Sunday, September 23, 2012

Friends of God

"The Wisdom of Jesus and James"
James 3:13-4:8a; Mark 9:30-37

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I wonder what comes to your mind, 
when you hear the phrase “friendship with God.”
I imagine different ones of you have very different reactions.

Some of you, who might lean toward 
a more emotional, personal, relational spirituality, 
resonate with that idea immediately. 
You are someone who engages in regular practices
of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, etc.,
to nurture and keep alive your relationship with God,
as your intimate friend and companion.
I find myself in this camp, much of the time.

Some of you, I imagine, might have 
a neutral, or even negative reaction to the phrase,
“friendship with God.” 
You are someone who connects most with God the Unknowable,
God the Great Creator and Sustainer of the Cosmos.
You may be a little put off by the almost casual, buddy-buddy, feel
of the idea of friendship with God.
You’re afraid of reducing God to a private, personal deity,
not wanting to fall into the trap
of making God into my own image, instead of vice-versa.
I find myself in this camp, much of the time.

My sermon today is intended to address persons in both those camps,
and those in-between, 
and help us all think differently about “friendship with God.”

James has much to teach us in this regard.

In this series on the letter of James and the Gospel of Mark,
we’ve seen that James has a lot to say about ethics.
The letter is full of practical instructions,
and spirited appeals and arguments,
trying to convince us to live ethically and consistently,
to do as we say,
to say what we mean, and mean what we say.

In the passage from today,
this appeal for right living is put in terms of
tapping into the “wisdom from above,”
wisdom that comes from friendship with God.
And just as an aside,
this is where James’ understanding of grace shines through.
Don’t let anyone tell you James isn’t full of grace.
The “wisdom from above” is James’ way of saying
it’s only by God’s resources, God’s grace,
that living a whole and meaningful and righteous life is possible.

In any case, in James 3:14, he says those who
“have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts,”
or who are “boastful and false to the truth,” 
exhibit a so-called “wisdom [that] does not come down from above,
but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.
For where there is envy and selfish ambition,
there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

In contrast, the “wisdom from above is
first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield,
full of mercy and good fruits,
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who make peace.”

Living out this very practical “wisdom from above”
is, according to James, the result of friendship with God,
as opposed to friendship with the world.

Earlier in the letter, James 2:23, he gives the example of Abraham,
who demonstrated his faith, by the way he lived sacrificially,
willing even to yield his own flesh and blood, if God required it,
and that faith, expressed in works,
gave him the title “friend of God.”

In today’s text, James holds that up in contrast to those
who allow their ambitious and selfish cravings 
to drive their behavior.
He minces no words.
“Do you not know that friendship with the world 
is enmity with God? 
Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world 
becomes an enemy of God.”

As I prepared for today’s service,
I read an essay by Paul Wadell, 
a professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College in Wisc.,
focused on James’ concept of friendship with God,
which I found insightful, 
and which inspired much of my thinking for this sermon.

Wadell makes this statement, which rings true to me:
“To enter into a friendship is to take up a new way of life 
because every friendship in some way reorders our lives 
and creates new commitments and responsibilities.
Too, friendships change us because they form our character, 
shape our beliefs and convictions, 
and encourage certain kinds of behavior in us.”

So, looked at in this way,
speaking of being “friends of God” in no way implies
removing ourselves from this very real and earthy existence,
into a purely emotional, mystical, spiritual realm of life.
Choosing to be a friend of God 
is choosing to live life differently.

James insists that friendship with God is, in fact,
a very challenging way of life,
marked by rigorous practices and habits.

James would say friendship with God is not a solitary thing,
it means being part of a community of friends of God.
For James, the Church is the community of friends of God.
And that community embodies in its life together in this world,
the values, the practices, and the habits
that consistent with friendship with God.

The idea of “friendship with God” is not hard to grasp,
when we realize this friendship
has human parallels that we are very familiar with.

In human friendship, 
we share our lives around commons purposes or common values.
A mutual friendship is committed to each other’s mutual good.
If I am your friend,
I will want what is good for you.
I will commit myself to helping bring about that good.
And when that good happens in your life,
it will bring me great joy.
And . . . I will know that you have the same commitment to me.

The same is true of friendship with God.
God is committed to our good.
God delights in our good.
And we are likewise committed to seek God’s good,
as we work and strive to further God’s purposes in the world,
and collaborate with God in God’s mission in the world.
A friend of God will work with God in the world,
not against God and God’s purposes.

If we live in a way that is hurtful to others,
or that abuses God’s good creation,
or that reinforces systems of violence and domination,
“How can we call ourselves ‘friends of God?’” James asks.
No, that makes of friends of the world.
And “friendship with the world, is enmity with God,”
it says in James 4:4.

Other voices in Christian history have underscored this notion
of friendship with God that James is talking about.
St. Augustine, of the 4th century,
is well-known for emphasizing that we were created for 
intimacy with God.
He wrote, “You made us, Lord, for Yourself, 
and our hearts are restless until we rest in You.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, of the 13th century,
believed that our highest good comes from deep participation
in the love, goodness, and happiness that is God’s life.
Aquinas spoke of the virtue of charity as friendship with God, 
as a way of life in which we all together
love God, and love what God loves.
But for Aquinas, 
this charity toward God and Gods’ ways,
is not something we are able to muster up on our own.
It’s based on a particular kind of “communication”
between us and God,
that is distinct from communication in human friendships.
Aquinas said that God communicates, or shares, or imparts to us
his divine life and love,
so that we can fully participate in it.
This is grace—God drawing us in love,
welcoming us into the divine life,
offering to us that which is of God.
Aquinas says that is first. That is prior to,
our ability to reach out in friendship with God.

We’re familiar with that way of talking about God’s grace.
We speak often of God first loving us,
so that we might love God, and love others.

But, it made me wonder, how does that square with James 4:8—
today’s theme text on the bulletin cover?
“Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”
That sounds like God is responding to our initiative.
Is that what James meant?

I think not.
I think rather than setting up a chronology here—
“Draw near to God, . . . then . . . God will draw near to you”—
James was, more accurately, saying something like,
“Draw near to God, and we will discover that 
God is drawing near to us.”
As we actively and intentionally draw near to God,
we simply become more cognizant, more aware,
that God has been drawing near to us all along.

But again, this is not a purely private, spiritual, mystical reality.
It is grounded.
It is embodied in everyday life, as friends of God.
It is a way of orienting our lives,
as we live them in this world, in community.

And as we look at the Gospel story in Mark today—
the “wisdom of Jesus” part of the equation
in this series on the wisdom of Jesus and James—
we see another aspect of friendship with God.

We don’t obtain friendship with God,
but trying to get to God before others,
trying to earn a privileged seat at God’s right hand.
Indeed, the opposite is the case.
Closeness to God,
is directly connected to how much we empty ourselves,
and become slaves and servants to God.

In Mark 9, the text we read this morning,
Jesus was introducing the idea to his disciples
that this whole journey was heading toward the cross,
toward a life of suffering and death.
But, it says in v. 32,
“they did not understand what he was saying 
and were afraid to ask him.”
So instead, as they were walking along the road with Jesus,
they were getting into arguments with each other,
about which of them was the greatest,
which of them was the closest friend of Jesus,
which would sit at his right hand.
The irony of that argument didn’t register with them.
That they would be arguing over who was the greatest,
even as Jesus was talking about his path of suffering.

So Jesus, probably with a huge sigh, sat down,
and called the twelve to him, and said,
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child into his arms, and said to them,
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me 
but the one who sent me.”

That’s the same wisdom that James is trying to impart to the church.
In 3:16, James writes,
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition, 
there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”
Ambition and selfish orientation toward what we want,
is friendship with the world.
It’s the path to self-destruction, to violence.

In his letter, James practically shouts in exasperation,
“You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder . . .
You do not have, because you do not ask.
Or, you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, 
in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”
A self-oriented life is a violent life.
And it is enmity with God.

In contrast, “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, 
willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.”
And it leads to a “harvest of righteousness and peace.”

Peace in a community of friends of God,
is possible not because we are the same in all our convictions.
Peace is possible, even in a community with extreme differences,
when we are united in our collective love for God.
We can know peace when we can agree on what is most worthy,
what is most deserving of our devotion, and worship.

In his essay, professor Wadell says this,
“As a community of the friends of God, 
Christian congregations should exude peace 
because none of their members loves or desires anything
more than they love and desire God. 
By contrast, discord, the antithesis of peace, 
seeps into our families, our communities, and our churches
when we can no longer agree 
on what is most deserving of our love—
when we share no common good—
and when we allow differences about secondary matters 
to divide us.”

What James is saying, what his wisdom is teaching us today,
is that we can choose to be friends of the world 
or friends of God. 
Those are distinct choices, with starkly different consequences.
Each choice will take us down a different path, 
it will shape us in very different ways, 
it will lead us toward different outcomes.

But again, while we each need to make this choice personally,
we do not choose it in isolation.
We are choosing to be formed by a community of friends of God.

So what I call us to this morning,
is not uniformity of belief 
about all our moral and religious convictions.

I do not call the mystics among us 
to give up their personal and intimate connections to God.
I do not call the intellectuals among us
to give up their view of God as unknowable and cosmic.
Rather, I call us to all enter deeply into the communal life
of a people who call themselves “friends of God,”
that together, we might unite ourselves in worship, in devotion,
and in a covenant to orient our earthly lives
around those things we discern to be God’s priorities.
And as a community of friends of God,
to love what God loves,
to seek God’s good,
to take pleasure in God’s pleasure.

Let’s sing together, the hymn taken from the book of James,
which was introduced last Sunday.
“O Lord, may all we say and do.”

—Phil Kniss, September 23, 2012

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