Friends! Not Romans and countrymen this time, but Friends of this beautiful Cathedral Church of St James and St Edmund. Friends: it’s a word we’ve become very familiar with for those who like you support some great building or enterprise; and perhaps a bit too familiar, as it has wonderful resonances and implications, if we dig a bit deeper, that can strengthen and encourage our endeavours even more. So let’s go digging.
But first let me repeat the thanks that I gave earlier at the AGM to our Dean and Chapter, to all the team that keep this great cathedral in such good heart, and to all you its friends for your invaluable support.
Let’s dig in fact right back to the beginning, and the Garden of Eden, and the wonderful picture of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and dropping in, as it were, on Adam and Eve for paradise’s equivalent of a cuppa – except of course that it then all went horribly wrong. Before that the relationship had been one of care, love, colleagueship, even playfulness. Imagine God rounding up the animals and bringing them to Adam to be named. We could I think call it friendship.
It’s picture language of course, a fascinating mix of ancestral memory and quite sophisticated theology, addressing the great theme of Paradise Lost, of how we have on the hand a strong sense of beauty and truth, of how things could and should be, and considerable capacity to achieve it – witness for example the millennium tower above us – but how we also have on the other hand the continuing and seemingly inevitable experience of a different tower, that of Babel, of confusion, of fall. So we long for what was, we strive for what could be, and we ride the roller coaster of success and failure, aspiration and disappointment that is the human condition.
Without faith, that rather Stoic philosophy is our lot. But Paradise Lost is not the end of the story. Paradise is in the end also to be regained. God does not only create, he restores; and he chooses to do that work of restoration in colleagueship, in friendship in fact, with the very race whose own choices have made that work necessary. So in the end the calling of a body such as this is not only to be Friends of a Cathedral, but Friends of God, and not only to restore a building but to restore the kingdom of heaven, of which a place of worship such as the one we are gathered in now and an act of worship such as the one we are sharing now can of course be foretastes.
Friends of God. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike it is Abraham above all who is given this title, which is mentioned three times in the Bible, the third being in the passage from the Epistle of James that we heard earlier. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God.” St James, whom we ought of course to take very seriously in a church dedicated in his name, is making a very particular and very Jamesian point. Luther, who prioritised pure faith above all things, called his letter a right strawy epistle because of it. The point is this: James uses Abraham as the perfect example of how faith needs to show itself in good works if it is to bear the fruit it is meant to, to have a legacy and come to completion. That makes Abraham a very good model indeed for the Cathedral Friends and indeed for a legacy campaign! Thinking more widely, he speaks of the importance and value of making long-term, lived-out commitments that give a lead to others and see a project through. Well done to the Abrahams of today, and the committee are waiting to hear from those who might be feeling the call afresh today.
Enthusiasm for and commitment to the good works that the Cathedral needs is a prime purpose of the Friends. Alongside sits a second, the encouragement of the Dean and Chapter in their leading of the living work of the Cathedral today. This is a form of friendship too, though we need to go to our second reading to see it in full. In that passage from St John’s Gospel Jesus remarkably extends the very special gift of friendship with God out from just Abraham to include all those who keep his commandments. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” These are not the words of a control freak. The command in question is simply this, that we love one another as he has loved us. When we love one another in the Christian fellowship, in the fellowship of this Cathedral, we are being the friends not just of one another but of Christ, of God. Rather more scarily, as the letters of John warn us, when we fail to act in love and friendship towards one another, our love of God, our standing as his friends, is also at risk. So do not neglect those little kindnesses, those quiet encouragements, that can make all the difference. And do think twice before saying or doing those things that you know on reflection are not likely to help. Our friendship and fellowship together is a precious and powerful gift, but a vulnerable one too.
Enthusiasm, encouragement – and a third dimension, encounter. If we are to sustain the first two, we need the third, because it is only our personal and corporate encounter and friendship with God that can in the end give us the resources to keep our hopes high and our sinews strong. Jesus invites us to abide in him, and it is in the context of that abiding, that willingness to look up from our tasks and our anxieties and look to him, that he is able to carry on making the Father’s will known to us and so too the coming of his kingdom. Whether it is the Lord’s Prayer on your lips as you plop into the pillow last thing at night, or a full-scale Eucharist like this one here today, it matters and will go on mattering that with those we are encouraging and for the good works that have engaged our enthusiasm, we seek to encounter the God whose friendship is the foundation on which all our towers are built.
So thankyou again for your enthusiastic raising of the resources the cathedral needs, for your encouragement of its people, and for your willingness to seek that encounter with God on which our friendship depends. Amen.