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A Gift of Friendship

Michael D. O'Neil —

At the beginning of lent in 2020 I began an Ignatian retreat-in-daily-life, using the First Spiritual Exercises developed by Michael Hansen.[1]

The retreat involved daily prayer exercises plus a weekly gathering for spiritual listening, conversation, and discernment. After two or three weeks, the weekly gathering was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, but I continued with the daily prayer exercises. The penultimate exercise of the retreat is called “Program for Life” in which retreatants prayerfully consider a range of questions in order to discern and to draft a considered life-plan for the next period of their life. The aim is not to craft a grand plan for the whole of life henceforth, but more to discern the little steps one might take next, or small actions or activities one might seek now to integrate into one’s life. As I embarked on the prayer and reflection exercise it felt a little contrived and my expectations were not great. Nevertheless I “leaned into” the process, and soon began to recognise a certain sense that had been surfacing in my life over the previous few weeks.

This sense had arisen as news of the Coronavirus and its impact began to exert its dominance over all forms of media, and life in general, as concern for what may occur began to strike home. I had just taken responsibility as acting Principal of the seminary where I work and had responsibility for my colleagues and our programme as a whole. Like most people, I have a family; children and grandchildren, my wife, and we have elderly parents. We all have neighbours, responsibilities, assets, and debts. What might happen? How should we respond? Will I have the kind of heroic courage previous generations of clergy have exhibited when confronted by other plagues? Will I die?

My sense had nothing heroic about it but was rather something very ordinary. It was a sense of being placed in my particular location, role, time, and responsibility, and a sense of vocation to live more deeply and intentionally in and into this context and moment. I endeavoured to capture this sense in my journal during this time of reflection, and to inquire as to its meaning. I was sure that this was going to be the substance of my “program for life.”

But then something unexpected occurred: a word began to emerge in my mind, unsought and unheralded. It became clear to me that in fact I was being addressed by God in a most unassuming way, but also in a novel direction. The word was “friendship.” I felt a vocation to become a friend to those around me; warm and hospitable, interested, helpful, and engaged. This new concept sat very easily with my sense of being called to time and place and responsibility but added something fresh. But it did not sit quite so easily with my personality, temperament, history, and experience! I am very much the introvert, and in my life, I have not made friends easily. I have many acquaintances, colleagues, and people I admire. I have learned to be quite sociable most of the time, and I get on well with people. But I would not need all the fingers on one hand to identify those with whom I am friends. Would I need any fingers at all?

Over the years I have moved too often, leaving relationships behind—something I now deeply regret as I get older. Some of those relationships might have formed into deep and lifelong attachments had I not moved. I have learned habits of detachment that are deeply ingrained and hard to shift. I do not know if I know how to shift them. Why was the Spirit prompting me with this word, of all words? (Of course, as I write this, the answer seems obvious!)

As I continued pondering these things over the next few days, I began to see that perhaps this was not quite the “bolt-out-of-the-blue” that it appeared at first. At the same time, I was listening to Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow on audio book, and was drawn to his portrayal of character, place, rootedness, and    friendship.[2] In October of the previous year, I had been in Dresden for five weeks taking language classes. I recalled conversations with my teachers about life in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I was struck by the strength of their neighbourly ties. They explained simply that in the DDR one needed and depended upon one’s neighbours; they all did. Sometimes life itself was at stake and neighbourliness was the only way to survive. One’s neighbours became one’s truest and best friends. And now, thirty years after the wall has come down, it is still the case for those in the east (and a point of distinction from those of the former Federal Republic of Germany). Perhaps the Spirit had been preparing me after all.

Transforming Friendship

When I turned to my bookcase to explore the theme of friendship I found that  C. S. Lewis commenced a discussion of friendship by asserting the incongruity of the theme in the modern world:

To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.[3]

A generation later, Stanley Hauerwas agreed, noting that contemporary political and ethical theory seemed to ignore entirely the nature and social significance of friendship, with the result that we are left devoid of language to help articulate the significance of friendship for personal and political existence.[4] More recently, however, interest in the theme has revived perhaps, suggests Victor Lee Austen, as a result of contemporary interest in virtue ethics and the fact that the seminal text for virtue is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which follows the account of virtue with a discussion of friendship.[5]

Aristotle defines friendship as having one or more of the following attributes: (i) a friend is one who wishes and does what is good for the sake of his or her friend; (ii) one who wishes their friend to exist and live for their own sake; (iii) one who lives with and (iv) has the same tastes as another; and (v) one who grieves and rejoices with their friend.[6] Of these, the first two seem most central to Aristotle’s thought, though all together convey a sense of benevolence and companionship, a being-with and a being-for the one who is friend.

There are different kinds of friendship, including, for example, friendships of utility or of pleasure, but “perfect friendship” is that of those who are good and alike in virtue, “for these wish well alike to each other qua good, and they are good in themselves.”[7] This goodness is also mutually recognised by both parties of the friendship. Indeed, this friendship grounded in goodness also encompasses utility and pleasure, for these friends are useful to one another, and they do find pleasure in one another’s company and friendship, although these benefits are not the basis of the relationship.[8] Unfortunately, however, such friendships are infrequent for such goodness is rare.[9] Aristotle’s reflections, then, provide an initial basis for a theory of friendship though questions arise as to their adequacy when considered in the light of the gospel.

It is evident that reflection on friendship was not limited to the ancient Greeks and Romans, for the Bible also speaks often of friendship. This is especially so in the Psalms where the psalmists at times are hurt by those who proved “false friends.”[10] And in the wisdom literature, much counsel is given concerning friendships and other similar relationships.[11] Job’s friends, of course, are at once faithful and unhelpful; faithful in that they sit with him in his suffering, but ultimately unhelpful as they assume his guilt as the cause of his suffering. Scripture also instructs in narratival form through its portrayal of friendships such as those of David and Jonathon, Ruth and Naomi, or even perhaps, Paul and the Christian community at Philippi.[12] More important is the biblical picture of Jesus as the friend of sinners, and of his relation to his disciples as one of friendship, as well as a theological construal of the divine work of reconciliation as an act of hospitable friendship. These categories of thought transform the notion of friendship in directions which carry us beyond Aristotle.

In his discussion of whether the universal nature of Christian love is incompatible with the particularities of friendship, for example, Austin draws on the thought of Thomas Aquinas to argue that because of God’s love for us, we may, by grace, respond to the divine initiative and thereby become God’s friends, enjoying real communion with the triune God. Further, as we are drawn more deeply into a true relation of love with the triune God, we learn also to love all those whom God loves. This opens the possibility of love and friendship directed, or at least willed, toward all, even if practically speaking, such loving friendship is possible with only a few. Again, as is the case with God so also with us, the loving friendship which we may initiate toward others may or may not be reciprocated. In any case, Austin suggests the possibility of a kind of friendship not limited to the conditions of mutuality required by Aristotle.[13]

Two gospel passages are particularly significant: Matthew 11:19 (cf. Luke 7:33-50), and John 15:13-16. In the first passage, Jesus cites his opponents’ complaint that he is “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” “Yet,” he says, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”[14] The criticism recalls the incident in Matt 9:9-13 where Jesus not only calls Matthew into discipleship, but reclines at the table in his house together with “many tax collectors and sinners.” Here, too, he is criticised for his association with such disreputable characters, but responds by saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:13). Evidently the Pharisees did not take his admonition to heart for in Matt 12:7 Jesus had again to confront them: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Jesus’ double citation of Hosea 6:6 casts light on his self-understanding and works. For Matthew, the heart of Jesus’ mission was to call sinners. One method for doing so was to become their friend.

Jesus’ encounter with sinners—his friendship with them exhibited in his presence and table fellowship—was an act of divine mercy, and more, a revelation of the Father’s loving intention and saving love (Matt 11:27).[15] Jesus’ somewhat enigmatic statement about wisdom suggests that he is content to accept the charge made against him. He will not avoid the criticism that he is a friend of sinners: it is the very purpose for which he has come. Thus, Luke follows his account of this saying with the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment and wipes them with her hair. She is one of wisdom’s ‘children’ (Luke 7:35), the proof, as it were, of Jesus’ pudding, the fruit of his friendship with sinners.[16]

