One way to summarize the Christian Gospel might be this: that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has given us all the we need to be 1) friends of God and 2) friends of one another.(1)
In Ephesians, Paul puts it this way: “For [Christ Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
And while Paul doesn’t use the words “holy friends,” I think he gives us a pretty good picture of how Christ has opened space for holy friendships: the wall, the hostility that previously was between us, is broken down.
This, of course, challenges us to be honest because it implies that there was a wall there to start: a world in which friendships weren’t holy; forgiveness not ready; and company did not always mean good news. Bullies are real, fear of rejection is vivid, middle school is inevitable... Consider, for example, that most of us, as kids, when we learned to talk about friendship, we talked in terms of our liking another person. If we liked them, we were friends. (It probably comes closer to the truth to say that if we thought they liked us, we were friends.) Most of us like to be liked and that was what friendship meant. And that’s not all bad.
But what could it mean to be holy friends?
I ask this question because, in both our Old Testament reading and the gospel tonight, God’s faithful people are not friendly but fearful of one another. They feel threatened by each other and so do not live out the belief that God has given them all that they need. And in both cases this fear is at cross-purposes with the movement of the Kingdom of God. These examples seem especially relevant to us because American individualism - across blue, red, and green states and as embodied in high school class rankings - is nothing if not training in protecting one’s self from perceived outside threats.
A brief look, then, at each lesson.
In the Old Testament lesson, we find Moses sounding like a kid who doesn’t want to bring the groceries in: “it’s too heavy.” Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Leadership is difficult and even deserts you were excited to go into at first can be dry. Israel is in a 40 year post-doc. That said, Moses is almost comically over-the-top tonight:
“Shoot me dead, Lord. Look at your people. Miserable lot that are. Put me out of my misery and end it right now.”
So God who gave the grumbling people manna gives the grumbling Moses people with the spirit’s power to ease his burden. We read that “the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.”
So the spirit is shared, the people receive the word, and Moses receives a break. But when it’s all said and done and the commotion is ending, two men, Eldad and Medad, don’t stop. Someone forgot to tell them that the revival was over. And the people go to Moses and tell their beleaguered leader to put a cease and desist on Eldad and Medad to keep them from speaking the word of the spirit. Moses stares in disbelief. “Are you freaking kidding me?” he says. Or something like that.
The people are trying to protect Moses because they live in the raw and naked wilderness where they are keenly aware of all that they lack. Always grumbling and never enough: bread, meat, spirit. Subsequently, the people assume that what is had must be protected at all costs. The people probably figure also that, as guardian of the rationed spirit, Moses will likewise want to run the show and keep control. But in truth, Moses is literally dying for a salvation that isn’t up to him alone.
I wonder if you know the feeling of Moses. It’s the late at night feeling that falls like lead on your shoulders when you have given all that you can imagine giving and the challenge before you, the work set before you, seems as daunting as when you began. And no one else seems to see it. The enormity of the work or your weariness. No one cares as much as you do. And the distance between the difference you had hoped to see, the progress you had hoped to attain, and the effort you have expended is enough to break your soul, your spirit, with the despair of isolation: the fear that you are forsaken. For Moses, the death he asks God for would simply be the outward substantiation of the inner cut-off that he already feels; the cut-off from a voice - any voice - that will hear him.
Then this glimmer of hope, this manna from heaven, some leaders start speaking, and the people’s instinct is to block and protect against the spirit God is trying to share for the life of Moses and the people. Not having enough, clinging desperately to what they have, they block the spirit by which God would gift them through each other.
Moving to the gospel, in Mark’s gospel, it’s a similar scene: some guy casting out demons in Jesus’ name, only he didn’t follow the Prayer Book rubrics. Or maybe he did, and the disciples didn’t believe in prayers out of books, like the Baptists. In any case, the disciples object, adopting a tattle-tale posture. Jesus has no patience for the finger-pointing of the disciples: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
The gospel, though, doesn’t stop with this parallel to Israel in the desert and the blocking of the spirit’s abundance; Jesus notes a second danger: not only are the disciples blocking the movement of the Kingdom of God, their preoccupation with this man’s potential shortcomings is blinding them to their own most-certain shortcomings. It won’t do to pray “thy Kingdom come” and allow the public lament for all the ways that the world out there is at odds with the Kingdom to prevent the inward examination of one’s own soul, finding there the good work of confession, repentance, and forgiveness received. The disciples, and we, must learn the honest prayer of conversion: “thy kingdom come, in me.”
So the Old Testament and gospel both name the reality that, even within the community of the faithful, fear of one another and the desire to protect the Kingdom can get in the way of our receiving the Kingdom.
Now, return to holy friendship, which asks the hopeful question: and how can it be otherwise? Or, put differently, if fearfulness is at cross-purposes with the Kingdom, in what ways is holy friendship in keeping with the Kingdom of God? How does holy friendship witness the abundance of God for his People?
Enter James. In James we receive a picture of the church not as fearfully pious individuals, but as the gathered community of praise. This community visits the ones who grow weak and lays hands on the sick. Nobody lays hands on the sick. And it’s an inconsiderate sick person who insists on shaking your hand. But these people lay hands on their sick; they touch them. Just as remarkably, sick members of this people consent to being touched. And not just in sickness - this people open their lives by confessing their sins and praying for each other. Their delight, indeed their salvation, is in leading one another to truth. In such a community, therefore, loving one another is expecting to learn from one another. And finally, in such a community, failure is not failure unless it is the failure to uphold one another in life in Christ.
The Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” as if the question brought with it an implicit obligation. James asks this question with awe and wonder and energy at the opportunity, as if the treasure of God is there in the neighbor, the holy friendship born of baptism and the Spirit; the gift of God unexpectedly present, at work, even here, in the People of God.
(1) An obvious debt here to Sam Wells and his work 'God's Companions.' Read it. It's good.