Sermon 14 February

2 Kings 2.1-12, Mark 9.2-9

Today is the last Sunday before Lent starts.  Given the rigours of lockdown and Covid I decided not to talk about giving up things or denying ourselves; just accepting that we are where we are is giving us plenty of opportunities for that this year.

This happens to be a multi tasking Sunday where celebrations are concerned; not only is it the Sunday next before Lent, but it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s the day when friends in our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden celebrate their patron saint – St Sigfrid -, it’s Racial Justice Sunday, and Green Christian would like us to mark Valentine’s Day by expressing some love for planet earth!  We marked Racial Justice Sunday towards the end of last year when Ian spoke to us, and we’ll be marking the need for climate justice on a Sunday early in March, so I won’t be specifically referring to those.  The theme on which I’d like to focus today is friendship which may touch on all these concerns anyway.  Let’s begin with Valentine’s Day (picture).

Valentines day, taking place just as Spring is starting, new life is beginning to appear, yet it’s still pretty dark and cold. Valentine’s Day is partly a distraction from winter, but also ties in with the rhythms of life here in the northern hemisphere.  As we start to emerge from winter, with spring on the horizon, our thoughts may well turn to romantic love, or lust for that matter – ‘in the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love’, as Tennyson puts it.  A young woman’s fancy might as well!  There is a reaching out for relatedness, for something that takes us out of ourselves, out of winter into Spring.  Romantic love may be a great start to a relationship but it’s often friendship that helps it to last, enabling us to see the beloved through ordinary spectacles as well as rose tinted ones.  Friendship between lovers.

Now St Sigfrid (show picture of his statue) – I’ve spoken about him before – an English monk from York who set out with a group of monks and his three nephews in the 11th century to take the gospel to Sweden. He is said to have built the first church in what is now Växjö diocese.  This statue of him stands outside Växjö cathedral in Småland.  The bonds between him and his group of monks and his nephews must have been strong to keep them together through the hardships of travel, climate and the opposition that they would have experienced.  I suspect there was real friendship there.  Friendship between colleagues.  Friendship between family members.

And now what we call the Transfiguration, offering another insight into friendship(Icon)

Our readings this morning are there to encourage us as we enter 40 days of Lent, and start to anticipate the cross.  Immediately before the transfiguration Jesus has been explaining to a group of his disciples that he must suffer death and then rise again – something they failed to understand.  Now he’s taking three of them – Peter, James and John up a mountain, a setting associated with encounters with God.  It’s as though he’s pulling back a curtain so they might see what has led to his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do.  He’s sharing this mystery with his friends.  He wants them to understand.  There’s Elijah on his left who climbed a mountain when he was running away from Queen Jezebel and who heard there the still small voice encouraging him to return and telling him what to do.  Jesus is letting his friends know that he stands in that prophetic tradition and prophets always face opposition.  Moses the law giver is on his right.  Moses, you may remember, spoke with God face to face, after which his own face would shine with light.  Moses went up a mountain to receive the 10 commandments, mediating a covenant between God and Israel.  Like Moses, Jesus will be mediating a covenant, but this will be a new kind of covenant that involves laying down his life.  The voice from heaven makes clear that although Jesus stands in the line of the prophets and of Moses he is greater than both, being God’s Beloved Son.  The dazzling light around Jesus also makes this point.  We see Peter, James and John almost literally blown away by this revelation at the bottom of the icon.  (icon goes down)

And this revelation is offered to us as we face Lent.  In Mark’s account Peter, James and John still don’t get it; not until they look back after the resurrection.  Even though Jesus probably knew that they wouldn’t get it he still shares this experience with them.  He treats them as close friends.

One of the bishops in my last diocese used to talk about the different people around Jesus.  There was the crowd – often mentioned, sometimes of considerable size, but not necessarily committed.  On the edge, as it were.  Turning up whenever Jesus appeared, but not actually following him around.  Then there was another group, a fair size, who were committed enough to follow him much of the time, but did not necessarily share a communal life with him.  They are referred to simply as ‘the disciples’. Then there were the 12 – those closest to Jesus and known to us by name, who ate with him, stayed wherever he stayed.  And then the three closest, Peter, James and John, who feature in our gospel account today.  We might say that the crowd had a passing acquaintance with Jesus, while the groups of disciples were his friends, but in varying degrees of closeness.  He would teach them, explain the parables to them, but only with his closest friends would he share glimpses of his identity as God’s son and also of his human vulnerability.  In so doing he was inviting them into his own intimate relationship with God the Father.

The gospels were written for the encouragement of those, like you and me, who want to follow Jesus.  At the start of Lent we might think of where we would place ourselves at present.  Perhaps in the crowd, an observer, not stepping forward, but drawn to Jesus, curious about him.  Or part of that large group of disciples, hanging out with Christ, following him most of the time but not necessarily sharing his life.  Or one of the 12, those closest to Jesus, with him all of the time.  Then the 3 with whom he shared the most of himself.  Might they be called his soul friends?  Wherever we are Jesus invites us to draw closer.  He wants to draw us into his friendship.  To identify more with him.  Lent can be a time to accept that invitation.  What might it be like to stick with Jesus as with a close friend during his time in the wilderness, or when he raises Jairus’ daughter or prays in Gethsemane?  What experiences of our own might we risk sharing with him as our friend during Lent?

Looking at our reading from the Old Testament we can see some risk taking in the friendship between Elisha and Elijah.  Both know that Elijah is approaching the end of his life.  Elisha is determined to face this moment with his master and follows him on a very roundabout route to do so!  He is present when Elijah dies and is taken up to heaven and as a result he receives a portion of Elijah’s spirit.  This hadn’t just been a relationship between master and servant, but perhaps between soul friends.  It’s a profound insight into how we can influence our friends for good.  As we allow our friendship to develop, sticking with each other through good times and bad, we pass on a part of our spirit to one another, enriching one another.

Jesus invites us to relate to him as our friend – to trust him with our highs and low as we would with a best friend and to allow him to trust us with his deepest experiences, both the glory as in the Transfiguration, the vulnerability as in Gethsemane and the suffering when on the cross.

Friendship with Jesus is connected to our friendship with others.  So I’m wondering if we might remember our friends particularly this Lent.  How are we keeping in touch with them?  How willing are we willing to listen to what is really going on for them, especially if it’s difficult?  Can we risk telling them what is really going on for us?  Do we go beyond the superficial in our conversations?  I was reading an interview with Tyrell Lewis, formerly involved in gang crimes in Brixton and now running the Brixton Street Gym, where he remembers Pastor Mimi on his estate, a true friend, who would ask questions like ‘How’s your heart?’ How’s your mind?’ ‘How’s your spirit?’  She was a friend who helped him turn his life around.  She passed on some of her own spirit.

Friendship between partners, lovers, friendship between colleagues, friendship with family members, friendship with church sisters and brothers, friendship with a kindred spirit (a soul friend)…how are we doing in our friendships?  and where do we stand in our friendship with Christ?

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I have not called you servants, but friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you’.  (John 15.15)

Christine Bainbridge