Austin contends that while Matthew and Luke suggest that Jesus’ intention is to make friends, “it is in John’s gospel that friendship with Jesus becomes most explicitly a description of the point of Christian faith.”[17] In John 15:12-16, Jesus speaks of the depth of his own love for his friends: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus’ act of friendship is directed toward all, for he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). There is also a sense of divine initiative at work: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”

If, however, we are to be his friends, a response is called for, a response which in the context of John’s gospel, is itself the work of the life-giving Spirit (John 3:3-8). Thus, the sense of the mutuality inherent in Aristotle’s friendship is present here: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But it is important to note that Jesus’ gift of friendship was not conditioned on the reciprocation of his friendship, but freely offered. The broader context of this passage concerns the union of the believer with Christ, and the intimate communion they experience with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.[18] All this is here characterised as friendship, a divine-human friendship brought to fruition through union with Christ by faith. But more can and needs to be said. For Jesus draws an explicit link between his own mission and that of his disciples: “For I gave you an example that you should also do as I did to you” (John 13:15, cf. 17:18; 20:21).

These brief gospel reflections reveal that Jesus can speak of his saving death in terms of friendship. That his followers are to love one another as he has loved them (John 15:12) signifies the context within which a Christian act of friendship finds its ground and meaning. As David Matzko McCarthy reminds us, “In Jesus Christ, God has drawn near to us with the hospitality of divine friendship.”[19]

The language of hospitality and friendship are fresh attempts to elucidate the dynamic character of God’s reconciling grace. Although the terms hospitality and friendship as commonly used are not at all synonymous, when used with respect to God’s act in Christ, they are intimately connected. God’s gracious and hospitable welcome is in service of a genuine and lasting fellowship that shares the characteristics of deep friendship. In his discussion of evangelical hospitality, for example, Hans Boersma argues that the gospel itself constitutes the church as a public with a distinct telos and character, beyond a self-enclosed economy of exchange. Through its proclamation and sacraments, the church is called to be an open community that models a form of hospitality that invites others into the eternal kingdom of God.[20] The hospitality displayed by Jesus in both his life and his parables serve “as a model for human hospitality and as an indication of what the future of divine eschatological fellowship will look like.”[21]

So, too, Karl Barth’s discussion of divine grace, while never utilising the language of friendship, provides a description of the dynamic nature of grace that might fund a theological account of friendship. For Barth, grace

is the distinctive mode of God’s being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter—able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition.[22]

Divine grace is not a supernatural endowment bestowed upon a person, and nor merely a disposition of favour toward the sinner on the part of God. Grace is rather a divine action: “Grace denotes, comprehensively, the manner in which God, in His essential being, turns towards us.”[23] Grace is a gift, not of some thing or other, but of God himself: “God Himself, makes himself the gift, offering Himself to fellowship with the other, and thus showing Himself in relation to the other to be the One who loves.”[24] God’s desire—to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity—is to seek and create fellowship by the gift of himself to the other and for their benefit. Barth often speaks of this fellowship using the imagery of covenant partnership, a move that recalls the idea of Abraham as God’s friend (Isa 41:8, cf. 2 Chron 20:7; Jas 2:23).

Both Boersma and Barth insist, however, that God’s hospitality is not an “empty” grace, for the gospel issues a call to repentance, and offers forgiveness and reconciliation to its hearers.[25] The God who turns to us in infinite grace never surrenders his Lordship but remains who he is as the holy, as well as the gracious, God. This, then, is a “disruptive grace,”[26] which encounters us in our sin and resistance towards God’s claim, and that we therefore experience as his opposition to our opposition. For Barth, it is

only in this opposition [that] God is known in His being as love and grace. For only in this relationship of opposition does He actually create and maintain fellowship between Himself and us, and turn towards us … If He is not present to us in this tension, He is not present to us at all.[27]

To supplant the biblical portrayal of the divine holiness and judgement with an appeal to an unconditioned “grace” is to lose the reality of grace altogether.[28] It is on the basis of this tension that McCarthy refers to God’s gift of friendship as a “dangerous and intrusive hospitality,”[29] for it subverts our present identity and vision of the world in order to call us to a new identity, a new vision, and a new participation in “God’s way of knowing the world, of seeing and acting in it, of imagining its present and future in God’s love.”[30]

Drawing the threads of this section together, I want to argue that when understood in a theological frame of reference, the idea of friendship is transformed. In saying this, I do not reject Aristotle’s profound reflections on friendship, nor their continuing relevance. I do, however, want to insist that a Christian vision of friendship will permit an understanding of friendship as unilateral goodwill which may or may not result in a true Aristotelian friendship. One may be a true friend after the manner of Jesus, the friend of sinners, whether that friendship is ever reciprocated or not. So, too, a Christian vision of friendship, while gladly accepting an Aristotelian being-with and being-for, will nonetheless understand these features of friendship as decisively reshaped by Jesus’ incarnation and atoning death. Jesus has come to those unlike himself and entered into solidarity with them in their misery and suffering in order to take their suffering upon himself.

Finally, the disruptive character of Christian friendship must be acknowledged. In one sense, Christian friendship is similar to the Aristotelian concept in that it wishes “the good” for one’s neighbour. The good wished, however, is very particular, and may indeed challenge the other’s vision of the good to its very roots. That is, the gospel is not merely a promise of unconditional forgiveness but calls for repentance on the part of the hearers, for the vision of the good commended in the kingdom of God is often quite different from, and sometimes even at odds with, the various conceptions of the good common in our society. Thus, friendship is transforming in a second way: not merely in its theory but also in its practice and effect. Christian friendship aims at a good which always puts our present life in question, and so calls us to change and growth.

Friendship in a Time of COVID-19 and Beyond

As I write these reflections the threat of COVID-19 has retreated somewhat, although the danger of a “second-wave” of infections remains. Australia, so far, has managed to suppress the infection rate and so provide time for the public health system to develop resources required to manage a mass outbreak. Nevertheless, if things are to “return to normal” more quickly and easily than initially imagined, perhaps an ethic of friendship is no longer necessary? On the contrary, such a conclusion would be premature. If Jesus’ ministry and even his atonement might be characterised in terms of friendship, the implication remains that this is not an emergency ethic but an imitatio Christi that calls for a consistent ethos and practice of friendship as a Christian way-of-being in the world.

Since this article has taken the form of a personal reflection, I will conclude not with some form of prescriptive admonition but a brief note on how these reflections have been shaping my response, my way-of-being in the midst of COVID-19.

First, as indicated earlier, they have confirmed my sense of vocation to a particular place and time, and to those around me who inhabit and share this place and time. Although this seems rather obvious, it is very easy to imagine ourselves elsewhere than where we are, to wish to be elsewhere, and to somehow fail to see—really see—those all around us here and now, and how we might be or become friends to them in an active sense. In practical terms this meant approaching our neighbours one at a time to offer support and help in the event that they were visited by the virus. It has meant undertaking regular shopping for a family in isolation; and hosting a little verge-side wine and cheese gathering of neighbours on Friday evenings for conversation and fun—socially-distanced of course! It has meant supporting my colleagues and staff as best I can; listening to and praying with and for them. It has meant seeking ways of being-with and being-for appropriate for the form and level of connection. It has meant viewing with greater appreciation the wonderful human beings in the midst of whom God has set me. It has meant praying for my neighbours in a new way. It has meant seeking to be and do for others what Jesus has been and done for me, or in Luther’s challenging term, to become Christ to them.[31] It has meant, in short, offering and receiving in turn, a gift of friendship and peace.

Second, I am deeply challenged that my existing way-of-being has been shaped more by the values of Western culture than by Christ the friend-of-sinners, with the result that my life has become somewhat antithetical to a realisation of friendship. Genuine friendship becomes difficult if not impossible in a culture where the contractual logic of the market structures our relationships, and where expressive individualism is the prevailing ethos. I have read Hauerwas on liberalism and more recently, Taylor on modern selfhood; but it is one thing to know or accept something intellectually but it is quite another to integrate its truth into one’s life. I have at times instrumentalised relationships or been attached to others only superficially and/or temporarily, while detached from them more fundamentally, committed more to my own goals or life project than to their welfare or humanity.[32] Friendship—whether Aristotelian or Christian—requires more than courtesy, friendliness, or sociability (although never less!). It involves a commitment to the person and the relationship, and a groundedness in time and place as the context in which the relationship may grow organically and deepen. Christian friendship after the image of Christ the friend-of-sinners goes further, and in accordance with the images of incarnation, atonement, and divine grace, involves a solidarity with and for others far beyond a loose attachment or convenience; it calls for love, the kind of love revealed by the Christ who laid down his life for his friends, translated into the affairs of everyday life in acts of practical kindness, hospitality, and care.

