A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Friends of God

Friends on a path by Garry Knight (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Friends of God
Pentecost 17A
Rev. Doug Floyd

By all outward appearances, Aelred had achieved incredible success. He served in the court of King David I of Scotland and was well liked by the king. Raised in a devout Christian family that valued a good education, he was privileged to enter the court of the king at age 15. How many people spend their lives pursuing a success that is just out of reach? Here was a young man that was already serving in the court of the king as a teenager.

And yet, he felt like something was wrong, something was missing. He read a book that distressed him and made him question everything. Have you ever had an encounter that made you question what you were doing in life? Or made you question some big idea that had helped shape your understanding? GK Chesterton’s biography of Thomas Aquinas is one of those books that haunted me long after reading. In some ways, it was like waking up: waking up the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Aelred read such a book. After reading Cicero’s Dialogue on Friendship, he struggled to return to life as he knew it. Something was missing. He wondered if he had completely missed God’s calling in his life. In the midst of this struggle, Aelred was sent to York on legal business for the court. At York, he had the privilege to meet one of the spiritual fathers of the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux. It has been said that mothers hid their sons from Bernard for fear that he would inspire them to become monks. His spirit of love and kindness drew many into a lifelong monastic vocation.

Bernard liked Aelred and encouraged him to begin writing. Inspired by the visit, Aelred went to visit the newly formed monastery at Rievaulx. He never left. Instead of returning to court, Aelred entered the monastery at age 26. While there, he reflected upon friendship, practiced friendship with God and man, and eventually he wrote a book about the role of friendship in our spiritual journey.

While studying the letter first John, he came to see God as a friend. 1 John 4:16 says, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” In today’s reading from Psalm 25:14, we are told that “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.”

What does it mean to be a “friend of God?” Is this different from being loved by God? In the often-memorized John 3:16, we are told, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loves a world turned against him, at war with him. The language of friendship is more selective.

In the epistle of James, we told, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God” (Jas 2:23).Both I Chronicles and Isaiah also refer Abraham as a friend of God.

Then we have the story of Jesus and the disciples. At the last supper, after Judas has left to betray him, Jesus turns to the remain eleven and says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15).

Lastly, there are two little-known characters in Scripture: Reuel and Theophilus. Both of these names mean “friend of God.” In Exodus 2, Moses meets his father-in-law to be, “When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” (Ex 2:18). Later he will be referred to as Jethro, but we first encounter him as the “friend of God.” Luke addresses his “Gospel” and his “Acts of the Apostles” to Theophilus whose name also means “friend of God.”

It is interesting to know that when Moses runs away from Pharoah, he runs straight into the home of a friend of God and Luke writes up his account of the faith for a friend of God.

The primary friends we meet in Scripture are Abraham in the Old Testament and the Disciples in the New Testament. The Lord calls Abraham to leave his homeland and follow. And Abraham obeys. He follows in a path that he doesn’t fully understand. He is told that he is a father and will give blessings to all families of the world, but he has no children. He struggles to understand this promise, but he keeps following the call of God. As he follows, he marks his sojourn by building altars to the Lord and worshipping Him.

Abraham’s life is marked by obedience, by worship, but it is also marked by struggle, confusion, and some ill-fated attempts to fulfill God’s call. Along the way, he learns to trust the Lord with everything and everyone in His life including Isaac, the surprise son of promise. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God” (Jas 2:23).

We come to the New Testament and meet a group of men who also hear the call. Jesus invites them to follow him. And they follow. They listen to him, ask him questions, and try to obey his instruction. They also struggle to understand what he means, they sometimes oppose him outright, they are fearful, and even after he calls them friends, they abandon him. And yet, their lives have been indelibly marked by His presence. They can never go home. Even after his crucifixion, they gather…not knowing what to do next. He steps back into their midst as Resurrected One and gives them His Spirit. Then He commissions them before ascending.

The rest of their lives will be marked by His life. So much so that most of them will die like him.

