The Rev. Ryan Slifka
First Sunday in Lent
Part 1 of Sermon Series “Practicing Christian”
It’s the First Sunday in the Season of Lent. As part of the season of Lent, we’ll be going through Six Marks of Discipleship.i Or, in other words, six spiritual practices that are crucial to following Jesus. Each week, the sermon’s going to be on the practice, and following worship we’ll hold a short “mini-seminar” on each of them. The seminar will be the “how-to” portion, the practical thing, while the sermon will be more theological. So I invite you to listen to the sermon for the what and the why. And to stick around following the service for the how.
The choir began the service by singing “Sweet are the Prayers of a Friends.” Because the first practice on the list is what we’re going to call “Spiritual Friendships.”ii There are other ways to say it: “Christian Community.” “Koinonia” if you’re a Greek language nerd. Whatever we call it, it has to do with human beings relating to one another in ways that are more than superficial, more than surface-level. That’s why I prefer the word “friendship” over relationship, it’s deeper.
In that way it’s like other relationships, like with family, friends, coworkers. But it’s different in that it’s explicitly spiritual. It’s different in that God, the divine, is the explicit source and center of these relationships. It’s God, it’s the Holy Spirit, which is the glue makes this different kind of relationship possible. Sweet are friendships. But even more so are friendships imbued with prayer.
And this kind of deep, spiritual relationship is crucial to a Christian understanding of the world, and human life. It’s not only crucial, you might say you can’t have Christianity without it.
Which may or not be a strange thing to hear. Because North American Christianity, especially of the more evangelical variety, has put so much emphasis on the individual. But the story of the Bible is a communal story. From beginning to end, it’s about interrelatedness. Or, in another word, friendship.
We’re beginning with this practice because it’s where the Bible begins. The Bible begins with the creation of the world. Then in chapter two there’s the creation of one human being. Adam, which isn’t a name so much as a label. Adam means “earthling,” as Adam is created out of the dust. Human, humus. One person’s created, but then God says “it’s no good for this earthling to be alone. Let’s create him a helper as his partner.” So God makes all sorts of animals, one after another, panther, fish, owl, etc. etc., parades them by Adam, but none of them are suitable as a companion. Maybe it’s the lack of opposable thumbs. So when Adam goes into a deep sleep, God extracts a rib, fashions a woman out of it for him, and boom, no longer lonely. Adam approves.
Adam and Eve aren’t simply the pattern for the first married couple. No babies at first. No pre-nup, no marriage counseling. They’re the paradigm for humanity in general. As companions, sharing life and helping each other out. That’s how human life’s supposed to be. You can’t have a deeper friendship than that. Friends hangin’ around harmoniously in the garden with God, their first friend.
And of course it’s this same first friendship that’s the source of the first betrayal. It’s the site of the first alienation, and broken relationship.
There are tons of trees, with tons of fruit all over the garden that Adam and Eve can pick from. All except for one, one that God warns if they eat it, they’ll get sick. They’ll die. Which is all fine until a snake whispers into Eve’s ear, telling her that God’s just being greedy. God doesn’t want them to eat that one fruit because then they’ll become like God. Eve eats, Adam doesn’t need much convincing. But after they eat, life changes entirely.
When their found out Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the snake. Nobody trusts anybody, guilt and discord edge out love and harmony. Friendships require trust. Adam and Eve don’t trust God, so they push themselves away from God. Then they blame each other, and they push away from each other. Poof, no more garden. No more harmony.
There’s something about us, and in our history, that pushes against this kind of intimate, trusting relationship with God and each other. In that sense, the story of Adam and Eve is less about history, what happened in the past, than it is about us as we are. Their world is the world we live in. Our lives are characterized by fear, judgment, loneliness and betrayal. Small scale one-on-one, and large scale armies, nations, identities and peoples. Instead of the universal, intimate, trusting love and friendship we’re made for. And one really is the loneliest number (Three Dog Night).
And while it’s been like this from day one (or at least day 2) of humanity more or less, we have our own particular brand and flavor in the modern world. While we may live at a time where we’re connected with people around the globe, can see video news in Nigeria and Skype with family in China, on a one-on-one level we’re becoming more and more isolated. Someone said once that we’re all “alone together.” Plugged in online and isolated at home.
