4th Sunday of Easter
13 April 2008
My sons have been busy this year learning very important things in preschool. They are learning how to follow instructions, how to sit still and listen, how to clean up after themselves – all of which I think more than justifies their tuition! They are learning that eating good food helps you grow and get strong. They are learning about growing things, and they love to remind me that every plant needs three things to grow: dirt, water, and sunshine. They don’t know it yet, but they are learning some of the most foundational things they need for their future and ongoing education.
Of all the things they are learning, there is one in particular that seems most important to them and their classmates. They are learning how to be friends. Do you remember your earliest experiences of friendship, and how very important it was to you? What we learn as preschoolers about friendship holds throughout the rest of life: how to take turns, how to share, how to listen, how to cooperate, how to trust and how to be trustworthy.
For my boys, “friend” is the most important thing you can call somebody, and they use it almost like a title. So sometimes I am called “Friend Mommy.” And at Christmastime, Charlie liked to talk about his Friend Santa. When he looks in the mirror, the person he says he sees is Friend Charlie.
Part of what is so delightful about watching three and four year-olds build friendships is the joy and innocence with which they approach it. They are not yet interested in scheming or excluding, gossiping or betraying. Their goal is simple – they simply want to be together, and to have a good time. Recently, when a new girl joined Rob and Charlie’s preschool class, she approached another girl with a very straightforward request: “Will you be my friend?” The other little girl responded very matter-of-factly: “I’m everybody’s friend. We are all friends here.”
If only that attitude could hold. Somewhere along the way, we lose that happy inclusive embrace of any who come seeking friendship. As we grow older, friendship becomes no less important, but it does become more complex. Very firm lines are drawn, so that we know who is in our circle, and who is out – or whose circle we are in. In adolescence, friendship can be the source of some of the most intensely wonderful moments in our young lives – and the source of the most painful, most devastating ones as well. As teenagers, the nature of our friendships colors every aspect of our lives.
Eventually, though, for many of us, at some point friendship begins to take a back seat to other primary relationships in our lives, like the relationship we have with a spouse, or a child, or a job. We become more casual about our friends, we have less time for them, which makes us think we have less need of them.
This sad fact doesn’t make us long for connection any less – we still have that deep and primal need. If you keep up with popular culture at all, you know that so many of its messages are directed at our need for acceptance, relationship, belonging. The 80s sitcom “Cheers” hit the nail on the head with its theme song: “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.” The 90s sitcoms “Seinfeld” and “Friends” showed us adults with strong and unwavering commitments to each other. Many morning talk shows are designed to make the viewer feel like he or she is sitting at the table, too, chatting it up with the hosts and the guests. Reality shows give us the illusion that we really know the people we are watching, that they are somehow part of our circle of friends.
Interestingly, some sociologists would argue that the demise of friendships and community in our society is directly proportionate to our increased television viewership [viewing?]. It seems that many of us substitute watching pretend people have relationships for actually building and nurturing real relationships ourselves. Over the last 40 years, there has been a well-documented decline in participation in public life. More and more it seems that people are hunkering down, cocooning within their homes, with their families or their TVs or their computers. Our world seems to be fragmented, disconnected, disintegrating. Do we even know what genuine, committed adult friendship is supposed to look like anymore? Do we even know where to find it?
The value of adult friendship has been bedrock throughout human history. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Chrysostom, Plutarch – they all regarded friendship as supremely important. They wrote of friends as having one soul, being another self, being partners, holding all things in common, being in relationships of equality and reciprocity. Cicero’s classic definition is: “Friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection.” (1) This is the adult and ideal manifestation of what we begin learning as youngest children.
