The Character of the Called: Friendship

5915778263_7436e959cbThe following is the second sermon in a two-part series preached at The Falls Church Anglican. The first sermon by Rev. John Yates can be found here. This sermon was by Rev. Bill Haley on June 9, 2013. You can find an audio version of this sermon here

St. Ambrose said in the fourth century, “As in the Garden, God walks in the Holy Scripture, seeking us.” Lord God, we are opening the Scripture this morning, because we are looking for you, and we want to be found by you. So would you send your Holy Spirit to meet us, lead us, teach us, show us. This we ask in the name of Jesus, your Son. Amen.

Every passage in the Bible has at least two things going on in it at the same time: the point of the passage, which is the same for all people for all time, and all the other things going on in the passage through which God can speak and from which we can learn. Isn’t that a beautiful image: God walking through the Scripture, looking for us? One main point, and a million more ways that God can meet us. It’s important to know the main point of a passage while we seek to hear God’s word specifically to us, whether that be through one word, a phrase, a teaching, an image, or however else that God wants to speak.

So as we dive into our Gospel reading from Mark 2 about a paralyzed man who is forgiven and healed by Jesus, I want to highlight the main point before highlighting a very powerful detail that God lit for me like a beacon fire at least a couple of decades ago, and it’s never gone out. I can’t think of this passage without immediately thinking of that phrase.

But first, what’s the main point? The main point of Mark chapter 2, verses 1-12 is this: it is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and he has the authority to forgive sins and he has the power to heal. That’s the point. Jesus Christ is Awesome. He’s true, he’s real, he’s divine, he’s the God-Man, God come as a man to lead us to life and to bless our lives. We sing it: “There is a Redeemer, Jesus, God’s own Son, Precious Lamb of God, Messiah, Holy One.” That’s the point of the passage: Jesus Is.

Now here’s the powerful detail. You know the story, and I’m going to call it “Four Men Screaming on a Rooftop.” Jesus is teaching and healing around Galilee, and he comes home to Capernaum, and he preaches in a house. It’s jammed, and you can’t even get near the door. Four men bring a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They see that they can’t get in, so they climb on the thatched roof made of straw laid over beams. They lift the man up, they remove one of the panels, and they lower their friend down through the roof to Jesus’ feet.

And here’s the detail: verse 5, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’” “When Jesus saw their faith,” the faith of these four men, Jesus healed the man, and he did it in a very important order of priority. First he healed the man’s soul by the forgiveness of sins, then he healed the man’s body of paralysis and he walked. And Jesus did this in response to the faith of his friends. Faith in what? Faith in Jesus, and faith in his power to heal.

So the man got up, we’re told in verse 12, and he “went out before them all.” And here’s where we get the title of this story, “Four Men Screaming on a Rooftop”—because where were they? Probably still on the roof, watching their friend walk out the door. Can you imagine? They would have been screaming and cheering and hooting and hollering, praising God and probably weeping with joy and in shock. Verse 12: “They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

We learn a lot about what good friends look like in this story, and quite helpfully, they all start with the letter C. Six characteristics of good friendship: These men were compassionate, that is, they cared in their hearts about their friend. They were committed: committed to their friend’s best, and they were committed to helping him, all the way. They were creative for their friend, and unconcerned about how others would perceive them. They were courageous for their friend. They were a community, in this case a band of brothers. And most importantly, they were Christ-seekers. They sought out Jesus and brought their friend to him.

I remember seeing this very powerful detail—“When Jesus saw their faith”—for the first time in college, and thinking, “I want friends like this. I need friends like this. I need friends who will take me to Jesus when I’m paralyzed on the floor and can’t move, friends whose faith is such that Jesus will hear their prayers on my behalf and heal me.” And God gave me good friends, Chris Shaw and Tom Steinle, and ever since I’ve been blessed by good friendships. I have been lowered through the roof so many times, I can’t even list them. So I’m dedicating this sermon to Chris and Tom and those brothers and sisters who have come after.

These friendships have taken work, and a lot of intentionality and conscientious choices and a lot of mileage walked together on the road of life. The best friendships don’t just happen, they’re made, one step at a time. One of you wrote to me this past week,

“The more we take small steps to open and share our lives and our selves with our friends—whether it’s sharing temptations and struggles, or dreams and successes—the easier it gets. It’s a bit like working out. The more you do it, the more it seems like light work and the more you realize that it invigorates you.”

This whole sermon series on Proverbs, five months of it, is about becoming wise, and our friends matter in our pursuit of wisdom. Tim Keller observes, “You won’t live a wise life unless you are good at choosing, forgiving, and keeping terrific friendships.” Why is this? Because, as the book of Proverbs tells us, over time we become like who we do life with. “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). John preached last week on the value and need of good friendships, talking about how good friendship is marked by constancy, candid critique, and good counsel. Today we’re looking at choosing friends wisely and developing good friendships.

What does Proverbs say about who you want to be friends with and what sort of people we should walk most deeply with? Basically and very simply, we read these passages in Proverbs that describe how friends act, and then we try to look for those kinds of people who are going to act that way. Does that make sense? You choose friends based on what the Bible says that friends do, and you say “that’s the sort of person that I should pursue for friendship.” These characteristics are right from the Bible.

First, choose friends who will love us (Proverbs 17:17): “A friend loves at all times, and a brother [or sister] is born for adversity.” Heavy on my mind this morning is Wright Wall, one of our church planters who pastors our daughter church, All Nations D.C. One of his best friends, named Kris, was diagnosed in late March with aggressive brain cancer and it’s not good. When he heard about it, Wright flew to Washington state as soon as he could in early April to be with him, to pray with him, and to be with his family, and in ten days he’s flying out again across the country just to be with his friend who’s now in hospice, to be a friend. A friend is born for adversity. Wright’s story illustrates the next one, too.

