September 19 2021
In the classic movie, “The Princess Bride,” one character responds to situations over and over again in the same way, by saying “inconceivable!,” until Inigo Montoya, the protagonist in the movie, says in response, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This famous line also describes much of our reading of Scripture. We hear a word or a phrase in our English translations written thousands of years after a certain passage was written, and we automatically assume we grasp and understand exactly what the author is saying. Sometimes reading Scripture responsibly means saying about a word or an idea, “I do not think it means what you think it means.” That word which I believe we need to examine this morning is the word “friendship,” for we read in the middle of our passage from the Epistle of St. James, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
This passage from James is certainly a passage in need of some unpacking, for not only do we so easily misunderstand what James means by “friendship with the world,” and “friendship with God,” but the implications of how this is understood are incredibly important. They are important in the sense of understanding how we are to live as Christians, but also incredibly important for understanding James. You heard what James said, don’t be friends with the world! So why don’t you join the Amish, or live by yourself in a cave? Those decisions might sound ridiculous, but those are real actions taken by Christians in history as a result of reading this passage.
Serious commentators on this letter refer to the concept of “friendship with God,” vs. “Friendship with the world,” as the driving theme of James’ letter, as this concept of friendship with God is quite literally central to James, this passage is located almost exactly in the middle of the letter, and ancient letter writers would not do something like that by accident. The church has long recognized how central the idea of friendship with God is to James, that he has always gone by two titles in the church’s iconography of James, “brother of Jesus, friend of God.” So, for James, what is “friendship with the world,” and “friendship with God;” and what does being a friend of God mean for us today?
Last week I shared a bit about the troubled way of reading James that we have fallen victim to in churches like ours, all influenced by a way of reading James that relies on treating him as an overly Jewish opponent of Paul, who forces the old Mosaic law back on the Church, in spite of Paul’s and his own brother Jesus’ teaching, and much of that reading is motivated by anti-semitism. I know I am repeating myself from what I said last week, but this completely misses the point of James, in part because it identifies James with the wrong genre. James is not robbing the church of God’s grace to force the old Jewish law on them, as he is often accused of doing, for James not writing law, but wisdom literature. James is wisdom literature for the life of the Church, much like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Proverbs is actually the most quoted book in Scripture in James’ Letter, and the influence of Proverbs on James is seen in many ways in the letter.
James is wisdom literature, written for the life of the church, and recognizing this changes a lot about how we read and understand James. One way that is worth mentioning this morning is that James writes an awful lot like his contemporaries who also spoke of wisdom, the Greek Philosophers, though of course James writes from the perspective of a person in Christ. Ancient Philosophers, lovers of wisdom, some of whom were contemporaries of James, always talked about friendship.
If you have ever read any of the great works of ancient Philosophy written long ago by people whose names we recognize, even if we have not read them, people like Aristotle, Plato, and so on, you were probably just reading an extended conversation about what friendship means. According to ancient wisdom, friendship is a far deeper and more meaningful kind of relationship than how we understand friendship today. Friendship means a great deal more than sharing common interests. For the Ancients, friendship is a unity of soul, in fact the notion of soul-mates was introduced in a conversation about friendship, not romantic love. If you wished to lead a wise life, the first step in living that way was finding a wise friend. To be friends with another is to continually measure oneself against them, to be challenged, shaped, and formed by them.
When James talks about “friendship with the world,” he is talking about this kind of friendship. The New Testament Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says this of James’ way of understanding friendship. “For James, being a friend of the world means sharing the world’s perceptions and values, and acting according to that measure, just as being a friend of God means measuring by God’s own measure, and acting according to that measure.” So to be friends with the world is to agree with the way the world determines value, worth, and meaning, and to not only agree with it; but to be shaped and formed by it. So you cannot be friends with the world, and friends with God. You cannot do both.
We have a wonderful picture of what friendship with the world looks like in our Gospel reading this morning, as Jesus’ disciples argue on the way to Capernaum about who is the greatest among them. Ironically, this is a conversation taking place while Jesus is attempting to prepare his followers for his humiliating death on a cross. When Jesus rebukes his disciples, it is as if he is saying, “your conversation proves you to be a friend of the world, the way of which I speak is friendship with God. If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As an aside, this is why I do not like when Rector’s have personal parking spaces closest to the door of the Sanctuary. It seems minor, but I really do believe it can communicate a kind of “friendship with the world,” for Rectors to receive this kind of treatment from their parishes.
Returning to this notion of “friendship with God,” I imagine that some of us might actually feel quite comfortable about this. Of course, we are friends of God, we are in church after all! But we do well to remember that the recipients of this wise correction in James were in the same place we are, the church. Church history has proven over and over again that Christians who are part of renewal movements, movements like the ACNA especially, are particularly susceptible to falling into the patterns of friendship with the world, I know that I have seen it. We fall into a trap of thinking, “I was on God’s side in this significant matter,” for some of us, “I left the Episcopal Church,” or “I had a powerful experience with the Holy Spirit,” and for any of these reasons we might think, “I am therefore a friend of God.” Christians then fall into the trap of behaving with a great deal of nastiness towards others in the church who we disagree with and doing whatever it takes to silence them because we are right, sin is always close at hand when we are on the right side of things. When confronted with the question, “is what I have done something a friend of God would do,” we respond, “of course it is! I am a friend of God and I just did it!”