For the ancients, friendship was not a casual matter. The hope of all society rested on the ideal of friendship. It involved a serious commitment, mutuality, unity, equality, reciprocity. They stressed inclusivity – meaning that true friendship should extend beyond merely sharing the same interests or vision; it meant full sharing, in spiritual matters, in material matters. It meant actively sharing one’s goods, and helping and giving oneself to the other. Friendship meant genuine obligation. It implied a claim. (2)
New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that, though the New Testament does not use the words “friend” or “friendship” all that often, friendship is still a pervasive theme, and ancient readers would have understood the many allusions to it. In writing this morning’s passage from Acts, Luke draws on the language not of other Scripture, but of the Greco-Roman philosophers. Johnson writes, “By saying that the believers were ‘one soul,’ held ‘all things in common’ and called nothing ‘their own,’ Luke described them as friends…. The first believers were not simply ‘friendly’; they realized the ideal sharing that philosophers considered the essence of true friendship.” (3) Johnson says their practices of sharing with each other identified those first Christians “as the most successful of all ancient experiments in friendship.” (4)
Can you imagine the church as [containing] the best expression of real friendship? Do you realize it is our calling? We tend to use the more spiritualized word “fellowship” as if fellowship were somehow a more noble concept than friendship, rather than just another name for it. Friendship is not some superficial secular value; it is a deeply theological concept. In his last conversation before his death, Jesus says, “You are my friends.” And then he tells us how to be a friend: This is my commandment, that you love each other as I have loved you. What more profound relationship could we be called to, than one that implies absolute equality, radical sharing, and mutual devotion to the great call of Christ?
Is this what you find, when you come here? Is it what you are looking for? You might think you already have enough friends. Or you might think you don’t have time for such a thing as friendship, and the real obligations it implies. Maybe you’ve had too many disappointments in your past relationships to trust that you could have good friends, or that you could be a good friend. Maybe you think you are too different from others, that your opinions are not orthodox enough for Christian community.
We tend to be well-defended people. Which means we have defended ourselves not only against obligation and disappointment, but also against the great gift of being claimed, of belonging to each other, of being community with each other. And to close ourselves to the gift means we also close ourselves to one of the ways God wants to work in our midst and through our community. Luke’s story of the early church reminds us that Christian friendship and community isn’t only for the people inside – it is always for those people out there, too. Luke tells us that when those early Christians gave themselves to such friendship, God worked many wonders through them, bringing many people into the life of faith. Sociologist Parker Palmer writes, “When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: ‘See how they love one another.’” (5) That was what people saw when they looked at the early church.
Was it ever perfect? Of course not. Those people were as fallible as any of us. They had made terrible mistakes in their past, and they would make more in their very near future. There is no such thing as utopia – there wasn’t then, and there isn’t now. What there is is an invitation. An invitation to honest friendship, to genuine community, to know and to be known, to give concrete care and to be cared for in concrete ways. Those first believers were not drawn together by a mere shared interest. They were not together because they shared the same opinions. They were brought together because they had been given the same Spirit – God’s own.
And this is how it happens. Christian friendship, Christian community, doesn’t happen because we have worked hard at it. It doesn’t happen because we have the same opinions or the same interests. It doesn’t happen because we don’t have conflict. And it doesn’t happen because we just really want it to. It happens because we open ourselves to it, or, more to the point – it happens because we open ourselves to the Spirit which makes it happen. That Spirit is a gift, and the friendship it creates is a gift, and the first thing that has to happen with a gift is you have to accept it.
The text from Acts shows us some of the ways those first Christians opened themselves and accepted the gift. They devoted themselves to learning Christ, and to prayer, and to worship, and to hospitality, and to sharing everything they had. They accepted the gift Christ bestowed on them, which included both his Spirit and each other, and then they set to nurturing that gift, together. They kept returning to all those places they had experienced his presence before – in Scripture, and prayer, and worship, and fellowship, and in tending to actual needs within and outside of the community.
In the end this all sounds rather simple. Maybe even a bit bland? It hasn’t got all the exciting, intense connotations that all those friendships on TV have. It’s just got what Eugene Peterson calls a “long obedience in the same direction.” It’s just a bunch of ordinary people who keep showing up, and who keep opening themselves up to God and to each other, and responding to what they receive. It’s just a bunch of ordinary people who let God go to work in their midst.
It isn’t utopia. It is friendship. It is community. It is the church. It can be this church – you and me. Friends. Friends. It’s not just a preschool word. It’s Christ’s own word for what we’re meant to be. It’s a word with the healing of the whole world in it. Friends.
1 - Luke Timothy Johnson. “Making Connections: The Material Expression of Friendship in the New Testament.” Interpretation. 160.
3 - Ibid. 161.
4 - Ibid. 171.
5 - Parker Palmer. The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life. 118.
6 - Eugene Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.