Wednesday, April 16, 2008

friendship (john 15)

Some of you may be familiar with “Facebook”. It is self-described as a social utility that connects friends. Some of you have never heard of Facebook. Some of you have heard of it, some of you probably spend a lot of time there. Facebook is about having your own site on a computer, where you post your picture, and reveal facts about yourself, and you invite friends into your site, and you talk about the next gathering, the next game, the next party. Some have hundreds, even thousands of friends on “Facebook”.

Friday evening I was here at the church, for a wedding rehearsal and then a dinner that followed, and I observed two groups of friends, who were in gatherings adjacent to each other. One group was known to me, for the most part, one was unknown. The first was a Sunday School class, and they had gathered for a “game night”. I suppose there were twenty-five in attendance. They were married couples and singles, they had brought food to share, they were relaxing, laughing, playing a variety of table games. I knew enough to know that the folks present in that room had been through some pretty stressful events in the last year: fighting cancer, the marriage of adult children, the loss of a child by death, business changes, the death of parents, retirements. Some of them had been together a long time, others were fairly new to the group, but they were quickly accepted.

After the wedding rehearsal, and after hanging out with the Sunday school class for awhile, I went into Charter Hall, where Alcoholics Anonymous was meeting. Another group of friends--- a very large group of friends; I am told it is the largest A.A. meeting between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. I sat down and listened, and watched. A man was sharing his life story, a twenty-year journey of sobriety, of making amends, of living “one day at a time”. It was one-part wisdom, one-part humility, one-part humor. Even in a large room it was if he was talking to one or two people. As he spoke, folks nodded: some of them were neatly groomed, others were what I would call “hard-living” people.

I had been thinking for some time about preaching a sermon on “friendship”. Our lives are enriched by friendships, and yet we often take them for granted, when they are present, and sense a great void, when they are missing. The Celtic Christians had a term, “anam chara”, soul friend, and a corresponding saying, “a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head”. Last week Bishop Wilke quoted the verse from the Beatles song of a generation ago, “look at all the lonely people, where do they all belong?” People recognize the need for friendships. And yet friendships are an endangered species. Many of us are like bodies walking around, without heads: all the lonely people.

Years ago I read a wonderful little book entitled Friendship by Gilbert Meilaender. In it he made an important distinction between the classical world and the modern world. In the ancient Greek world, no one expected to find fulfillment in their work. People worked in order to live, in order to contribute, perhaps to the common good. In the modern world, by contrast, people do want to find fulfillment in their work. In the ancient world, people found fulfillment, not in work, but in friendships. In the modern world, many are willing to sacrifice friendships for the sake of work. “The inevitable result”, he noted, “was that deep personal relationships, like friendship, become harder and harder to sustain” (92).

We need friendship. And yet, friendships can be rare. The Bible teaches us that we are created for relationship. After the creation, God surveys the situation and says, “it is not good that man should be alone”, and there is the gift of companionship. Peter Gomes is insightful in noting that God does not say that it is not practical to be alone, or that it is not convenient to be alone. God says that it is not good to be alone!

We were created for relationship. In part, that is relationship with God, in whose image we are made. But we are also created for relationship with one another. Years ago I was getting started in the ministry, and we were living in a rural area. For several years I had enjoyed close friendships with seminary students, some of whom have served over the years at Providence. And now, I was on my own. I began to seek out and through God’s grace discovered a group of pastors, who were about my age, who were also serving in nearby rural towns: Yadkinville, Boonville, Elkin, Mocksville. Over time we met weekly, sometimes to prepare sermons, sometimes to shoot the breeze, sometimes to gripe and complain, sometimes to support each other. The setting changed, from our churches, to a McDonalds in Yadkinville, to the Lexington Barbecue Restaurant. For several years we meet at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast in Lexington. In hindsight, I suppose you would call our group of rural ministers a “social utility”! Looking back, I am not sure if I would have survived the early years of ministry without that group of friends.

I learned, early on, an important lesson. The ministry was never intended to be a lone ranger enterprise. I was always in a much healthier place when I realized that companions in the journey accompanied me. I was not alone. Across the years I have come to a couple of perspectives on friendship.

In friendship we see ourselves in others, our experiences in another person. And sometimes we are supported in the knowledge that we are not the only person going through a stage in life: the physical exhaustion of raising a young child, or being pulled between a teenager and an aging parent, or being a single adult in a large city, or being the parent of a gay or lesbian child, or having a family member in the war. Someone has noted the “aha” character of this kind of friendship: “I thought I was the only one going through this!”

But friendships, deep friendships, can also bring people together who disagree about important matters: politics, sports, even faith. One minister described one friendship in this way: “the only thing we can agree on is the time of day” And this too is a gift: the world is enriched by relationships between people who cross lines that differentiate them. This week I was listening to the television news, and thinking about the identity markers that so polarize our culture: race, class, gender, and then I recalled the wonderful affirmation of the apostle Paul in Galatians 3. 20: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor greek, male nor female, slave no free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus”. The radical message of the gospel was that the love of Jesus Christ did not harden the categories that separate us, but that, in the words of Ephesians 2, it broke down the wall of hostility between us.

Friendships are not just the coming together of like-minded people. And for this reason we move into a necessary dimension of these relationships—the difficulty of sustaining them. There is a wonderful piece of wisdom in the Ecclesiasticus (Apocrypha): The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendship in repair, for he treats his neighbor as himself. (6. 16-17).

Pam and I have a small cabin in the mountains. We have lived in parsonages all of our adult lives, with the exception of student housing in graduate school. With this cabin, and the property on which it sits, we have learned a bit about the meaning of repair. There is labor involved: something breaks, something floods, something falls, something settles, something appears out of date, something is not functional…and it is in need of repair.

We are to keep our friendships in repair. How do we do that? We attend to them. We reciprocate. Sometimes, we ask for forgiveness, for some sin of omission or commission. Because we have invested most of our financial resources, such as they are, in this cabin, it is worth keeping in repair. Are friendships worthy of repair? Have you ever needed to repair a friendship? How would you go about it?

It might be as simple as sending someone an e-mail message and saying, “can we meet for coffee?” Or writing a note of apology. Or making the conscious decision to let go of some grudge or hurt. Or resolving to see that the good in the other person far outweighs the defects. Isn’t this how we ourselves want to be seen, by others?

Friendships are crucial to our well-being, to the formation of community, to the abundant life. But all of this conversation about friendship, for our purposes this morning, is placed in yet another and more ultimate context: In John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples. He is sharing a last meal with them, he will be betrayed, he senses this, he is trying to get an important lesson across to them. And then he says something astonishing to them: “I no longer call you servants, but friends”.

Friendship is for the sake of something larger, a cause, to love one another, and to share this love beyond themselves. Some of our closest friendships in life develop as we focus on some mission that transcends us: two people who sing in a choir, week in and week out, rehearsing music that glorifies God; two guys who coach a kids baseball team, and discover the joy and frustration of see children grow in self-confidence; two couples who spend a great deal of their life in a substantive mission project; parents of disabled adult children who discover a new set of friends, other parents whose path has joined their own.

The friends of Jesus were his disciples, they would take part in his mission, which was to make his kingdom of love and joy and peace and justice visible in the world. Like all friendships, the relationship was sustained by spending time together, learning about each other, sharing meals, becoming vulnerable, getting beyond the surface. The friendship endured, despite failures of love and betrayals of conscience and misunderstandings and periods of doubt. Over time, the friendship with Jesus changed their lives.

There are worse definitions of being a Christian than this simple one: a friendship with Jesus. Peeling everything away---the doctrinal disagreements, the social and racial and economic identity markers, the unique directions our lives have taken—peeling all of that away, to be a Christian is to be in a friendship with Jesus, which, in the original Greek language of the New Testament, is to love Jesus, to be in love with Jesus, which, as John would write in a letter to the very first friends of Jesus, could never be separated from loving his friends. If we cannot love our neighbor, whom we have seen, how can we love whom we have never seen? (I Jn 4)

The invitation is a simpler one: write down, somewhere, a list of three to five friends. I am not talking about the hundreds of friends you have on Facebook. If you have difficulty coming up with 3-5 persons, perhaps it is time to move toward the community---a Sunday School class, a ChristCare group, a Disciple group, a UMW circle. There is no shame in acknowledging the need to cultivate friendships a priority. Priorities change, we move, we over-invest in work. Ask these questions: How am I investing in this friendship? Does this friendship need to be repaired? How can I strengthen this friendship? And then give thanks for the gifts of human friendship, and friendship with Jesus. It is amazing that he calls us, no longer his servants, but his friends. I close with an insight from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“What is an unspeakable gift of God, for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters.

Sources: Peter Gomes, Sermons. Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Thomas Gillespie, “Theological Friendships”, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Fall, 1997. Gilbert Meilaender, Friendship.


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