On Wednesday night this week, Andrew, Albie, and I got back from New Orleans, where we’d spent about eight days with our friends and their daughter. Over the course of our vacation, we’d wandered the streets of the Bywater neighborhood, taken streetcars to the gorgeous Garden District, and eaten a lot of 50-cent oysters.
We’ve known our friends for almost a decade and a half. I befriended them shortly after moving to Chicago. My friend was with me the night I met Andrew.
Our friends are atheists. They have been their whole lives. And when we first met, our faith intrigued them. They had lots of questions, asked through a sort of side-eye. Later on in our friendship, it threatened them. I know that because last year, my friend told me so.
She is one of my closest and oldest friends--and yet, with her, I explicitly avoid talking about faith, because I don’t want her to think I’m judging her. That’s what had threatened her in the past, and it caused a rift in our friendship. We didn’t talk for several years. But somehow, now God always comes up. That’s usually thanks to her.
For her, faith is totally nuts. So she has a lot of questions about how Andrew and I, who have so much in common with her and Tim, could have such fundamentally different belief systems. But she is into the idea that Jesus was someone who preached justice. She has hippie roots and and so enjoys the idea of Jesus as a sort of radical hero of the people. She recently confessed to me, because she knows how important this community has become to our family, that she wishes she had something similar--a group that regularly practices rituals that celebrate community and justice--just without the whole God part of it. “That’s fair,” I’ve told her. “But you’d probably be welcomed anyway into an Episcopal community if you really want all those things.”
The problem is not just that she doesn’t believe in God; she thinks central Christian beliefs are weird, if not potentially dangerous--particularly our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. She worries that Christians are not concerned enough about this life we all share in. I think that to an extent, she’s right.
Freda and I found ourselves in another conversation about faith last week. We were soaking in a hot tub while our kids slept. The night air was cool. The oleander blossoms occasionally unmoored from their branches and fell softly from the tree arched above us. (It was seriously amazing.) We were sipping the Sazeracs I’d made everyone--probably how we ended up in such deep, theological conversation. As usual, we disagreed about a few things: I believe in God. God does not factor into her beliefs about the world. I believe that Jesus was more than a nice guy who lived about 2000 years ago. She’s not convinced.
But we agreed on most things, and especially this idea: This world is important. Our friendship is real. The richness of life matters. And it’s crucial that we share it together.
One of my favorite theologians, Edward Schillebeeckx once told a gathering of theologians: Extra mundum, nulla salus. There is no salvation outside of the world. It’s a sort of retort to the conviction, “There is no salvation outside of the church,” a sentiment of breathtaking exclusivism once commonly held by the Roman Catholic Church that just doesn’t go very far in today’s modern world.
Schillebeeckx’s expression captures what one scholar calls his “grace-optimism.” He believed that it’s in creation and human life, where we encounter God.
When we love one another--through friendship--we embody God’s love. Friendship is then a sacrament of divine love. It offers us a glimpse into God’s love for the world.
Mary Catherine Hilkert wrote in America magazine after Schillebeeckx’s death that “These human ‘fragments of salvation,’ as [Schillebeeckx] called them, are a share in the final triumph of God’s grace, which was promised in a definitive way in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Christians are called to participate in the living story of Jesus by ‘writing a fifth Gospel with their lives.’”
In other words: This world is important. Our friendship is real. The richness of life matters. And it’s crucial that we share it together.
I wonder if this is why Jesus weeps for his friend Lazarus in today’s gospel. He knows this to be true. When Jesus dined with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary had anointed Jesus with fine oil and her own hair. There is no question that Jesus enjoyed the richness of life, that his friendships were real.
Perhaps Jesus weeps because he knows his own death is imminent, that the day when he no longer eats and drinks with his friends in this life is coming. He was fully human, so it stands to reason that he was afraid, worried, and lonely in those fears. What confusing times those must have been for him leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem.
John tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed” when he arrives at the tomb. What specifically do you think was disturbing him at that moment? I’m not convinced he knew for sure he’d be performing any miracles that day. I think there was a lot of hemming and hawing on his part. But that when he came face to face with the reality that his friend was dead, in a tomb, he was moved.
And then he brought Lazarus, dead four days, back to life.
It’s an astonishing miracle. It’s so supernatural that it seemingly flies in the face a professed sacramental imagination.
But Jesus didn’t call Lazarus’ ghost or spirit out from the tomb.
He called out to Lazarus himself who walks out of the tomb smelling of the very death he has experienced and risen from. It is Lazarus in body and spirit. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands.
This world is important. Our friendship is real. The richness of life matters. And it’s crucial that we share it together.
This is a profound, sacramental moment in the life of Jesus. He is revealing who he is. A grieving friend. A human person. And also God who is the source of life. This moment is sacramental because it offers us a glimpse into God’s love for the world.
“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus says to Martha.
Now, the friendship I share with my friend is not the same as seeing a someone raised from the dead. And to be honest, I’m a little wary of experiencing such a thing. But I believe. And in my friendship, I see the glory of God, not just in spite of our differences, but probably because of them.