These are the friends of God. Those who heard the call, obeyed the call, struggled to walk in the way, and eventually learned to trust. The friendship they share with the Lord takes shape in relationships with other people. The friends of God become people who enter into communion, into friendship with one another. And these friendships have stretched across the ages.

When Aelred follows the call of God, he enters into a way of devotion that will reshape the rest of his life. Eventually, he becomes abbot of his little monastery. Some of the monks ask him to record his instructions on friendship in a book, so he writes a little record of these teaching in a book called, “Spiritual Friendship.” This will become a beloved classic in the Middle Ages, offering instruction in the way of devotion that involves following Christ even as we walk in friendship with others.

Later in the Middle Ages, a group common folk and clergy will join together, seeking to strip away all the layers of regulation that make the Lord seem so very far away. They will simply seek to practice the presence of God in their daily prayers and daily work. They will seek to follow His call simple obedience. They called themselves, “The Friends of God,” and in their lives they anticipate the Reformation which will bring life of devotion back into the daily life of peasants, farmers, lawyers and more.

Today, we hear the Psalmist practicing the presence of the Lord. He begins,

1  To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2  O my God, in you I trust; (Ps 25:1–2)

This simple prayer of a person, seeking to abide in the Lord. Following the Lord begins by turning to Him and learning to trust Him. This trust grows in the struggle of seeking to follow Him even in difficulty. As we continue reading the Psalm, we meet a person overwhelmed by distress. Wherever he turns, he seems to see another obstacle, another enemy, another challenge. He cries out, “The troubles of my heart are enlarged…” (vs 17), and this phrase has the sense that he is being squeezed tight on the inside.

This is that sick feeling you may have felt when you wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly the worries of the world descend on you. It literally feels like you are being pressed on all sides. It could apply to physical enemies, but it also could apply to stressful challenges like overwhelming debt, job loss, health issues, grief. The world becomes small, cramped, choking, wearisome. In this place, the psalmist cries out.

He wants to be free from this oppression. Martin Luther says, “As affliction is the narrow place that oppresses us and makes us sad, so God’s help is the wide open space that makes us free and joyful.”[1] In the midst of this struggle the Psalmist turns to his Lord, his friend, he prays,

4  Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5  Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long. (Ps 25:4–5)

He seeks to follow in the way of the Lord, but he knows this wide open way is only possible in God’s abundant mercy and grace. So he seeks to follow from his struggle into God’s faithful love. This is the love revealed in God’s covenant with His people.

As we read this Psalm in light of Abraham and the disciples, we begin to see a picture of the friends of God. Those who follow His call. In Christ Jesus, he calls us to follow. This path of following is filled with joy and love, but along the way, we face struggles and challenges as we are learning how to trust in the Lord, how to rest in his faithful love. We are learning the secrets of the covenant. This knowledge is not gained by reading a book but walking day by day in the simple rhythms of worship, thanksgiving, obedience. It is the rhythm of practicing the presence of God in the morning, the afternoon and the evening. In the home and in the workplace.

Like Abraham and the disciples, we are being changed in this daily walk into a people who learn the intimate ways of God. We are learning the hope of Psalm 25,

13  His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.
14  The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
and he makes known to them his covenant. (Ps 25:13–14

Along the way, we cultivate friendship with the Lord but with other people as well. Aelred realized that this path into God’s friendship was a path that involved walking with other people. As we walk through the struggles, God reveals His love to us in soul friends who walk alongside us. In human friendship, Aelred points us back to the Lord. He says,

“What statement about friendship can be more sublime, more true, more valuable than this: it has been proved that friendship must begin in Christ, continue with Christ, and be perfected by Christ.”[2]

Pour into our hearts, O God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love, That we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant Aelred draw many to your community of love; through Jesus Christ the Righteous, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 322.
[2] Rievaulx, Aelred of. Spiritual Friendship (Cistercian Fathers) (Kindle Locations 836-838). Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.


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