If someone asked you the essence of your faith, what would you say? The Trinity? Jesus? Salvation – how we sinned, and he came to save us? Would you mention the moral life for Christians? All of these are good starting points, of course. How many of us, though, would say, that Christianity is simply relationship – not just any relationship, but a deep, friendship with God? That sounds almost scandalous. That God wants our friendship. Yet, this scandalous love is at the heart of the gospel. Before he is about to suffer, Jesus tells his disciples: “I have called you friends”. This friendship is what all the saints understood. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas described the love of God in precisely this way. It is also when the Church loses sight of this truth, that it becomes frigid, unhealthily institutionalised, and even its theology become clinical and lacking life. But when this revelation of love becomes our own, then, everything about the faith comes together as well.
Friendship is one of those words which still retains something of its intrinsic goodness and grace, though that is fast disappearing in the era of Facebook ‘friends’ and worse. The ancients had a lot to say about friendship. Plato described it as the purest of loves. Aristotle thought good friends were one of the true joys of life. He classified friendship into three kinds – those of utility, of pleasure, and of goodness or virtue. The first is more akin to a business relationship. The second can happen because I find someone’s company pleasurable – they make me laugh. But these are imperfect; when the business ends or this person isn’t funny anymore, my ‘friendship’ ends.
With the third, however, there is something good about this person, their character, that I find attractive. Because of this, I love them for their own sake, rather than getting something from them. In such friendships, there is a real sharing of values. Each one encourages and causes the other to become a better version of themselves. Over time, they also reveal to each other the secrets of their heart. The ancients thought that true friends share in some way, the same heart. We know this well. You see that good friends over time, share a lot in character. Which is why Aristotle believed, there has to be a base level of goodness in both people for such a friendship to exist in the first place. A gang which goes around looting and destroying could at most be ‘friends’ of pleasure, but something evil cannot hold people together. And those who are completely self-centered don’t usually develop such friendships because they evaluate everything in terms of pleasure or utility. Friendships of goodness take time to build. They cause each person to grow further in virtue. For Aristotle, all this presupposed the existence of a fundamental equality of status between friends. A difference, like that between a Greek master and a barbarian slave would prevent any common sharing.
Thomas Aquinas borrows all this from Aristotle when he reflects on Jesus calling his disciples ‘friends’. It makes this statement all the more astounding. For the first, there is no real equality between us and God. If there is unequal status between a master and a slave, there is an infinite difference between us creatures, and the Creator. This difference was even before the Fall, which just made matters worse. As fallen creatures, there is no possibility of this inequality being overcome by us. Thomas therefore concludes that it must be overcome by God, to make humans equal to the divine, so that friendship becomes a possibility between them. This action of God, which he does entirely gratuitously, is what we call grace. As Thomas puts it, solus Deus deificat, “only God can make us godlike.”
This in fact, provides the foundations of the doctrine of grace for Aquinas, the entirely free gift of the life of God, shared in friendship with human beings. In all this, it is God who loves us first. This is what Jesus says. ‘You did not choose me: no, I chose you.’ And we don’t need to be afraid that he will abandon us at any time, because this love comes to us, not because of some wonderful thing we achieved, but at our worst. As Paul says, while we were still sinners, while we were enemies of God, God loved us. And Paul continues, echoing the Greeks, says ‘Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man…but God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). It is precisely in this place, that God, who is infinitely above us, chose to love us in this incredible way. Having done that, he will not leave us now. Paul continues, ‘if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.’ (5:10) When we understand this, we can also understand what Jesus means as he says, ‘you are my friends, if you do what I command you’. We cannot keep God’s commands by ourselves. But just being in the company of good friends, makes us more like them. Which means we want to become like Jesus. In the spiritual life, this is friendship, elevated through the power of the Spirit.
Another saint who understood this extremely well, was the great mystic, St Teresa of Avila. The idea of friendship permeates her writings on the spiritual life. Prayer, for Teresa was ‘nothing other than a close sharing between friends. It means frequently taking time to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.” Degrees of holiness were simply degrees of deeper friendship with Christ. She would say, for a friendship to endure, ‘the wills of friends must be in accord’. It would be easier in some ways to be a servant. I do certain things and I expect a reward. My life though, is separate from my master. But God wants to give us so much more. Himself.
This word, this offer of friendship is what is extended to us today. When it becomes real, our spiritual life can come alive. Then, everything, the doctrines, our worship, our moral life, all come together. As we close, I offer you one simple way of taking this to heart. Take this verse. “I have called you friends” and “It is not you who chose me, but I chose you”. Keep this in your mind and on your lips, constantly this week. Keep repeating this to yourself. This is how the Hebrews meditated on Scripture. As you do, it will penetrate your heart. And the Spirit will start to bring it alive.