You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.
Most of us at one point or another in our lives have had to deal with the cruel reality of unrequited love. Perhaps there was a date or two. Or, more likely, there was a dinner that you thought was a date, but she didn’t. Drinks that you hoped counted as a first date, but he clearly did not. Maybe you managed to continue the fantasy for a week or two. Maybe you went to the movies together. Maybe there was a second dinner. Maybe you both took a stab at romance for a week or two – trying it on to see if it fit. Maybe there were kisses good night that did not last long enough to suit you. Maybe there was a third dinner, or more likely it was drinks this time, because, although you tried to convince yourself it was not true, the object of your affection had an agenda tonight. The agenda was not to crush all the happiness out of your life; the agenda was not to stop the stars from shining in the night sky, or to quiet the songs of birds in their throats, but it had all those effects and more. It was time for truth-telling, lest things go too far. The news had to be broken to you: romance was not in the cards; he just wasn’t feeling it; she likes you very much, but not that way. And in an effort to cushion your fall, looking warmly into your eyes, and holding your heart in his hands, he crushes it as he says to you, “Can’t we just be friends?”
Well, of course, we could just be friends. But, NOOOOOOOO! That is not the point! you want to scream, as you dig your fingernails into your flesh to prevent the tears from flowing. And although you will try for a while, you will discover that you can’t just be friends. You never wanted her to be your friend! You wanted to give yourself to him body and soul! Friendship seems a poor consolation prize, when true love is what you seek.
We often talk about the love of God. Last week in church, one of the readings reminded us of that great simple truth: that God is love. And I often feel that my job is to proclaim to you the unswerving love of God for you and all mankind: the height and depth and breadth of God’s love, and to convince you of the power and intensity of God’s love for you, and to urge you (as I am also urged) to requite God’s love with fervor and zeal akin to a romance – to be willing to give yourself to God, body and soul.
This is a tall order for most of us. It is certainly a tall order for me. Most of us are willing to give a part of ourselves to God – the church-going part, for an hour or two, here and there. But many of us (and Episcopalians are famous for this) prefer to be restrained in our love of God, and to save plenty of room for the love of other things in our lives. Romancing God is something best left to nuns and monks, who, we seem to remember, used to wear wedding rings with their habits. When you and I hear the impassioned plea to give our lives to God, body and soul (even if I’m the one making the plea), I suspect we receive it with a certain steely resolve to keep things in perspective, to leave room for other things. And we could, perhaps, sum up our response to the plea to fall in love with God with these words: Can’t we just be friends?
Can’t we just be friends with God?
Can’t we just be friends with Jesus?
Since this question almost always signals disappointment, and a relationship that is more than likely going nowhere at all, and will not, in fact, end in friendship, it would seem an unhelpful question in approaching our relationship to Jesus. And yet, this morning, almost as if the tables have been turned, we seem to hear Jesus asking us that very thing, if we suppose that what he said to his disciples all those years ago, he is also saying to us today. “I do not call you servants,” we hear Jesus say, “but I have called you friends.” And then Jesus says a most astonishing thing to his friends: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Again, transpose the conversation to our present time: Jesus has chosen you to be his friend.
So much Christian religion these days has forgotten this little revelation: that we did not choose Jesus, but he chose us. So often we feel we are being pressured or cajoled or duped into buying more religion than we wanted. We are told by some that faith is all about that moment we finally break down and accept Jesus as our personal Savior – which he undoubtedly is. There is a fervor in some modern religion that demands to know when it was that you accepted Jesus into your life – which might be alright for some. You can watch this on TV as people are called to the altar, and every footstep on the way there is a step closer to choosing Jesus – a choice that may be accompanied by swooning into the arms of nearby attendants as you are overcome by the magnitude of your choice.
But wait a minute! “You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “I chose you.” And, he might well add, can’t we just be friends? Jesus wants to be your friend; he has chosen you to be his friend, if you will have him. Choosing Jesus, is surely a good thing to do, but perhaps it is not the beginning of faith. Perhaps faith begins with Jesus, when he chose you to be his friend.
One of the most wonderful aspects of abiding friendship is this: the strength to endure long periods of silence, separation, and even neglect. I hope you have, as I do, those long friendships with people you see maybe once a year, maybe less than that. But it hardly matters. You pick up right where you left off, as though it was only yesterday that you were swapping sandwiches from your lunch boxes.
Now, this is an odd virtue for a preacher to hold up in the pulpit. Do I really mean to tell you that Jesus is inviting you to a friendship in which it’s perfectly OK if you ignore him, and visit with him once or twice a year (say, Christmas and Easter)? Am I advocating a relationship with Jesus that is characterized by long periods of silence, separation, and neglect? No, this is not my point. But I have been around long enough to know that many of us have neglected our relationships with Jesus – and sometimes this includes those of us who go the church all the time. Many of us have been separated from Jesus for a long time. Many of us have maintained silence with Jesus for years, and we note that we haven’t heard from him much either, as far as we can tell. And the demand for a fervent love affair with Jesus looks like a bridge too far for some, who shrug in the face of such a demand, and say, “Can’t we just be friends?”
And although the implied answer to that question is almost always “No, we can’t really just be friends,” in this case, Jesus has a ready reply. “Of course we can be friends. I chose you as a friend long ago. I have longed to be your friend, when you thought I only ever wanted to be your Master.”
This little moment in the Gospel is one of the oft-neglected highlights of the story of Jesus: a turning point of great significance, when Jesus, who is teaching his disciples what it means to love one another, defines that love in terms of friendship. Friendship is no consolation prize for Jesus: it is the goal.
Every time we come to the altar, Jesus is there. It doesn’t much resemble a date, but there is this one similarity, even if we don’t know it: Jesus holds our heart in his hands. And every single time we kneel at the rail, it is as though we were looking into his eyes and wondering what will happen next.
Who is the hopeful lover here? Is it me or Jesus?
Whose love seems to be unrequited?
Whose longing is it that is unfulfilled?
Which of us is it who breaks the awkward silence with that telling question – Can’t we just be friends?
It’s a question that almost always leads to heartache – and as you realize that you also notice that Jesus still holds your heart in his hands. And you wait for him to crush it, as you suppose he can, since he is the Son of the Most High God, Lord of all. And since you know that this is the moment when hearts are crushed, the stars are dimmed, and the birds cease their singing.
There you are, face to face with Jesus, who always calls you to his altar. And your heart is beating faster now; it is still in his hands. But he does not crush it; he will not.
And the question hangs silently but palpably in the air between you: Can’t we just be friends?
“My dear,” he says to you: “I have called you my friend. You did not choose me but I chose you.”
And he still holds your heart in his hands and he does not let go of it; he will not. But now you know it’s safe, that he will never break your heart. And you begin to see what a friend you have in Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 May 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia