Church historian Martin Marty once broke away from his usual pursuits to write a handy little book called Friendship. He begins it with this simple sentence:
We have friends, or are friends, in order that we do not get killed.Anthropologists and psychologists would agree with Marty. They say that human beings formed communities early in our history in order to fend off attacking predators or other human beings.
But there’s a deeper, spiritual reason to agree that we form friendships in order to avoid being killed. The Bible shows us that we were made for friendships with God and other people. Without vibrant friendships and other relationships with God and others, we die, literally and figuratively.
When humanity fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, it represented a distancing from their relationship with God on the part of Adam and Eve. They separated themselves from the very Source of life! And the second result of that first sin was a breach in the relationship of Adam and Eve, each blaming the other for their sin. God's sole object from that moment to this has been to repair and restore our broken connections to God, to one another, and to our true, joyful, God-selves.
It's because relationship is central to God that the Ten Commandments are divisible into two tables, the first three dealing with our relationship with God and the second, our relationships with one another. And it's because relationship is central to God that Jesus says that the greatest commandment has two parts: to love God with our whole beings and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Through our friendships with God and others, we are to have and give life to one another.
According to the Bible, there are lots of ways to die that don’t involve the physical end of this life. Jesus says that whenever we speak ill of others or curse them or ignore them, we inflict death on them and we violate the Fifth Commandment: “You shall not kill.” Having and being a friend is truly a life-giving thing. And no one is as alive as the person whose life is enriched by close friendships!
But having or being a friend isn’t an automatic thing. Friendship is a gift, but for the gift to keep giving, friendship must be nurtured.
So, how can you and I have and be friends?
First: We love our friends with the tough love of Christ. Christ kept loving His disciples, even when they misunderstood Him, even when they betrayed Him. He didn’t always approve of the things they said or did, but he never stopped loving them.
He has the same attitude toward you and me today. He loves us with the same tough-minded, tender-hearted commitment with which He loved His first followers.
Just before Jesus went His cross, He said that the greatest act of love comes when a person lays down their life for a friend. Then He said, "You are My friends!" Think of it: In spite of our sins and faults, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, calls us His friends!
In our relationships, we must realize that sometimes we will be hurt and disappointed by our friends. And sometimes we’ll hurt and disappoint them.
These things are true even when our friends and we are Christians. As Christians, we are saints and sinners, after all. We’re forgiven sinners recovering from our addiction to self-centeredness, still tempted to want to be little gods ourselves. And though forgiven and granted everlasting life for our faith in Jesus Christ, we’re still subject to the temptation to self-centeredness for as long as we live on this side of the grave.
But to have friends, our love must be tough. Paul writes in our lesson from Galatians: “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted...”
If your friend has gotten into a drunken stupor, you don’t hand him the keys just because he’s your friend or he grows belligerent. Because you care about him, you confront him. Friends sometimes have it out! And if you see your friend engage in behaviors that are clearly self-destructive or are harmful to others, whatever they may be, love commands you to confront.
Confront, but not condemn! Martin Luther retold the story of an early church saint who was told about a friend who had fallen into adultery. Instead of condemning, the saint said, “He fell yesterday; I may fall today.”
Jesus Christ has shown compassion for sinners. He confronted those who knowingly sinned and He was quick to forgive and restore the repentant. His combination of straight-shooting toughness and gracious, forgiving love is what He wants us to display in our relationships. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he tells us in our lesson from Luke, that if someone sins against us seven times in one day and they repent, we are to forgive.
Now, if you fear that you’re not tough enough to forgive like that, I have a simple confession to make. I’m not tough enough to forgive like that either. That’s why I go to Christ in prayer each day. In Him, I find the strength to love others as He loves me. I ask Christ to love the other person through me in ways that I can’t.
A second Biblical principle for having friends is expressed by Paul, writing in our lesson from Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens,” he writes, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Bear one another’s burdens! You’ve heard me tell the story before of something said to me by a woman whose husband just died. I was visiting with her and her family. Our visit was punctuated by frequent knocks at the door. Each visitor brought more and more food. Between her tears, the widow dabbed her eyes and told me, “There’s a lot of love in that refrigerator!” People were doing what they could to help her with her burden!
And they were doing it in a way that fulfilled the law of Christ that Paul talks about. The only new commandment Jesus ever gave came when He told Christians to love one another. Let love be the cement that holds the church together, Jesus was saying. We clearly see that sort of love when we bear one another’s burdens.
A third principle for friendship is this: If you want to have strong friendships, follow Christ and be part of His Church. I was at a convention of the church district to which I’d just been assigned as a graduating seminarian twenty-three years ago. Weeks before, I’d interviewed to be the associate pastor of a thriving congregation. The interview had gone well and my wife and I awaited word on whether the congregation and the senior pastor wanted me there or not. I knew that the senior pastor would be at the convention. But every time I saw him, he seemed to walk the other way, as if he were avoiding me. I wondered if it was all my imagination. But then, immediately following a worship celebration during the convention, this pastor approached me.
“I’ve been avoiding you, Mark, and I’m so sorry," he began. "I couldn’t even bring myself to receive Holy Communion just now because I realized how much I’d wronged you. You see, we decided to call another candidate to the position, someone who worked at our church before. I was avoiding you because I couldn’t think of a good reason for turning you down. Can you forgive me?”
Well, of course I could forgive him! And truth be told, things worked out for the better since I ended up at a wonderful parish I was privileged to serve for six years before coming here to start Friendship seventeen years ago. That pastor, by the way, became a bishop and by all accounts, a terrific one! I could have guessed that he would be from our encounter that night so many years ago.
In the fellowship of the Church, we remind each other that we are all sinners in need of God’s free gift of new life that comes to all who repent--that is, who turn from sin--and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. The New Testament word for grace is charitas, which is the root of our word, charity. God’s grace, His charity for sinners in need of forgiveness, is amazing, as we often sing. Through the Church, Jesus Christ teaches us that He can forgive us all our sins. We need to forgive others as we’ve been forgiven. When we do that, we clear away the debris that makes friendships hard. We can have and be friends.
Three principles for having friends:
- Love people with the tough love of Christ;
- bear each other’s burdens; and
- find the power to love and forgive others by maintaining a relationship with Christ and His Church.