ”  Less a rebuke than a reminder of promises made.  Jesus and Peter had the kind of friendship that allowed each other argue over what those promises meant and to try to set each other straight.

In confirmation class last week, we spent some time talking about the meaning of sacraments in the church.  We began simply by noting that a sacrament was somehow related to the word sacred.  Using the word sacred as I did last week, as a an experience of the holy which is judged to lead us to higher ground we could see that church life is sacramental in all sorts of moments when the grace of God is seen in the blessings of humans to humans, in acts of justice and mercy.  I then explained that in the UCC, we single out two different liturgical moments that are to be understood purely in sacramental terms, baptism and Lord’s Supper.

In talking about baptism, I mentioned that a popular understanding of the dipping of a child in water, if I can judge from phone calls I get about it, is that it effects some kind of change in the child, without which he or she is subject to bad things.  To me that’s more about magic than about religion.  So what makes the dipping of a child in water sacramental?

I then passed around copies of the questions that we ask of parents who are having their baby baptised. We read them and someone asked me how can you tell if their lying?  And that’s when we started getting close to the nub of the issue.  I wasn’t able to quote Plato exactly — but we did seem to understand at the end of the conversation that just this is what is sacramental.  The entire human world is constructed upon the philosophic notion that unless a promise actually be a promise, things break down and human communities suffer.  Ultimately What we call human transformation, the transition from fearful existence to free existence, from being confined by our brokenness and fragmentariness, to being catapulted past it to a broader community of connection and continuity is not just a matter of getting the tradition understood correctly, ie., being properly baptised, but of living — of thinking and acting and speaking in accord with some kind of basic promise about life that we all  make and that lies at the root of our laws as well as our religion.

I am not advocating tossing tradition out.  I am however trying to say that there comes a responsibility with those who would use tradition, as we do who read scripture and baptise children,to not only understand accurately what Christians have said and done in the past, but to actually bear to actually bear  witness to that tradition by stating what what we ought to think, say and do, if we are to bear it truthfully.  The basic human commitment to live as reflective beings in the search for what is best for us and our communities constitutes what I mean by the the promise as the cornerstone upon which society is built.

If we were to translate this thinking of what we ought to say, think and do, into the abstract notion of friendship, we begin to see that  Peter and Jesus, as friends, incarnated something that many of our modern friendships lack, but which our most treasured ones know.  Friendship entails judgement.

We struggle a bit in our house with our children trying to keep from the language of “my best friend.”  Part of our uncomfortability as parents with the language of best friend, for a 3rd grader, has to do with with the level of maturity required to call someone a best friend, and cocnern with the devaluation of  that phrase when used lightly.  How often do we hear people speaking of best friends in a kind of superficial, non-judgemental way.  “I can tell him anything and he totally gets it.”  The point is that anyone can be that kind of friend  What can be easier than hearing and not being heard in return?  Is love love when it cannot judge, or does love also care enough to engage in the struggle to seek the truth through hard questions, and occasionally to rebuke?

Jorgen Moltman, a contemporary German theologian, given usually to high falutin language wrote in one of his clearer moments, “One can rely on a friend.  As a friend, one is a person for other people to rely on.  A friend remains a friend, even in disaster, even in guilt.”  We agree here with Plato that one who cannot hold promises, that one who is intemperate and unrestrained, that one for whom each individual she befriends is a best friend, is a friend neither of God nor man.

Now here we are talking about metaphysics, and not psychology.  Here we are trying to get at what is proper for human life because it is proper and true for God.  And when we are talking about God, we could just as well use a term like Paul Tillich did, the one with whom at rock bottom we are concerned — that is our ultimate concern.  Or, as I prefer, the comprehensive reality, the one of whom to be alive at all, is to be related.

The difference between my comprehensive reality and Tillich’s ultimate concern, is that with Tillich’s idea there is no necessary sense of relatedness.  For Tillich, as for much of Classical Christian theology, God is ultimately above the being friend.  God is the solitary one, influences a world but not at all influenced by it.  Aristotle, to his credit noted that this meant that God could not know the world, while Plato, generally did not understand this, although he understood the to be a friend required adherence to the highest order of things.  Only one philosopher that I know of has observed the irony of this fact.   He says, “Oddly enough, though Plato wrote in dialogue form, he (and, still more, many of those influenced by him) failed adequately to appreciate what a good model of the general nature of reality that form is.  It will not do to reason as though to speak and be heard are noble, while to listen and hear are not.”  Much of our tradition, sadly has rendered this of God — God is the one who speaks and is heard.  But to listen and hear and absorb that hearing in changed being, is denied God.

I mention all of this because I am convinced that an appropriate and credible model for our human relationships must be like unto the kind of being God must be — that is truly influenced by the world God is so deeply concerned about.  For love to be love, God must be more than the immutable stranger, aloof and otiose — God must be, as Plato put it in our reading today, capable of communion, for without that capacity — the which is of ultimate concern turns out to be less that ultimate.

Jesus did not choose his friends from a pool of perfect candidates for discipleship.  These were a rag-tag bunch, and their stories are often stories of them not getting it — of their sheer and utter confusion over the kind of related, personal God Jesus was revealing.  For so long God had chosen only the best (ie, the riches, that healthiest, the ones in charge) with which to be associated.  Certainly not the fisherman nor the Samaritan.  Certainly not the welfare widow nor the AIDS patient.

But Jesus’ God cast judgment upon the structures of power that had for so long defined who was in or out. Jesus revealed a God who was no less perfect because also personal.  As people encountered Jesus, the encountered a God who could transform their lives because God was both the eternal power of love, of friendship, by which alone these ideas make sense, and the real risk of being actually involved in human lives for the sake of these ideals.  It is for this reason, that the gospel writer included in this little dialogue between friends the stern judgment that one must take up one’s cross in order to follow Jesus.  To be a friend is of a different order than to talk about friendship — it requires that one think and act and do in accord with its ideals.

Friendship, as a measure of divine judgment for the good of heaven and earth and gods and men, as Plato put it, comes with a price.  Peter surely rebuked himself after what he said to Jesus.  But he nevertheless went on to become the hero of the church — the rock, as Jesus put it, upon which the future of the community would be built.  A rock prepared and shaped by a friendship that was not without its crosses and burdens.

One of life’s most treasured gifts is the blessing of a friend who cares enough to argue, and to call each other to accounting.  <!– @page { margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } –>Because God is both the very idea of friendship, in the timeless and unchanging nature which God must be to be God, and the actual friend who cares about who we are and what we do and remembers us for it, we too can found our relationships, not in the shallow waters of hearing but of not being heard, but in the context of the cross which reminds us that our promise to one another runs deeper than the threats which stand in the way of justice. Amen.

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