The gift of friendship is among the greatest blessings of this life. The gift of trusted, loving companions in our lives, people upon whom we can depend in good times and in bad, people with whom we want to share life’s greatest celebrations, people to whom we can turn in times of difficulty and sadness, people who know us, and care for us, who encourage and challenge us – and people whose joys we celebrate, whose sorrows we share, whose lives we want to honour and cherish we make our way through this world — friendship is a great blessing.
But it can be complicated.
In fact, to be called a “friend”, these days, can be more complicated than we sometimes realize. After all, in this incredible technological age, it is intriguing that we use the blanket term “friends” to refer to the entire range of our acquaintances, colleagues, co-workers, fellow students, family members, neighbours, and sometimes even relative strangers, with whom we have some degree of connection in the worlds of social media and online community. I recently saw a bumper sticker with the quotation, “I love my computer – all my friends live inside it.”
But it is equally intriguing that recent psychological and sociological research is raising questions about whether or not the vast numbers of “friends” with whom we interact on social media can, in fact, contribute to a sense of increasing loneliness, social isolation, even depression in those who primarily connect with others online. The number of friends on one’s favourite social media platform, or the number of “likes” on a post or photo, may not correspond to a true sense of connection and of community
Which is not, in any way, to disparage the wonderful dimensions of these new tools. They can help us to stay connected – if even in a loose and informal way – to people with whom we may otherwise lose contact. And in our transient, mobile culture, tools that help us to maintain such connections are to be celebrated.
But it still raises questions about the nature of friendship. And these are not new questions.
Rather, from time immemorial, our ancestors – in many different cultures – have pondered the true nature of friendship. What are the qualities of these human relationships that transcend familial or biological connections, or romantic commitments, or the particular circumstances at any given moment in our lives?
The eighth book in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics offers one of the most famous explorations on the nature of friendship, which Aristotle suggested was “indispensable for life” rooted in his observation that “no one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods.”
Aristotle suggested that there were three forms of friendship – what he termed friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of virtue, or goodness.
Friendships of utility, suggested Aristotle, are those relationships in our lives in which there is a useful or utilitarian purpose for our connection with the other. Such friendships of utility may be deeply affectionate and caring but they are primarily based on some useful good that can accrue from maintaining a cordial or harmonious relationship with the other. A good relationship with a colleague, or a co-worker, or a neighbor may be, and is best, shaped by good will, mutual respect and cooperation – but would not necessarily exist or continue if we were to change workplaces, or move to a new job or to a new neighbourhood. The usefulness, the utility, the good of that form of friendship is based, as Aristotle stated, “in terms of the good accruing to each from the other.”
The second type of friendship that Aristotle described was what he referred to as friendships of pleasure – those people with whom we shared some enjoyable or pleasant activity. “We love witty people,” stated Aristotle, “not for what they are, but for the pleasure they give us.” The person who is the life of the party, or those with whom we love hanging out with because we simply have a lot of fun with them, sometimes some portions of romantic relationships, or those people with whom we share some leisure activity or particular interest – our enjoyment of those relationships, our “friendship” with them is rooted in the pleasant experiences that we share in their presence and in their company.
The third type of friendship that Aristotle celebrated – friendships of goodness or virtue — was the one that he commended most highly, even though it was the rarest form. This third type might encompass dimensions of utility and of pleasure, but it is also something more. They were friendships that were rooted in, and committed to the good of the other, and could only be formed in relationships marked by a mutual reciprocity between people who, individually, had dedicated their lives to the cultivation of virtue and the pursuit of moral excellence. Emerging out of that shared individual commitment to goodness, and out of a reciprocity of care, would emerge the best and most enduring form of friendship. As Aristotle wrote, “for those friends wish alike for one another’s good because they are good [men], and they are good per se (that is, their goodness is something intrinsic, not incidental). Those who wish for their friends’ good for their friends’ sake are friends in the truest sense.” This third and highest form of friendship could not, suggested Aristotle, emerge quickly as they required time and familiarity, “for, as the old proverb has it, people cannot know each other until they have eaten the specified (measure of) salt together. One cannot extend friendship to or be a friend of another person until each partner has impressed the other that he is worthy of affection, and until each has won the other’s confidence.” Anyone who has known the blessing of a friend who stood with them through some particularly difficult experience in life, especially if that care would be reciprocated in return, knows what Aristotle meant. But it also required personal, individual work – since the pursuit of virtue and goodness, in one’s own life, was a necessary prerequisite to becoming and recognizing such goodness, decency, and potential for friendship, in the other.
