Friends of Jesus
27 September 2020
Homily Preached at Trinity Parish Church, Ashland Oregon
8 a.m. Said Mass on the Labyrinth,
10:00 a.m. Said Mass with Cantors & Organ live-streamed from the Chancel
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
A few years ago in Wuhan China (yes—that Wuhan, the Corona virus Wuhan), I found myself at a dinner table with local leadership, senior officials of the Hubei provincial government. One was wearing a beautiful carved wood Buddhist prayer chaplet around his wrist. Knowing that this man must be a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and that one must affirm absolute atheism in order to become a member of the party, I innocently asked, “Nice beads. Are you a Buddhist?” The word in Chinese literally means “Buddha adherent.” His body stiffened and I could see that he was quickly working through in his mind how he should answer in front of his party colleagues. He relaxed, smiled, and said, “I’m not sure I count as an adherent of the Buddha (佛徒, Fótú). I am more a friend of Buddha (佛友, Fóyǒu).”
His clever reply got me thinking. We say we are Christians, disciples or followers of Christ. But are we Christ’s friends?
Jesus, just before his death, told his disciples that they were his friends, not his servants (John 20). He was giving his life for them: not the action of a master for his followers, but of a friend for his friends.
Today’s Gospel reading describes an argument Jesus had with his detractors about authority, and the parable he gave on the matter: of two sons, one says he will not obey but ends up doing so; the other says he will, but doesn’t. Jesus condemns the second and praises the first.
Many people say they are Christians. They say they study and follow Christ’s teachings and his commands. They say they base their politics on him. They condemn those who they think are not as orthodox or diligent as they, who are not true disciples.
But Jesus said many times that we must not judge others. He said that a sinner who recognizes his or her fault is far closer to God’s Reign than the person who follows all the rules and does not ask how he or she might be wrong. He told many jokes that had as their butt the pious and the self-important.
Jesus’s contempt for the righteous religion of the rule keeper is what got him in such hot water with the local religious authorities. “He hangs out with drunks, sex-workers, and traitors.” They said. He said, “the sick need a doctor, not the healthy.” And the authorities arranged to have Jesus killed by the Imperial Power when they just couldn’t deal with him any more.
People who say they are Christian and who do not actually internalize and practice what Jesus taught and did, are like that second son. People who might not consciously have faith, and are not so righteous, but love Jesus and wish they could be closer to his heart of love are like the first son.
Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matt 7:21-23).
In the traditional Roman Catechism, faith is described as “an act of the will assenting to that which is revealed by God, because of the authority of the revealing God.” The point is well taken—accepting what God tells us simply because it pleases us, or because we already agree, this is not faith. It is a simulacrum of faith. It is not religion, but boutique spirituality. It is not seeking God’s will. It actually is simply seeking our own desires and dolling them up as if they were God’s. It will not lead us beyond ourselves.
But taking this definition of faith--assent because of authority--literally and all by itself generally ends up with a gloomy picture of faith: an act of submission in what appears to be an abusive relationship. “I am God and you are not, submit to me or burn in hell.” “Faith” so narrowly conceived robs us of any autonomy and human dignity, and makes those who believe an army of robot victim souls.
But we can accept God’s word on the authority of the revealing God without becoming such automatons, simply by understanding faith more broadly than simply an act of submission.
In traditional iconography, you portray master and disciple by showing the student looking to the teacher, and the teacher looking beyond the horizon. The Roman Catechism’s definition of faith has us as student and teacher.
But lovers are shown by having them look into each other’s eyes. Most contemplative traditions and many parts of scripture see faith as tenderness and faithfulness between two lovers.
And friends are pictured side by side, looking in the same direction: they share common passions, interests, and goals, while remaining different enough to make the friendship mutually challenging and attractive. When Jesus says we are his friends, he sees us sharing with him his passion for the Reign of God: a common vision, direction, and concerns. Submission to authority or mutual personal attraction are not the central piece here: the key is sharing one’s view of the world and passions.
Jesus wants us to be his friends, not his slaves. This is why he God's reign as a treasure buried in a field that we joyfully sacrifice all else to possess. Jesus in today's parable is suggesting that ultimately those who loudly and confidently insist they are God’s servants usually fail in following God, while those who quietly share God’s hopes and dreams, despite all their doubts and failings (or perhaps because of them), succeed.
In today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson, it is only in the desert dryness that God can make the rock split and bring forth water. In the epistle, the “mind of Christ” that Paul wants us to emulate is described as an emptying of self-seeking and full friendship with God. In the Gospel, Jesus says to his opponents, “Traitors and sex-workers will go into the Kingdom before you,” precisely because his opponents base their faith on claims to authority- based rules rather than the deep trust of friendship.
So just as that man in Wuhan was a “friend,” not a “disciple” of Buddha, I think that Jesus is calling us to be his friend, not his simply his follower.
So let’s pay attention to our friend, Jesus. Let's pay attention to his tastes, what he likes, and what he doesn’t like. Let’s pay attention to the kind of company he keeps and do likewise. Let’s let him be our friend, and take us from where we are to where we ought to be, regardless of our or other people’s opinions of where that may be. And let’s stop condemning others when we have so much about ourselves that could be condemned. Let's forgive others since we have so much ourselves that God has forgiven. In the name of Christ, Amen