9 March 2020
The first six years of my time as a student for ordination were lived in a traditional university-style college environment. It involved daily attendance in the Chapel for Morning and Evening Prayer. And do you know that out of all of the Daily Office gatherings that I attended over those times 40 odd years ago, there is only one of which I have any particular memory.
I even remember that it was a Morning Prayer Service and not an Evening Prayer one. Strangely enough, it was during my first year at the seminary, not in my final year. What I remember is the Bible reading for the Service which was read by one of the sixth-year students. He had been blessed with the nickname “Frosty”, but I have no idea why as it had nothing to do with his surname or anything else that I knew about him.
So time came in the Service for Frosty to go into the pulpit to read from the scripture. He was not a tall person, but he had a certain presence because he was very stout of figure and had a healthy head of black hair which he kept short around the edges and was clean shaven, unlike the majority of the student body who wore all sorts of long flowing locks and facial accoutrements as was the fashion for young men in the early 1970’s. He looked formidable in his black cassock and white surplice.
Frosty entered the pulpit slowly and began to give an introduction to the reading. That immediately captured people’s attention as it was not the normal practice. He went on for some time with quite theatrical language to give a diatribe on how this particularly reading demonstrated Jesus’ true humanity. He then began: “A reading from the Gospel of John. Jesus wept”. With that, he closed the Bible and resumed his place on the sanctuary.
We understand that Frosty got quite a dressing down from the Rector for his theatrics.
But the more I read chapter 11 of the Gospel of John, the more that those particular two words grow in importance for me. “Jesus wept”. It speaks of a special relationship between Jesus and Lazarus and the two sisters, Martha and Mary. There are other accounts in the gospels of Jesus raising the dead. The son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus the synagogue leader come immediately to mind.
His reactions to both of these deaths are very different from his reaction to Lazarus’ death. In regards to the son of the widow of Nain, Luke tells us that Jesus had compassion for her and said to her “Do not weep.” In the three accounts of the raising of Jairus’ daughter in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we find none of the raw emotion that accompanies his raising of Lazarus.
There was something special in Jesus’ relationship with the Bethany siblings. Just as there was a special relationship between Jesus and the member of the twelve referred to from the Last Supper onward in John’s Gospel as “the disciple Jesus loved”. While Jesus loved everyone and had compassion and care for all, he clearly had relationships with some individuals that were deeper than his relationships with others. Lazarus, Martha, Mary and the disciple that Jesus loved are presented to us as having this special place with Jesus. Some might like to argue that Mary Magdalene enjoyed a similar privileged relationship with Jesus.
In common parlance, we refer to this type of relationship as friendship.
I fear that the notion of friendship is being undermined on a daily basis in our world through the use that is made of the term “friend” on social media platforms. Participants get requests from others to be come “friends”. I would suggest to you that one of the first characteristics of adult friendship is that one does not ask someone else if one can be their friend. It smacks a bit of the school playground to me – “Please, can I be your friend; pretty please?”
Surely robust friendships grow over time through shared experiences and conversations.
It is quite common in our disconnected world, despite the plethora of social media avenues, for many people to really struggle to form meaningful friendships. This can include people venturing into marriage without having spent the time and effort to establish a basis of friendship as a first step on such a path.
One of the fatal errors that it is possible to make is to mistake an acquaintance for a friend. This mistake is often only made manifest when an acquaintance disappoints in an important matter in our lives where a friend would have remained true.
What I really want to argue is that true friendship takes time and effort to get to know one another, to become aware of and understand the deepest thoughts and emotions of the other. It is no small task to develop a true friendship. A true friendship far outweighs a truckload of acquaintances.
The Gospel story today invites us to consider the prospect that Jesus is willing and able to engage in a friendship relationship with us, just as he did with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. We do not have to keep Jesus at arms-length by way of some sort of protection against the disappointment of an acquaintance. We can speak heart to heart like true friends.
In the present circumstances, most of us have a lot more time on our hands and that gives us one of the critical elements required to develop our friendship with Jesus, to open our hearts to him. Most of us have more free time at present during which we could pick up our Bibles and become very diligent in getting to know more about Jesus and his love for us. Most of us could dedicate time that is now free to greater efforts at prayer, once again, to develop a sincere friendship with Jesus.
Let us pray with Baldwin of Canterbury from the 12the Century
O Lord, take away my heart of stone,
My hardened heart, my uncircumcised heart,
And grant me a new heart, a heart of flesh, a clean heart.
Come, you who cleanse the heart, and love the pure of heart,
Possess my heart and dwell in it,
Containing it and filling it, higher than my highest
And more intimate than my most intimate thoughts.
You are the image of all beauty and the seal of all holiness,
Seal your image on my heart, and seal my heart in your mercy,
O God the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. Amen.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen