Friendship is one of the great gifts of life. I am grateful for those people in my life who have shared some of my journey, listened attentively to me in times when I have been struggling with something difficult, joined in celebrations, and at times advocated on my behalf. In the gospels Jesus speaks of his disciples as ‘friends’, and one of the most endearing names given to Jesus was ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’.

Of course it was meant as an insult, but it actually reveals a unique insight into the nature of God – that God loves each and everyone of us, especially those whose lives have gone off track and lost their centre.

Friends not only share the joyful as well as the challenging times in our lives, walking alongside us in support, but friends also have the opportunity to give us a reality check, and to challenge us when we are not seeing things clearly. There are people who believe that friends should never contradict or challenge but only support, but is that true friendship? Real friends are people who do see the best in us and want the best for us even if that means helping us face the flaws in our lives.

One of the big visions of the gospel is that God has come close to us in Jesus Christ to befriend us; to bring us into a relationship of intimacy and trust with God and with all people. All people is the challenge, for Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love even our enemies and make them friends. That’s visionary, and at the same time very very demanding. The unique understanding of friendship given to us in the gospels is that it is inclusive not exclusive. God’s vision and mission in this world is to reconcile all things in Christ, and so calls us to see it as a priority in our lives to be friends and to make friends with others.

Of course we can’t always do that on a global scale, but we can do it with the people we encounter in our lives, starting with our own family, our close circle of friends and reaching out in welcome and hospitality to all who we encounter. The story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan under-scores this vision which is at the heart of the church’s mission. When Jesus was asked to sum up the law, he said that we are to love God and our neighbour wholeheartedly. Adding the love of neighbour to the love of God was deliberate, for Jesus is saying that this is one of the most significant ways by which our love for God is given expression. In fact it’s made explicit in the first letter of John where the writer says, ‘if we love God but hate our brother we are liars!’

The church is not a club for the like-minded, but rather a family joined together by the love of God who calls us to be a people whose whole purpose is to love God and our neighbour. We have an outward orientation and whenever the church loses that focus it begins to wither.

One of the ancient spiritual practices of our Christian faith is the practice of reflecting each day on what gives us joy, what makes us feel most alive or gives us freedom. The other side of that is attending to what blocks that joy or freedom in order to deal with it. This helps keep us in the way of loving God and our neighbour.

So in the light of this and especially in this time of isolation and restrictions, I want to invite you to share with me and the whole congregation what gives you joy. I plan to start a new weekly publication called, ‘Joy and Juvenation at St Johns.’ Juvenation means ‘make new’, or ‘new life’. I hope that you will send me a story, a recipe, an account of a book you have read, or a picture that has given you joy so that we might share the joys God is giving us in these challenging times.