Conclusion: Cruciform friends
I have said already that I’ve learned these things from my friends, many of whom are in this room with us today. And that is where we must return: because at the end of the day, we must develop a sense that life in Christ’s church is life with a community of friends.
I first began thinking about the church as a community of friends through reading Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theological ethicist. In his essay, “A Testament of Friends,” which was written for a Christian Century series on “how my mind has changed,” Hauerwas observed that the only way he could do his theological task was through the friendship of others who remembered and engaged his work, who demonstrated vital practices of character and community, who lived out of the reality of Christ’s life and resurrection; as he put it, “Friends have taught me how wonderful and frightening it is to be called to serve in God’s kingdom. I began seeking to recover the importance of virtue and the virtues and ended up with the church.” The church as a community of friends is vital for living the Christian life in this world.
Yet friendship is not only vitally important because it sustains us for our life together, but also because it helps us to distinguish our true enemies. The reality is that the world represents a polis, a city, controlled by the true enemy; and without enemies, Hauerwas points out, there is no Christianity. Writing in a festschrift for Jurgen Moltmann, he notes that “God may be using this time to remind the church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies. We have been beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against armies.” Recognizing once again who are our true enemies is absolutely vital for helping us to see who our true friends are as well.
Now here is the payoff: ultimately, my dream for the PCA is that we learn to live together as friends who are united together against a common enemy, the devil himself who wanders about to harm and destroy (1 Peter 5:8). But if we are going to do this, we must learn to live as cruciform, or cross-formed, friends. Because of all the biblical references to the character of friendship, the most vital is this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And I believe his point is clear: “Just as I call you friends and love you to the extent that I would lay down my life for you, so you must call each other friends and be shaped by this same cross-oriented, cross-shaped, laying-down-your-life love. And you can only do this because I have loved you first.”
And so, I believe that at this moment in our history God through Christ by his Spirit is calling you and me to be cruciform friends. Now some may object that the imagery of friendship calls to mind the superficial friendship of acquaintances who are barely involved with one another’s lives. Or friendship, for others, may call to mind affinity groups that are self-chosen, which could lead to a church that unwittingly affirms the homogenous unit principle—a “me church” where everyone is just like me. I would suggest that those who think this way about friendship do not really understand friendship from either the biblical, theological, or even classical point of view.
To help these, perhaps my other favorite writer can help us think about our friendship in terms of a membership within a given placed people. In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, the title character envisions such a community one day after others dropped him off at his barber’s shop that doubled as his home. Jayber relates:
What I saw now was the [Port William] community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else and so on and on…It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will toward goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was a membership of Port William and of no other place on earth. My vision gathered the community as it never has been and never will be gathered in this world of time, for the community must always be marred by members who are indifferent to it or against it, who are nonetheless its members and maybe nonetheless essential to it. And yet I saw them all as somehow perfected, beyond time, by one another’s love, compassion, and forgiveness, as it is said we may be perfected by grace.In some ways, my friends, Jayber Crow describes our church. As a particular, placed people, we are held together by imperfect, frayed, incomplete and yet ever-holding bonds of affection, struggling with disappointment in itself and each other, and yet a membership of those who have been loved by somebody who had been loved by somebody else. And this membership, this placed people, rooted in a tradition called Presbyterianism, finds that all of its members—those who are angry, disappointed, longing, and hopeful—are necessary and essential to it. More than acquaintances, more than affinity groups, this is a community that is being perfected by its and Jesus’ own self-giving, dying love. Indeed, it is a community of cruciform friends, teaching each other to be faithfully Presbyterian, evangelically catholic, and biblically missional for God’s glory and the world’s good.