I have just read The Art of Transformation: three things churches do that change everything, (Church Publishing, New York 2017) by Paul Fromberg, Rector of St Gregory Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. I found it a difficult book, for theologically I am from a very different stable to the author, who lives with his husband Grant Martin (got the point?!). And yet, I found myself profoundly challenged by his emphasis on ‘friendship’ as “the one thing truly worthwhile”.
He describes how in 2004 he moved to St Gregory’s. becoming its leader in 2008. There he found:
a community rooted in the gift of God’s grace to people of all faiths – or no faith at all. They claimed that everyone was God’s friend, without exception people are made friends of God by the loving service of Christ. Friendship with God comes feely; it comes as an expression of the eternal love that is God the Holy Trinity, and it comes with an expectation that human lives will be transformed by God’s love.
He expounds the words of Jesus found in John 15.12-16:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. you are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.
He notes that:
… most translations of John 15 include these words: ‘This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you’, which is a beautifully vague thing to say. A better translation of the verse makes clear that the commandment is not to love; the commandment results in love: ‘This is my commandment, so that [Greek: hina] you love one another as I have lived you’. You will find the commandment’s definition in Chapter 13: ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you’. In order to love one another, we must serve one another… It is in service that we learn to love each other.
What challenged me by Fromberg’s exposition was the way in which he applies these words as a command to offer love and friendship to all and sundry. From an exegetical perspective Fromberg is undoubtedly wrong; however, from a broader theological perspective I believe that he is right. Let me explain.
In the Upper Room Jesus is speaking to his disciples. This is the context in which Jesus called them to love one another. It is the disciples of Jesus who are commanded to love one another. So, when as a Baptist minister I used to welcomed people into church membership I used always to say:
In a Baptist church, membership involves entering into a dynamic covenant relationship with one another – a relationship in which we commit ourselves not only to work together to extend Christ’s Kingdom, but also to love one another and stand by one another whatever the cost.
I then always went on to quote the ‘New Commandment’ from John 13.34, 35. For me church membership was, and still is, not about being a name on a list – but rather about being committed to one’s brothers and sisters in ~Christ.
Yet, that is not the whole truth. We are also called to be committed to the world for whom Christ died. For Christ gave his life for them as much as he gave his life for others. Now Fromberg does not use this language – he is not an evangelical Christian – instead he talks about extending the friendship of Jesus to others.
He tells of how on the base of the altar at St Gregory’s, facing the entrance., is carved and gilded a verse in Greek from Luke 15.2: “This guy [sic] welcomes sinners and dines with them”. On the opposite side of the altar are similarly carved words from the seventh century bishop and theologian Isaac of Nineveh: “Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So, then, do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy, all must be equal in your eyes to love and serve”. This is his theological basis for extending “an extravagant welcome… to everyone who walks through our doors”. He goes on: “At St Gregory’s, we strive to treat strangers as if they are already ‘insiders’ in the congregation”.
Offering such friendship is not always easy. Fromberg notes:
If I’m honest with myself, there are days when it’s easier for me to talk to people who are already my friends and hide from people I don’t know. But the commitment that that I have already made to looking for friendship in those I do not already know moves me out of the comfortable place of spending time with known friends. And so I turn to the one I do not know and seek the image of God that they bear.
Offering friendship to people like ourselves is relatively easy. However, the challenge Fromberg presents is for love to be truly inclusive. So at St Gregory’s friendship is found across a spectrum that includes social, economic, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and age differences. That is indeed a challenge.
One final comment of my own: offering friendship is more than being ‘friendly’. Unfortunately, our present-day English word ‘friend’ can denote a variety of relationships. As I have noted elsewhere, the word friend can cover four different categories:
- Casual friends –acquaintances, people whose names you know
- General friends–: people you might invite to your home for a party
- Good friends – people with whom you can begin to be open
- Close friends – our best friends with whom we can be completely ‘real’.
However, our modern English word ‘friend’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon verb, freon, ‘to love’, and love is a strong word. Indeed, according to Jesus, being friends can involve laying down our life for another. Wow! That is a radical approach to the friendship we offer people coming through our doors!