In this time of COVID-19—and beyond—a Christian response may be radical in its simplicity: a simple practice and gift of friendship after the manner of Jesus, the friend-of-sinners.

Michael O'Neil has been teaching Christian Thought and History at Vose Seminary (affiliated with the Australian College of Theology) since 2010, after serving as a pastor in several churches over a twenty-year period. He has published articles and a book (Church as Moral Community) on the theology of Karl Barth, as well as articles and chapters on matters to do with the Christian life and ethics. Michael is married to Monica, and together they have three adult children, and a growing number of grandchildren.

[1] See Michael Hansen, The First Spiritual Exercises: Four Guided Retreats (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2013).

[2] See Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: A Novel (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000), available as an audio book from Audible, narrated by Paul Michael, 2009.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, in Selected Works (London: HarperCollins, 1999), 39.

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1981), 231.

[5] Victor Lee Austin, Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T. & T. Clark, 2012), 115. It is perhaps worth noting the view of W. D. Ross who in 1953 introduced the Nicomachean Ethics in the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Ross contended that the two sections on friendship “stand in no vital relation to the rest of the work, and one is left with the suspicion that they may have been originally a separate treatise, which faulty editing has included in the Ethics.” It is possible to understand this view as reflective of the mid-century perspective on friendship identified by Lewis. See Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross, World's Classics ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925), xx-xxi.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean, 227.

[7] Ibid., 196.

[8] Ibid., 195-97.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] See, for example, Psa. 41:9; and 55:12-14, 20-21.

[11] See, for example, Prov. 17:17; 27:6, 10.

[12] For David and Jonathan see 1 Samuel 18-20; for Ruth and Naomi see the Book of Ruth. While it may be unusual to speak of Paul’s friendship with an entire community, Gordon Fee argues that his letter to the Philippians is best understood as a “letter of friendship” and that in terms of content it “carries on conversation at a much deeper level of friendship,” as understood in the ancient world. See Gordon D. Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 4.

[13] Austin, Christian Ethics, 123-25.

[14] All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Version (Grand Rapids: MI.: Zondervan, 1995).

[15] Blaine Charette, Restoring Presence: The Spirit in Matthew's Gospel, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 18 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 63.

[16] One New Testament scholar has made the image of Jesus as the ‘friend of sinners’ a central concept in his exposition of gospel ethics. See Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007).

[17] Austin, Christian Ethics, 119-20.

[18] See, for example, John 14:15-24; 15:4-11; 16:23-27.

[19] David Matzko McCarthy, The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class. The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004), 38.

[20] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 211-12.

[21] Ibid., 217.

[22] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God. Trans. W. B. Johnston, T. H. L. Parker, H. Knight, J. L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 353.

[23] Ibid., 354.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Boersma, Violence, 211.

[26] The term derives from George Hunsinger. See George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).

[27] Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 362.

[28] Ibid., 365-66.

[29] McCarthy, Good Life, 38.

[30] Ibid., 39.

[31] In his 1520 treatise on the freedom of a Christian, Luther avers a believer bears the name of “Christian” because, on account of the indwelling Christ, they “are a second Christ … doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” He goes on to insist that must be the rule that governs the Christian’s life (see: Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in The Annotated Luther Volume 1: The Roots of Reform. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015), 525, 530. This same emphasis was a commonplace in Luther’s preaching found also, for example, in his sermons on “the two kinds of righteousness” (1519) and the “Invocavit Sermons” of 1522. See Martin Luther, “Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in The Annotated Luther Volume 2: Word and Faith. Edited by Kirsi I. Stjerna (Minneapolis. MN: Fortress, 2015), 17, and, Martin Luther, “The Invocavit Sermons, 1522,” in The Annotated Luther Volume 4: Pastoral Writings. Edited by Mary Jane Haemig (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2016), 15-16, 20.

[32] For a discussion of the manner of attachment and detachment under the conditions of western modernity, see McCarthy, Good Life, 29-41.