The conversation began when one of my students noted that a member of his church had decided that, after some deliberation, “they could be friends.” My student noted that he understood that his parishioner meant this as a form of affirmation, but he also noted that it made him uncomfortable. Why, exactly, he wasn’t sure.
The class offered a number of perspectives. For my own part, I observed that “It’s not important for you to befriend your parishioners. It’s important for you to love them — not in the vague, gauzy way in which we normally talk about love — but “love” as an unqualified commitment to the spiritual well-being and growth of the people in your church as they move ever more deeply into the life that is the body of Christ.”
That may sound like an “unfriendly” thing to say, but here are my reasons for responding in that fashion:
One, friendship – though it may include the kind of love that I describe above – is often (though not always) based upon common interests, a shared point of view, and a certain kind of chemistry.
Pastors, priests, and ministers cannot afford to let that kind of affiliation shape the way in which they connect with the members of their congregation. We are charged with responsibility for all of God’s people, including people with whom we may not have much in common and, for that matter, people who may not have much in common with us.
Two, love of the kind described above is the durable kind of commitment that is meant to shape the life of the church, which is both the body of Christ and the Kingdom of God in the making.
True, according to most English translations, Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer “servants,” but “friends” in John 15. The Greek here, however, is philous, which also means “beloved” and has a very different connotation in both the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world than it does in the modern west. The contrast is with the title, “slaves,” and Jesus predicates that transformation into “the beloved” on a shared commitment to the purposes of God around which this new intimacy revolves.
That may be “friendship,” though it is important to note that John’s Gospel also calls the disciples, “branches,” so it’s important not to be too literal here. But the starting point for our definitions of what it means to be “beloved” shouldn’t be Facebook, but the point that Jesus is attempting to make.
Love, as a durable commitment to the spiritual well-being of those called by God, lies at the center of the church’s life, witnesses to a commitment that differs radically from those in the world around it, and transforms relationships that would otherwise be selective and egocentric in their motivation.
Three, love – as enduring commitment – saves us from investment in our own needs and makes us available to the purposes of God and the spiritual needs of others.
Relationships in the church – not just between clergy and a church’s membership, but among the members themselves – cannot revolve around anything less than the purposes of God and the spiritual well-being of others as they seek to serve God’s purposes.
The turmoil that has torn at the well being of the church in the 21st century and has made “being church” all but impossible in some cases can be traced in large part to the assumption that church is the place where my needs are met and where I can find like-minded “friendships” and support. That way of looking at the life of the church is why commitment to Christian community is as fragile as it is, and why some clergy are as disappointed as they are with the church.
Intimacy of the kind John’s gospel describes is grounded in a task that is larger than ourselves, that does not revolve around our personal needs, and does not surrender to the inevitable frustrations that are a part of the church’s experience in a world where the Kingdom has come, but is not yet present in all of its fullness.
Love of the kind that Jesus displays is the only motivation equal to that task.