Sermon given at Evensong on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

'I have called you friends.'

The Venerable Tricia Hillas Canon in Residence

Sunday, 9th October 2022 at 3.00 PM

A year ago a major US study, reported that

‘the role of friends is experiencing a pronounced decline, with Americans reporting having fewer close friendships than they once did and talking to their friends less often’.

Nearly half—49%—reported having fewer than three close friends. Moreover 12% of interviewees claimed to have no real friends”. The British context seems not too dissimilar. Leading loneliness researcher John Cacioppo and the Cox Commission (launched by MP Jo Cox before her murder) put the number of adults suffering from loneliness in the UK at around 9 million.

The pandemic has further disrupted our relationships and many of us describe having lost touch with friends over the past two years. But there are other longer standing factors at play: we have been moving home and travelling more, spending more time with our children and allowing our free-time to be consumed by work. Social media, whilst enabling us to connect as never before has been shown to cause, not reduce feelings of isolation and friendlessness for many.

Perhaps we have been at risk of valuing friendship too lightly.

In comparison to the Classical view of friendship, in our times it has seemed to have lost its aura of strength, being seen as a kind of sentimental attachment. But perhaps the past two years have underscored our need for meaningful connection and friendship.

If we sense the seriousness of this need—we’d be right. John Cacioppo, the researcher into loneliness, pointed out that evolutionarily we are designed for community-based life. This means that it makes no more sense to consider a person in isolation than it does an ant or a bee. We are so dependent on our groups that for millennia, separation from them was to be given a de facto death sentence.

Extraordinarily this still holds true today. Loneliness has profound effects on our bodies as well as our psyches. Analysis of people in 148 studies found that loneliness is associated with a 50 per cent increase in mortality from any cause. This makes it comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more dangerous than obesity.

How momentous then the words of Jesus heard in our gospel reading: ‘you are my friends’.

At their best, our friendships, in which we love and are loved, involve our being authentically present to one another.

In his 1956 book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ Irving Goffman, perhaps the most influential sociologist of the twentieth century drew our attention to the carefully curated versions of ourselves we offer for public view.

We need these, of course, but how poor our lives if there is no connection between them and our inner life, and no space in which this inner life can be nurtured. Friendship, human and divine, creates such space.

Where we can be truly present; where we know that another truly desires our good, our well-being and happiness. Where we are not merely tolerated nor patronised, but welcomed as an equal. Where our exploratory thoughts are invited and our voices given room; room in which we can offer our truest selves and in which we learn who we are.

How arresting then the words of Jesus: ‘I have called you friends’.

None of this is to deny that some of our human models of friendship have problematic elements. Liz Carmichael, writes of ‘the overarching influence of the classical friendship tradition of Greece and Rome, which in its final form reserves true friendship for a tiny minority of educated and virtuous males who enjoy and depend on each other. Such friendship elects with great care whom it will love.’

This doesn’t just concern the gymnasia and symposia of several thousand years ago. I’ve just finished reading a very recent analysis of the narrow peer group and friendship circles said to dominate current British political life. It’s a challenging read. Understandably we are cautious about modes of friendship which might be termed ‘chumminess’, which are characterised by being exclusive, partial and contingent and operate for the benefit of insiders.

How different the model of Jesus. Not for Jesus the narrow, excluding friendship of ‘chumminess’. It is not social advantage, wealth or prestige which form the basis for Christ’s friendship. Consider to whom he spoke, at the supper shortly before his arrest, when he said: ‘you are my friends... ...‘I chose you’. Preaching in Hippo around the year 424 the African theologian Augustine noted that when Jesus picked his friends he chose ‘not senators, but fishermen’.

Around the table of the Last Supper were a most unlikely group. Matthew, the former tax-collector, whose work had bolstered the occupation of the Romans. Simon, who had been a Zealot, driven by a desire to overthrown the same occupying power. Two people unlikely to have been in the same circle of acquaintance let alone friendship. Also, Judas, who would slip away to betray Jesus, and Peter, who would soon deny that he knew him. In fact, all, bar one, would abandon Jesus. Yet. knowing all this and precisely at this moment, Jesus calls them his friends.

Jesus gave them a vital gift. One which could never be earned. One to which they could return, even after the revelation of the worst of what they might do in betraying, denying and abandoning him. Jesus’ gift was to express the fullness of his love and he chooses the most profound word to describe his relationship with them: friends. This says much about his nature, about faith and about our standing before God.

Jurgen Moltmann suggests that the three traditional titles ascribed to Jesus, Prophet, Priest and King’ should be joined by another, equally Biblical title: ‘Friend’.

An astonishing concept by which to think of God.

Christ who came amongst us—authentically present friend.

God whose love is not contingent on our perfection but who, knowing our imperfections, loves us within the mutuality of friendship.

Friendship, in which we can rest and learn to be our God-called selves. Out of which we might extend friendship to others just as imperfect as we are. His is both candid and loving regard.

What might we take from all this:

Friendship is integral to our human nature. It seems it is also characteristic to the Divine nature too. Perhaps this is part of what it means for us to be made in God’s image.

Our human relationships matter greatly and perhaps we might choose to review the health of our friendships, after the disruption of recent years. We may wish in particular to invest in the glorious and messy relationships which makes us Christ’s Church, his body, his friends.

And perhaps all this talk of friendship has awoken the ache for connection within us. May Christ’s naming of you as his beloved friend soothe your soul and revive within us the good news of his invitation to friendship, to authentic presence with one another and with him.

As St Francis of Assisi once told a brother who was struggling with doubts: “Do not be troubled brother, but through friendship learn faith.”