It is intriguing for us to realize, as a people of faith, that the theme of friendship is deeply woven through great portions of the biblical narrative. We all know the stories of friendships, both whole and broken, which shaped the unfolding story of the Bible – the broken friendship between God, Adam and Eve, which became warped by accusation and blame; the recognition of the blessing and importance of friendship in the words of the wisdom writers such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; the promises of enduring loyalty and friendship between individual characters such as David and Jonathan, or Ruth and Orpah; the centrality of friendship in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples; the encouraging words of friendship – and the appeals to mutual love and friendship — that the epistle writers of the New Testament extended to the recipients of those ancient letters. In so many ways, the quest of faith, the vision of community, and the promise of friendship are inextricably woven together across the biblical canon.
But perhaps most famously, Jesus himself spoke of the nature of his desired and intended relationship with his followers in terms of friendship. After observing that the greatest act of friendship was the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends – something that he, himself, was about to do — we read, “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”.
And what is more striking, and surprising, is that we are invited, throughout the Gospels, to “hear” the words of Jesus as the words of a far greater power. John’s Gospel had opened with claims that the Word who was in the beginning with God, and who was God, had become flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, who – in this fifteenth chapter of John – was now speaking words about friendship, about wanting to be friends, about wanting to enter into the greatest type of friendship of all – of life-giving, self-emptying, courageous, love.
As such, these words invite us to realize that Jesus’ desire was not simply to restore the often broken connection between the divine and the human – but rather to restore friendship between God and humanity. So what does it mean to be a people who are invited into relationship with the One who said, “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.”
Of course, in Jesus’ own life, it would be a tested friendship. In fact, the journey of Lent that will lead us to the remembrance of Good Friday can be interpreted and understood as the story of a whole series of betrayed and broken friendships. “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” – and one of those “friends” would soon betray him for a handful of silver, one of those “friends” would claim – three times over– that he did not even know him, and the rest of those “friends” would soon run away. In his hour of greatest need, his friends all disappeared. He was so despondent, and in such despair at their abandonment, that he even felt abandoned and forsaken by the One whose love he thought would never let him down. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the cry of a lonely, anguished, profoundly “unfriended” soul.
But even though his friends had departed, the divine love that he thought had forsaken him would not let him go. Yes, he experienced the brutality of human betrayal and broken friendship, but he came to experience – and ever since, his followers have declared to this world – that the God who was seeking, in Jesus Christ, to befriend this world is a God whose faithful, enduring love will never let us go.
And it is that model of love that is meant to serve as the example by which we form our friendships, both with God and with each other. It is that love that is meant to be the model for how we treat others, the way that we are called to shape our lives. And it is that model, that example, that way of being that opens our lives to the true potential for every other love, for every other friendship, for every other relationship that we strive to maintain in this life.
A form of love that is not based merely in the usefulness of the other, or in the pleasure that they bring us, but instead that is strong, even in times of weakness; that is courageous, even in the face of difficulty; that is self-giving and forgiving, that is grounded in goodness and that is rooted in reciprocity and in relationship, but that can endure terrible difficulties knowing that such love is more powerful than all things.
Such is the nature of God’s love for us, in Jesus Christ.
Such is the nature of love that we are called to demonstrate, as followers of Jesus Christ — and as his friends.
I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.
Thanks be to God.