James wants Christians, yes Christians, to recognize that “friend of God” is not a status that you hang up in your office next to your college diploma to point at because God will always be on your side, no matter what we decide to do. James makes it very clear in this letter that when and if the church becomes a friend of the world, God will actually oppose it, in his mercy, because the last thing we need in this world is more churches that produce friends of the world.
You may be wondering how even the church can make friends of the world, so it is helpful to look closely at three instances in James when he identifies certain behaviors with living as an enemy of God. Those behaviors are specifically slandering your neighbor (chapter 4), boasting in business (also chapter 4), and oppression of the poor (chapter 5). To introduce these behaviors, it is worth acknowledging that these are all pretty normal things. The behaviors do not describe the lives of John Wayne Gacy, Osama bin Laden, or Atila the Hun, these are behaviors that describe me and you. These are just normal ways of living for most of us, tragically even in the church.
Harmful speech, secret speech, false speech, slanderous speech, these are all so normal that we hardly even think to call them evil anymore. The leaders of our nation talk like this all the time, and this kind of speech modeled by leaders has trickled into so much of our “normal” life. James is very clear, this kind of speech makes a person an enemy of God. Church gossip, passed behind the back of a hand or prefaced with that awful passive-aggressive phrase, “well bless her heart,” or a well-meaning phone call that really is just slander, perhaps even slander passed in the form of a prayer request, all of it is quite common in the life of a church; but is is sinful, evil speech, and it is the behavior of friends of the world.
James provides another example of friendship with the world that is so difficult to understand in our setting in history; those who boast about their plans to gain profit, to travel from city to city in order to “do business and make money.” James connects this spirit with one of arrogance, for we do not know what tomorrow will bring, only God does, and life is about far more than making a buck. This arrogant spirit signals that we are a friend of the world because it is motivated by the idea that having more means being more; and it is a friend of the world who pursues wealth because having more means ruling over and being of greater value than those who have less. And the Church should be a place where these values are turned over on their head, for in the kingdom of God the last shall be first and the first last, but how often does the church turn into a cheap imitation of worldly corporations, and profit-making machines?
How often have we in the church turned salvation into a commodity, so that we speak of souls supposedly won for Christ in the seven days between church on Sunday in the same way that a fast food corporation speaks of units of hamburgers sold in a week? I can tell you that clergy are constantly being told to, explicitly and implicitly, follow the so-called wisdom of profitable CEOs and corporations in their own leadership over the life of the Church, instead of the wisdom of the Church graciously given to her in the Scriptures and the great tradition. If tomorrow I called a meeting of the Vestry and spoke of nothing but growing the budget for its own sake by pitching the commodity of life with Jesus Christ to as many consumers as we can reach, I have made myself a friend of the world and am encouraging my vestry to do so as well, but doesn’t it all sound so well-meaning and pious?
James also speaks, quite clearly and prophetically, of the way that a world which values profitability over all will inevitably turn into a world of haves and have nots, and to be a have at the expense of the have nots is, in James’ own words, “a crime which cries up to heaven.” There is only one other place in all of Scripture where that phrase “cries up to heaven” is used, and it is in the story of Cain and Abel, when Abel’s blood spilled in murder cries up to heaven. So James connects the living of lifestyles which exploit, harm, and distort our fellow image bearers living in poverty as a murderous lifestyle, and one which cries out to God. Like the rich man in the Church who says to the shivering poor man in his own midst in James 2, “go be warm and be at peace” without giving him a coat, life in luxury on the backs of the poor is a picture of a broken world without God, and not the Church.
Again, these descriptions of friendship with the world are not descriptions of unusual persons, or even unusually wicked persons. These friends of the world are our respectable members of society, our boy scouts, they are our rotary club members and model citizens. These friends of the world are the members of the local church.
So we should not kid ourselves, this is a hard word for the Church. Please know that I am not intending to preach this from a bully pulpit to beat you up, for I know that I have been guilty of all of these behaviors that make one an enemy of God. James’ harshest warnings in his letter are to preachers and teachers, those in robes standing before you. James says that it is better just not to preach or teach, because leaders in the church are most accountable for our manner of life and manner of speech.Nonetheless, we are right to ask what to do with this hard word from Scripture? Are we simply doomed to the destructive patterns of death, to be friends with the world?
At all times when we are confronted by a hard Word from Scripture, we need to find our firm footing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is precisely the correction that Jesus offers to his own disciples and their friendship with the world. What makes a friend of God? It is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Friendship with God is entirely cruciform. It is cruciform belief, and cruciform life. Friendship with God is knowing the meaning of Christ’s death for us, and not only as a historical fact, something that happened once, but as the real power at work in all that God is doing in the world. Friendship with God is through the cross, and through nothing else, and it is here at the foot of the cross where we confess our friendship with the world, receive forgiveness and a renewal of life, and the means of grace for nourishment in our friendship with God. Friends of God, look to the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen.