Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | May 12, 2024

Sermon: Friendship According to Aristotle and Jesus

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

May we receive what Jesus wanted his friends to have. Amen.

1. “We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us.”[1] Gary Wills wrote this about the impossibility of fully comprehending God. Still, we can draw closer to the Holy One. I am grateful for friends who help me to see God in new ways.

This week my friend Norwood Pratt sent me an article which begins with a poem by Li Bai (701-762). According to legend he died in the year 762 drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River. Li Bai writes, “The birds have vanished from the sky. / Now the last cloud drains away // We sit together, the mountain and me, / until only the mountain remains.”[2] For me this expresses the feeling of unity with God that comes to me in prayer.

This poet was one of many inspirations for a modern Chinese American poet named Li-Young Lee (1957-). Lee’s father immigrated to the United States and served as a Presbyterian pastor at an all-white church in western Pennsylvania. Infinity and eternity fascinate him. In this poem he writes about how in the uniqueness of our nature and experiences we all encounter in a different way the “Ultimate Being, Tao or God.” This is this beloved one, the darling.

Lee writes, “My friend and I are in love with the same woman… I’d write a song about her.  I wish I could sing. I’d sing about her. / I wish I could write a poem. / Every line would be about her. / Instead, I listen to my friend speak / about this woman we both love, / and I think of all the ways she is unlike / anything he says about her and unlike / everything else in the world.”[3]

These two poets write about something that cannot easily be expressed, our deepest desire to be united with God. Jesus speaks about this in the Gospel of John: in his last instructions to the disciples and then in his passionate prayer for them, and for us. In his last words Jesus uses a surprising metaphor for encountering the mystery of God. We meet God through friendship.

On Mother’s Day when we celebrate the sacrifices associated with love I want to think more with you about friendship and God. To understand the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching, it helps to see how another great historical figure understood this subject.

2. Long before Jesus’ birth the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) studied at Plato’s school in Athens (from the age of 17 to 37). After this Aristotle became the tutor of Alexander the Great and founded a prominent library that he used as the basis for his thought. Scholars estimate that about a third of what Aristotle wrote has survived. He has had a huge effect on the western understanding of nature. He also especially influenced the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and therefore modern Roman Catholic approaches to Christian thought.

For Aristotle God is eternal, non-material, unchanging and perfect. He famously describes God as the unmoved mover, existing outside of the world and setting it into motion. Because everything seeks divine perfection, this God is responsible for all change in the universe. We experience a world of particular things but God knows the universal ideas behind them (or before them). For Aristotle God is pure thought, eternally contemplating himself. God is the telos, the goal or end of all things.[4]

Aristotle begins his book Nicomachean Ethics by observing that “Happiness… is the End at which all actions aim.”[5] Everything we do ultimately can be traced back to our desire for happiness and the purpose of Aristotle’s book is to help the reader to attain this goal. Happiness comes from having particular virtues, that is habitual ways of acting and seeking pleasure. These include: courage, temperance, generosity, patience. In our interactions with others we use social virtues including: amiability, sincerity, wit. Justice is the overarching virtue that encompasses all the others.

Aristotle writes that there are three kinds of friendships. The first is based on usefulness, the second on pleasure. Because these are based on superficial qualities they generally do not last long. The final and best form of friendship for him is based on strength of character. These friends do not love each other for what they can gain but because they admire each other. Aristotle believes that this almost always happens between equals although sometimes one sees it in the relation between parents and children (he writes fathers and sons).

Famous for describing the human as the political animal, Aristotle points out that we can only accomplish great things through cooperation. Institutions and every human group rely on friendly feelings to be effective. Friendship is key to what makes human beings effective, and for that matter, human. Finally, Aristotle believes that although each person should be self-sufficient, friendship is important for a good life.

3. The Greek word for Gospel, that particular form of literature which tells the story of Jesus, is euangelion. We might forget that this word means good news until we get a sense for the far more radical picture of God and friendship that Jesus teaches. For me, one of the defining and unique features of Christianity as a religion comes from Jesus’ insistence that our relation to God is like a child to a loving father. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven.” Jesus clarifies this picture of God in his story of the Prodigal Son who goes away and squanders his wealth in a kind of first century Las Vegas. In the son’s destitution he returns home and as he crests the hill, his father “filled with compassion,” hikes up his robes and runs to hug and kiss him.

Jesus does not just use words but physical gestures to show what a friend is. In today’s gospel Jesus washes his friends’ feet before eating his last meal with them. The King James Version says, “there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23).[6] Imagine Jesus, in the actual embrace of his beloved friend, telling us who God is.

Jesus explicitly says I do not call you servants but friends (Jn. 15). A servant does not know what the master is doing but a friend does. And you know that the greatest commandment is to love one another. Later in prayer he begs God to protect us from the world, “so that [we] may have [his] joy made complete in [ourselves]” (Jn. 17).

4. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332-395) was born ten years after the First Council of Nicaea and attended the First Council of Constantinople. He writes about how so many ordinary people were arguing about doctrine, “If in this city you ask anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son was begotten or unbegotten. If you ask about the quality of the bread you will receive the answer, ‘The father is the greater and the Son is lesser.’ If you suggest a bath is desirable you will be told, ‘There was nothing before the Son was created.’”[7]

Gregory with his friends Basil and Gregory Nazianzus wondered what description of Jesus would lead to faith rather than just argument.[8] Gregory of Nyssa came to believe that the image of God is only fully displayed when every human person is included.[9] In his final book The Life of Moses Gregory responds to a letter from a younger friend who seeks counsel on “the perfect life.”[10]

Gregory writes that Moses exemplifies this more than all others because Moses is a friend to God. True perfection is not bargaining with, pleading, tricking, manipulating, or fearing God. It is not avoiding a wicked life out of fear of punishment. It is not to do good because we hope for some reward, as if we are cashing in on the virtuous life through a business contract.

Gregory closes with these words to his young admirer, “we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only dreadful thing… and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This… is the perfection of life. As your understanding is lifted up to what is magnificent and divine, whatever you may find… will certainly be for the common benefit in Christ Jesus.”[11]

On Thursday night I was speaking about this to Paul Fromberg the Rector of St. Gregory’s church and he mentioned a sophisticated woman who became a Christian there. In short she moved from Aristotle’s view of friendship among superior equals to Jesus’ view. She said, “Because I go to church I can have real affection for people who annoy the shit out of me. My affection is no longer just based on affinity.”[12]

5. I have been thoroughly transformed by Jesus’ idea of friendship. My life has become full of Jesus’ friends, full of people who I never would have met had if I followed Aristotle’s advice. Together we know that in Christ unity does not have to mean uniformity.

Before I close let me tell you about a friend I had at Christ Church in Los Altos. Even by the time I met her Alice Larse she was only a few years away from being a great-grandmother. She and her husband George had grown up together in Washington State. He had been an engineer and she nursed him through his death from Alzheimer’s disease. Some of my favorite memories come from the frequent summer pool parties she would have for our youth groups. She must have been in her sixties when she started a “Alice’s Stick Cookies Company.” Heidi and I saw them in a store last week!

At Christ Church we had a rotating homeless shelter and there were several times when Alice, as a widow living by herself, had various shelter guests stay at her house. When the church was divided about whether or not to start a school she quickly volunteered to serve as senior warden. She was not sentimental. She was thoroughly practical. She was humble. She got things done… but with a great sense of humor.

There was no outward indication that she was really a saint. I missed her funeral two weeks ago because of responsibilities here. I never really had the chance to say goodbye but I know that one day we will be together in God. Grace Cathedral has hundreds of saints just like her who I love in a similar way.

Ram Dass was a dear friend of our former Dean Alan Jones. He used to say, “The name of the game we are in is called ‘Being at one with the Beloved.’[13] The Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich writes that God possesses, “a love-longing to have us all together, wholly in himself for his delight; for we are not now wholly in him as we shall be…” She says that you and I are Jesus’ joy and bliss.[14] God gives us each other in part so that we can learn to love him.

We seek one mystery, God, with another mystery, ourselves. We are mysterious to ourselves because God’s mystery is in us.”[15] In a world where friendship can seem to be only for utility or pleasure I pray that like Jesus, you will be blessed by friends, that you will find perfection of life, and even become friends with God.

1 Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (NY: Viking, 1999) xii.

2 Li Bai, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” tr. Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000). About 1000 poems attributed to Li still exist.

3 Ed Simon, “There’s Nothing in the World Smaller than the Universe: In The Invention of the Darling, Li-Young Lee presents divinity as spirit and matter, profound and quotidian, sacred and profane,” Poetry Foundation. This article quotes, “The Invention of the Darling.”

4 More from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Aristotle made God passively responsible for change in the world in the sense that all things seek divine perfection. God imbues all things with order and purpose, both of which can be discovered and point to his (or its) divine existence. From those contingent things we come to know universals, whereas God knows universals prior to their existence in things. God, the highest being (though not a loving being), engages in perfect contemplation of the most worthy object, which is himself. He is thus unaware of the world and cares nothing for it, being an unmoved mover. God as pure form is wholly immaterial, and as perfect he is unchanging since he cannot become more perfect. This perfect and immutable God is therefore the apex of being and knowledge. God must be eternal. That is because time is eternal, and since there can be no time without change, change must be eternal. And for change to be eternal the cause of change-the unmoved mover-must also be eternal. To be eternal God must also be immaterial since only immaterial things are immune from change. Additionally, as an immaterial being, God is not extended in space.”

5 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library vol. XIX (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975) 30-1.

6 h™n aÓnakei÷menoß ei–ß e˙k tw◊n maqhtw◊n aujtouv e˙n twˆ◊ ko/lpwˆ touv ∆Ihsouv, o§n hjga¿pa oJ ∆Ihsouvß (John 13:23). I don’t understand why the NRSV translation translate this as “next to him” I think that Herman Waetjen regards “in Jesus’ bosom” as correct. Herman Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions (NY: T&T Clark, 2005) 334.

7 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 105.

8 Ibid., 108.

9 From Jesse Hake, “An Intro to Saint Gregory of Nyssa and his Last Work: The Life of Moses,” 28 July 2022: “For example, Gregory says that the image of God is only fully displayed when every human person is included, so that the reference in Genesis to making humanity in God’s image is actually a reference to all of humanity as one body (which is ultimately the body of Jesus Christ that is also revealed at the end of time): In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image …extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).”

10 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, “Preface” by John Myendorff (NY: Paulist Press, 1978) 29.

11 Ibid., 137.

12 Paul Fromberg conversation at One Market, Thursday 9 May 2024.

13 Alan Jones, Living the Truth (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000) 53.

14 Quoted in Isaac S. Villegas, “Christian Theology is a Love Story,” The Christian Century, 25 April 2018.

15 Gary Wills, Saint Augustine (NY: Viking, 1999) xii.

Share to your favorite platform or Email to Family & Friends