Friendship and Mission at the Margins: A Community of Friends
In 2014 I am expanding on the theme of the July 24-26 convocation “Friendship and Mission at the Margins.” This post affirms that the community we are called to — both in our identity and practice for the sake of the world — is a unique community of friends, a school of love. Read on… for both the challenge and opportunities for contemporary communities of faith.
Friendship, which is constitutive of a kind of community, is itself a practice which is integral to the moral life. Friendship is integral because (1) human life is fundamentally relational, (2) people come to know themselves through friends, and (3) the community that emerges provides a conversation through which particular conceptions of how people ought to live are redefined and extended. 1
The cultivating of missional communities is about shaping a particular people, a people who proclaim and embody a particular understanding of the moral life–the life of Christian discipleship. Many descriptions of discipleship while inspiring can appear idealistic: sharing our possessions, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, caring for the poor and outcast, rejecting worldly honor and reward. Contributing to the sense that this portrait is unrealistic is the belief that discipleship is the isolated responsibility of the individual Christian. The above quotation offers a different perspective: we are not our own, nor are we on our own. Christian discipleship is a “group project.” That is, our identity and vocation as disciples—who we are and what we are to be about—is discovered and manifested through active involvement in a particular kind of community—a “community of friends”—created and sustained by God’s gracious “befriending” of humanity in Jesus Christ.
This posting will explore how the language and imagery of Christian friendship can—without removing the inspiration or the challenge—enable our discussion of discipleship to become less abstract and more concrete. Creating the space, opportunity, and support for the practice of friendship represents a significant, if often overlooked, aspect of missional communities.
A Company of Strangers.
We live in an increasingly disconnected, disintegrated, and depersonalized cultural context which places significant barriers to the forming of meaningful relationships. Within a professionalized and specialized world, people are defined by what they do (for pay) rather than by the company they keep. The requirements for achievement and advancement—in order to enjoy the “good life”—provide little time or energy for the cultivation of friendships. It is not unusual for people to live, work, shop, recreate, and worship in different locations and with different groups of people. The multiple demands and the sheer pace of modern life, severely reduce the opportunities for personal interaction beyond a superficial and instrumental level. For the most part, we remain strangers.
In many ways the church reflects the fragmentation of the wider culture. It is becoming more common for church members not to know one another outside the life of the congregation. And because the perceived demands of job and family lead many to ration their time and commitment, fewer people are participating in activities or groupings outside the one-hour worship service. Thus rather than Sunday morning representing a communal celebration, it becomes a company of strangers. No longer can we assume that church members know one another’s names, must less that they will be supportive of and accountable to one another in their living of Christian discipleship.
Within such a situation, the discovery and nurture of genuine community is one of the most essential and yet one of the most formidable challenges the church faces. Such community-forming is not simply institutional maintenance, but a profound expression of the church’s mission. By providing the space and support for the development of authentic friendships, the church witnesses to the wholeness and purposefulness of life within relationships of trust, compassion, freedom, and service.
Friendship With God.
Friendship is not the usual way in which we refer to our relationship with God. Indeed, much of the Western theological tradition has emphasized the distance and the distinction between humanity and God, between the creation and the Creator. Implying a mutual relationship of affection, familiarity, and preference, such language appears inappropriate and even irreverent. Yet the Gospel of John declares that we have not only been called to follow Jesus, we have been invited to become his friends: “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). It is by God’s own self-revealing and self-giving in Jesus Christ that we are enabled to become friends with the God who has always been our friend. In the incarnation—the “word became flesh”—the barrier between the divine and the human created by our sin and alienation has been overcome. “As humanity’s friend (whom God has given in grace), Christ is able (both in his life and in his death) to restore humanity to friendship with God.”2
While many within the Christian tradition have viewed the preferential nature of friendship (philia) to be in tension with the universal scope of Christian love (agape), Augustine “Christianized” friendship by indicating the distinguishing marks of friendship with God: (1) friendships are divine gifts, the way God’s redemptive love is made personal and concrete; (2) as gifted relationships which begin with God, friendships are rooted in, conform to, and seek God; (3) friendships are relationships of conversion—vessels of grace—whose purpose is the growing together in the love of God; (4) friendships do not end but reach their perfection in the kingdom of God when everyone has full and complete friendship with God—the perfect love-life that is both the exemplar and the goal of genuine friendship.”3
Christian discipleship, within the context of friendship with God, is not the fulfilling of prescribed duties, but an intimate and transforming relationship within the community of God’s friends.
The Company of the Friends of Jesus.
Depending upon what attracts and binds persons together, there are different kinds of friendship. There are friendships of pleasure: friends who enjoy concerts, movies, exercise, or football together. There are friendships of usefulness or advantage: friends who share and can further family, business, political, or social goals. These commonly experienced forms of friendship are often of limited duration, for individuals move on to other friends when their desires or interests are either fulfilled or change.