Where traditional societies had all kinds of social and family networks, we see ourselves primarily as individuals. We move around all over the place. Globalization moves jobs, local communities become anonymous. But we still want those deep relationships. In a Princeton study of North American relationships, the sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote this:
“Most people seem to believe at some level that this self-centered individualism is no way to live. They may not have the security of a tight-knit neighbourhood, but they want it. They may not enjoy the comfort of a warm family, but they wish they could. They value their individual freedom, but go through life feeling lonely. They desire intimacy, and wonder how to find it. They cling to the conviction that they have close friends who care about them but they frequently feel distant from these friends. They worry what would happen if they were truly in need.”iii
It makes sense. Because according to scripture, we’re created for relationship. We long to be known by other people, even though we push back against it. It’s something missing. And that thing is friendship. In the broadest, deepest sense.
But I suppose the good news is that, the whole rest of the Bible is about God’s active work to mend this broken friendship. Even though we naturally push against it, God never stops pushing against us, never ceases breaking down the alienation at the heart of human life.
You’ll notice that in the Bible, it’s not stories of individuals, but individuals as part of communities. God always calls people as communities. Noah, and his family. Abraham and Sarah, who are called to be the parents of a great nation through whom the world will come to know God’s love and reconciliation. Moses is busted out of Egypt with Israel, who God calls to be a distinct people. The Ten Commandments being the constitution for a new community whose treatment of each other is to be a beacon to the world. The Old Testament is all about re-igniting the fire in humanity’s broken friendship. Over and over again.
And so when we come to the New Testament, even when God sends a single human being in the form of Jesus, when God walks in the garden again in the flesh, so to speak, the first thing Jesus does is gather a community of disciples around himself. And following his death and resurrection, God’s Spirit gives birth to a new community of friends called the church. Jesus, the perfect expression of God’s love and friendship for humanity, calls these people his friends, commands them to love, to befriend each other, and to lay down their lives in the same self-giving way he has for them.
And so we hear in the book of Acts that these are people who share everything. They pray together, eat together, and share all things in common so no one is in need. It’s a sign, a signal of God’s presence in their midst. That’s friendship. A friendship so deep that they call themselves the body of Christ. A community of friends where the divisions between nation, race, gender, background, social class, sexual orientation, etc. etc. etc. you name it, no longer pry them apart. In Christ the new Adam, each person like Eve, rib-like part of the same body again.
From beginning to end, God’s power, God’s presence, God’s love and God’s healing, these are all found most fully not as individuals, but in sacred community. Salvation is a social thing. And that’s the church. A community that fosters spiritual friendships. A vehicle that God uses mend our social brokenness, heal our loneliness, and reconcile us to each other. It’s why we exist. That’s us. Or at least the image of the church that we’re to grow in to.
And of course, the church doesn’t always do that well. We have all the ingredients: we have a regular gathering, we have prayer, we have a sacred book and a sacred story, we have people whose hearts are so often shaped by love and grace. We have friendships, even spiritual ones, that have lasted for decades. Lonely world, we got what you need!
But the truth is that the church is made up of human beings, so we have the same problems. Where God is constantly, persistently reaching outward, making new friends, we just as easily keep to ourselves and our old ones. Our greatest asset—an established community of friends—becomes our greatest obstacle to cooperating with God’s grace. God, who is uninterested in the number of bums in pews, and far more interested in creating more deeper, relationships, and ultimately, intertwined lives.
Our natural inclination is to push against this kind of deep friendship like everyone else. And really, the practice of spiritual friendship is simply about giving up on our resistance to God’s grace. To let our hearts be pulled outward. To the person next to me in the pew, the person at the other end of the sanctuary who I’ve seen but don’t know their name. To the person in our lives who we know aches with loneliness and sadness. Joining a small group when you’ve got the opportunity. God’s already drawing us closer together as a community. God’s already giving us every opportunity we need. It’s only really a matter of giving in, reaching out, taking it. And going deeper.
Because, in the end, we’re created not to be autonomous, independent human beings. But we’re created as individual human beings for the purpose of relationship. For communion, for deep community, with our fellow human beings and the God who created us. We’re created for friendship. And the Bible tells this story of God’s relentless friendship with us. A story that isn’t over, but one that’s ongoing, here and now, with God persistently gathering people into a community of friends by the power of Her Holy Spirit. Friends who practice their friendship with God by befriending a world that is alienated and lonely. A world in need of hope.
So, I pray, come Holy Spirit. Come, our comforter and our friend. Open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to each other. Remove the superficial veneer from our relationships as a church. Draw us closer in friendship to you, in friendship to Jesus Christ… and through the power of your love, make us friends with each other, and the world you love.
In Jesus’ name.