A SPIRITUALITY for Friendship and Mission at the Margins (part 1 of 2)
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
Only a robust spiritual life rooted in a deep and abiding friendship with God will allow us to persevere in mission at the margins. This model of mission requires that both individuals and communities cultivate humility and holiness, righteousness and justice, forgiveness and love.
What kind of relationship with God, and with a believing community will sustain us in mission at the margins? What spiritual practices and moral commitments will keep us faithful and true? In this post we will think about how friendship with God involves choosing the margins as well as recognizing the importance of community. In the next and final post on spirituality, we will consider the importance of purity and integrity, holding together the pursuit of justice and personal righteousness, and finally, the practices of humility and accompaniment, gratitude and celebration.
Being Friends of God.
It is a pretty remarkable thought. Friends of God. If it weren’t such a familiar notion, we might be struck by how amazing it is. Friends of God. If we look to Scripture, we quickly discover that God’s choice in friends was pretty unusual. In Isaiah 41, God called Abraham his friend. In the Gospels, we learn that Jesus was called a friend of sinners and tax collectors and, shortly before his death, Jesus announced that he no longer thought of his disciples as servants, they were his friends.
If God were somehow bound by classical or conventional understandings of friendship, I wonder if there might have been different choices. For all of Abraham’s faith and faithfulness, he made some very bad decisions. Jesus’ disciples were often quite a liability, and being called a friend of sinners and tax collectors was not intended as a compliment nor did friendship with them yield much in the way of status or favor for Jesus. But perhaps even more than being surprised by God’s taste in friends, the idea of friendship with God should strike us as astonishing. A friend of the creator and redeemer of the universe? Being welcomed as friend into the deepest fellowship of the Trinity? Being invited into some level of mutuality with almighty God? These are astonishing privileges.
Being a friend suggests the experience of deep and mutual self-disclosure, of knowing and being known, of shared purposes, shared loves, meaningful conversation. Is that also what it means to be a friend of God? It is what we see in Abraham’s story. It is also what we see in Jesus’ incarnation. In Jesus, God risks becoming known to human beings in a new and radical way. God lived among us, vulnerable as a stranger, rejected as a troublemaker, and occasionally recognized and cherished as a friend. In John 15, Jesus is talking with his disciples, and says I do not call you servants any longer—I have called you friends. Friends rather than servants because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Friends rather than servants because he has shared with them everything he has heard from the Father. The disciples had followed Jesus, but they became more than followers and servants, they became his friends because they had gradually learned his ways and purposes. Not perfectly, but increasingly. And, though they remained both followers and servants, because we don’t ever fully graduate from those roles, his friendship had slowly transformed them.
Right before the passage where Jesus renames the disciples “friends” is Jesus’ teaching about his being the vine, and his followers being the branches. The branches must remain connected to the vine or they cannot bear fruit. It is a picture of mutual abiding and shared love. And I think it informs our understanding of how we can possibly be friends of Jesus. Just as branches are dependent on the vine for life itself, we are not friends of Jesus as equals—he is the one who gives life–but we do participate. As we draw from his life, we are able to work alongside him and to bear fruit that lasts. When Jesus calls his disciples friends, he is saying that they are participants in his work of healing the world. The servant designation doesn’t capture their relationship or their role fully, the disciples are his friends. Jesus had disclosed himself to them and explained his purposes, and they would continue his work and pass on what they had learned and received.
The Importance of Community.
This understanding of friendship with God, of sharing in God’s purposes and love, empowered by God’s faithful presence in our lives sets us up to think about faithful friendship in community. It would be a mistake to understand friendship with God as something between God and me, very individual, no community needed. Just God and me. No encumbrances. Friendship with God is experienced at a deeply personal level, but it is rarely entirely individual. In fact, I think it is more accurate to understand friendship with God as both intimate and spacious. There is a crucial role for other friends. That’s what we see in the passage in John 15. It is a community of friends. We need faithful friendships to stay alive in Christian faith, and certainly we need them to grow.
We build and sustain friendship with God in other ways as well: in our attentiveness to God in prayer, Scripture reading and practices of contemplation, and in participation in worship and the Eucharist. Unless we take time to cultivate the relationship, it will be difficult to sustain a dynamic and close friendship with Christ. Little gasps for help or quick prayers of desperation in the midst of difficult circumstances are not enough. Friendship with Jesus involves being in his presence, taking time to learn what he loves and cares about, taking time to experience his love for us.
Our challenge, as we seek to draw closer to God’s heart, is not to presume on the friendship or to take it for granted, but rather to cherish it. As we grow in friendship with Jesus, he will continue to transform our love to make it bigger and more fruitful. Love is not a scarce commodity we need to ration in case we run out. Friendship with the source of love guarantees that we will have sufficient supply.*
*The above reflection was drawn from “Spacious Intimacy: Making Room for God” by Christine Pohl in The Cry: The Advocacy Journal of Word Made Flesh, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 10-11.
Strangers in the World.
So at this point we have recognized the gift of friendship with God and friendships with fellow believers. But the scriptures themselves also warn us about a particular form of friendship. In James 4:4 we read that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” and “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” It seems like a hard and very sectarian statement, and yet it reminds us that if we are to be friends of God, we will be strangers in the world insofar as the world’s values and commitments are estranged from God. We don’t protect ourselves from the world by building walls and other barriers but by having a community of friends that help us stay connected with God and focused on God’s values and purposes.
In my work and research on hospitality, I discovered just how central alien status or marginality is to the identity of the people of God—this sense of being separate from the world. The people of Israel were to see themselves as chosen and yet still alien, and understand themselves as strangers who welcomed strangers. Early Christians understood themselves both literally and spiritually as aliens and exiles in the world. This identity is important in a number of ways: (1) it helps us maintain a distance from the world’s values without removing us from the world, (2) it helps us share the experience of and care for others who are vulnerable because they are on the margins, and (3) it reminds us to whom we ultimately belong. So friendship at the margins should fit us a bit more easily than it often does because dwelling on the margins and seeing ourselves as strangers and aliens are crucial to our Christian identity and spirituality. But again, we’re not talking here about isolated postmodern individuals who are always strangers just wandering through the world. The picture is more of a sojourning community whose values and commitments are distinct.
Loving Those Whom God Loves.
Just as we cannot be friends with Jesus without sharing in friendship with fellow believers, we cannot be friends with Jesus without offering friendship to those who are vulnerable, overlooked or excluded. Friends of God love those whom God loves and befriend those whom God befriends. Jesus was and remains a friend of people that are easy to judge and hard to love, and a friend of those who seemed utterly lost. And he explicitly teaches that our friendship networks need to include those who seem unimportant in the world’s eyes, who seem to not have much to offer, or who have done wrong and been wronged.
Intimacy with Jesus is possible also as we respond to the vulnerable one, the one in need. Matthew 25 promises an extraordinary opportunity to encounter Jesus in the person of the stranger, the hungry one, the sick person. In friendships at the margins, we have opportunities to be the body of Christ, the hands of Christ, to live out the love of Christ, and to encounter him in the other. Quite extraordinary!
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why is thinking of ourselves as “friends of God” remarkable?
- Read John 15. What do we learn about friendship with God from this passage?
- What is the relationship between a community of friends and friendship with God?
- The Letter of James calls for a conversion from friendship with the world to friendship with God. Read James 3:13 – 4:10. What characterizes friendship with the world? What characterizes friendship with God?
- Read Matthew 25:31-46. How does loving those who God loves both express and shape our friendship with God?
Christine D. Pohl, the 2014 Convocation presenter, 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.