Christian friendship is of a different character: it is Jesus’ redemptive and sacrificial love which attracts and binds together his friends: “we are (or can be) friends to one another because Christ chose us, making us his friends by laying his life down for us and revealing to us his Father’s intentions.”4 Living as the friends of Jesus indicates not only a loving relationship, but the active participation in Jesus’ own mission of love and friendship: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Not a sentimental notion but a missional directive, Christian friendship is the seeking of and growing in the will of God in the company of friends who are on the same journey—the journey of being transformed from strangers into the friends of God.
A School of Love.5
In contrast to the modern emphasis upon the autonomous self, the image of friendship affirms that life is fundamentally relational. It is our relationships that “school” us in our identity, commitments, and way of life. Recognizing the deep interconnectedness of all human life, we discover that how we relate to one another to a large extent shapes who we will be and how we will live. Individualism radically underestimates the power we have through acts of love or lovelessness literally to create or to destroy one another: “Because we do not understand love as the power to act-each-other-into-well-being, we also do not understand the depth of our power to thwart life and to maim each other. The fateful choice is ours, either to set free the power of God’s love in the world or to deprive each other of the very basis of personhood and community.”6
Viewed as a cluster of many friendships knit together, Christian community is a “school of love” whereby those who would be disciples learn—or do not learn—how to love as God loves and to love all those whom God loves. Too often we talk of Christian love in the abstract, a generalized obligation to love everyone equally—to “play no favorites.” Yet when placed within the story of God’s friendship-love in Jesus Christ, the command to “love one another; just as I have loved you” (John 13:34) becomes concrete and particular (although not exclusive). Christian friendships are the embodiment and expression of the reality of God’s love. It is by focusing on specific persons, to be loved in specific actions that we experience, share, and grow in friendship with God. The issue is not that our love is particular or universal, but that its source, center, and aim is God.
It is a common purpose—a shared desire for friendship with Jesus Christ—that brings Christian friends together. The intentionality of friendship is crucial: “What shape friendship takes, what it achieves, and what becomes of it, depends on what friends take the purpose of their friendship to be.”8 That which keeps Christian friendship from becoming closed and private–a mutual admiration society—is the continual reappropriation of its purpose: to participate in God’s befriending of the world in Jesus Christ. The consistent witness of Scripture is that Jesus was intentional in his friendships. He consistently chose to be friends with the poor, the outcast, the hungry—those who had been marginalized and rejected: “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Unlike “respectable society” which defines people by their failings, Jesus enacted a different ethic: as friend to the unlovable, he invited all he encountered into God’s friendship.
The mission of the church “is to mediate divine friendship to all humanity; and this mission can be fulfilled only by living in friendship with the Lord and with one another, reaching out to embrace more and more persons in this love.”9 It is through particular friendships within the company of the friends of Jesus that we learn the art of befriending all humanity—the lovable and the unlovable. Jesus’ enacted parable of the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-20), demonstrates the nature of Christian love: the humble and self-sacrificial service of others. Through the friendships and practices of discipleship, we come “to see each and every stranger as a friend in God, and as a friend of God.”10 Thus the indissoluble link between the preferential nature of Christian friendship and the universal scope of God’s love is affirmed and manifested.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Where, in society and in the church, do you see evidence of the barriers to the forming of friendships?
- What insights are stimulated by thinking of our relationship with God in terms of friendship?
- How does friendship as a “missional directive” relate to your understanding of the church’s mission? of friendship?
- If the church truly became “a school of love” how would that shape Christian discipleship?
- What enables the church to be a community of “open friendship”?
- In what ways could your congregation be more intentional in encouraging and supporting friendships with God?
1L. Gregory Jones, Transformed Judgment: Toward a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), p. 85.
2Ibid., p. 102.
3Paul J. Wadell, Friendships and the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), pp. 97-100.
4Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in A Post-Christian Society (Inter-Varsity, 1996), p. 208.
5Carmen L. Caltagirone, Friendship as Sacrament (Alba House, 1988), p. 17.
6Beverly Harrison, quoted in Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life, p. 162.
7See JurgenMoltmann’s discussion in The Church in the Power of the Spirit (Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 119-121.
8Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life, p. 72.
9Paul Hinnebusch, O.P., Friendship in the Lord (Ave Maria Press, 1974), p. 23.
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, has both the theological and practical credentials to stimulate and guide the discussion during the Convocation. She is Associate Provost and Professor of Church and Society/Christian Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary. Before attending seminary and earning her Ph.D. at Emory University, Christine worked in various ministries for eleven years. She owned a Christian bookstore and worked in advocacy and refugee resettlement.
As the recipient of various grants, she has organized research projects that have led to the writing of several books, including Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999) and Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2011). In collaboration with Chris Heuertz, international director of Word Made Flesh, Pohl wrote Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission (InterVarsity, 2010).
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.