Jesus said,”As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
This week we celebrate the Feast of Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx. Aelred was a 12th century Cistercian monk most noted for the value he placed on friendship and for writing an important book called Spiritual Friendship. He is often remembered as the abbot who allowed his monks to hold hands and openly express their love for one another. On friendship, Aelred writes:
There are four qualities which characterize a friend: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. Right intention seeks for nothing other than God and natural good. Discretion brings understanding of what is done on a friend’s behalf, and ability to know when to correct faults. Patience enables one to be justly rebuked, or to bear adversity on another’s behalf. Loyalty guards and protects friendship, in good or bitter times.
As you know we are in the process of creating a church in Bentonville. When people learn about this they frequently ask, “Are you planning on building a church soon.” I patiently explain that we might some day, but that we are now in the process of building community – that we are far less concerned about the bricks that are used to construct a building than we are about the mixing the mortar that binds us together in Christian fellowship. We are really in the process of creating friendship – “spiritual friendship” as Abbot Aelred might say.
And the funny thing about that is … we don’t get to choose our friends. This past weekend we were fortunate to have an extensive newspaper article about our emerging church appear in the Morning News. As a result, I’ve been getting lots of phone calls, lots of emails, having coffee and lunch with new people – people who have learned about what we are doing and think that it just might be exactly what they are looking for. New faces are showing up at our evening group meetings. I am so glad to see them. However, when I look around the table at the people who have newly gathered in one of our small groups, I am amazed that such a disparate collection of folks can be seated at one table. Age, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious background are all different. They seem to have little in common except, perhaps, an openness, a receptivity, a desire to explore a new spiritual path in community. These are not people who would normally be friends. But…when you choose to be a friend of Jesus, you don’t get to choose your friends.
It is a natural thing to love those who are like us. We are put together, biologically, in a way that causes us to love our families. According to the principles of evolutionary theory, the qualities of love and nurturing of children are naturally selected for. More of our own genes make it into the gene pool, if we protect, care for, and love our progeny. By extension, we need the support of family members to ensure that our own offspring survive and flourish. It is fairly easy to love our families, although just returning from the holidays some of you might question that. And, beyond our families, a case can be made that we are also biologically conditioned to create relationships with those who are similar to us. It is a pretty easy thing to love those who share our values, our experiences, and who look like we do.
However, that’s not what we, as Christians, are called to do. We are called to do something much more difficult. We are called to love those who are not like us. If we are serious about the Christian faith, we no longer get to choose our friends. The example of Christ is one in which he reached out to the margins of society, to the foreigner, to the poor, to the sinner, to those shunned by the establishment. He sought his friends among the unlovable. We are asked, as Christians, to do the same. As we just heard in the Gospel of John, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” And just as we did not choose to be loved by Christ, we can not choose to exclude others from the love of Christ. Our commandment is to love one another, as Christ loved us.