Choose friends who will stick with us (Proverbs 18:24): “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Now D.C. is somewhat famous for being an environment where it’s difficult to find and hang onto good friendships. It’s a sad thing that so many have found some truth in that quote attributed to Harry Truman, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” I look at that and think, “That just ought not to be, and it doesn’t have to be!” So I think our challenge here to our church this morning is, let’s live so biblically that that famous line could be changed to, “If you want a friend in Washington, get to know someone from The Falls Church Anglican!” Wouldn’t that be better? I think so!

John spoke to these next two characteristics last week. Choose friends who will challenge us: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6), and “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Of course, it ought to be noted that usually there is not sharpening without some sort of friction and pain. But the product is strong and useful.

Then, choose friends who are wise (Proverbs 27:9): “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.”

Lastly for today, choose friends who are seeking God first. This characteristic doesn’t come from Proverbs, but it still comes from Solomon. There are two images that are often applied to good marriages that are just as true for good friendships, but applied less often. The first image is from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Three strands. The image is of three pieces of string wrapped together to make a stronger rope. Two friends and Jesus make a very strong cord.

Similarly, you’ve heard it said that the secret to a good marriage is to see it like a triangle, with Jesus at the top. As a husband and a wife move closer to Jesus individually, they naturally move closer together. It’s true. But it’s also true for good friends. As we each move closer to Jesus, we will move closer together. So choose friends that are going hard after God, and if you are going hard after God as well, then you’ll go a long way together and find yourselves drawing nearer along the way.

Now it should go without saying that if we’re wanting friends like this who will love us, stick by us, who are wise, and challenging, and are seeking God, then we’ve got to be these sorts of people, too.

So, what to look for in choosing our friends? Bill Hybels wrote a whole book on Proverbs, and he puts it really well. Surveying the whole book of Proverbs, this is how he speaks of choosing our friends:

“We should choose friends who by their example call us to a higher level of honesty…whose mere presence challenges us to think before we speak and to apply standards of truthfulness…friends who are tenderhearted and merciful…friends of high integrity who are beyond reproach, who will pull us to higher levels of character, not lower…we need to look for people to whom we can bare our hearts and souls [and who will guard what we tell them]….we need friends with a reconciling, forgiving spirit who are committed to working through relational conflicts quickly.”

Now, where did Solomon, the wisest man in the world in his day, learn all this?Perhaps by hearing firsthand about one of the most precious, beautiful, powerful friendships the world has ever known, from his own dad, David—who would have told him about his dear friend, Jonathan. David’s friendship with Jonathan was marked by love and loyalty, honesty, deep emotion, great courage, commitment, much grief, and covenant promises. 1 Samuel 18-20 tells us the story, and it’s got some of the most powerful scenes and descriptions of deep friendship in all of literature. We’re told in the first verses of chapter 18 that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. …Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” Deep love and spoken promises of committed friendship come up again between them in chapter 20, and when David is informed that Jonathan has been killed in battle, we hear his reaction in the first chapter of 2 Samuel, where he sings, “Jonathan lies slain on your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” Friendship can be like this.

Now in recent years, some have sought to take this story and twist it to justify a certain sexual permissiveness, and from the first time I heard that interpretation and still this morning, it makes me so mad I can barely breathe. My professional and spiritual judgment on that interpretation of this passage evokes language that I cannot share standing behind this pulpit. I’ve had friendships like Jonathan and David’s. Those who think that such language of same-sex intimacy and affection is impossible while remaining platonic only demonstrate what shallow experiences of true friendship these people have had, or the lengths they’ll go to pervert a clear and compelling story of two friends to support a certain agenda. It’s just not even plausible. It’s sad. I would call it even diabolical, because what happens is that a great story of what real friendship can be like gets lost for those who are so desperately seeking deep friendship! Isn’t that tragic? And all of us are seeking good friendship, aren’t we? We all want good friends, and we all want to go deeper with the friends we’ve got.

So how do we develop good friendships? First, let me say it’s never too late to start making friends and to build into our friendships and see them deepen. Another one of you emailed me this past week with that concern, along the lines of feeling that life’s too far gone to develop the sorts of lifelong friendships we’re talking about. So he quoted a wise woman in our congregation. She’s in her 80s, and every time I see her sitting out there I think to myself, “She really ought to be up here and I ought to be sitting down there.” I’m not going to tell you her name, but I will say it’s the same as the state we’re all in this morning! She said, “I take things like this and just implement them as if I’ve got another 50 years to go and to get it!” It is never too late to receive something good that God wants to give us, and start in a direction to blessing.

Another thing to note is kind of counter-intuitive. Probably the best way to develop real friendship is not to try to develop real friendship, but rather simply to love another person really well. I get this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said very wisely and also disturbingly, “The one who loves community destroys community, but the one who loves the brothers builds community.” So maybe we can apply that here: “The one who seeks friendship will have a harder time finding friendship, but the one who loves will find many friends.” So our posture is less about finding a friend for me and for my needs, and rather more about loving someone else for their sake. Again, if we want to have good friends, then we’ll be a good friend, and as we do that, we end up walking into the deeper waters of friendship, sometimes quite unaware that that we are beginning to really encounter the depths, until we look back on it and say, “That person really matters to me,” or “Apparently, I really matter to them.”

Let me highlight a couple things that’ll help develop our relationships, and then make a couple of concrete suggestions.

I already mentioned the centrality of Christ in good friendship. It’s not to say that we can’t have meaningful and real friendships with folks who don’t share our faith, but at the end of the day there will be some deep places places we are not able to go or share. Jesus is really important to good friendship. He’s the center, the summit, and the source, he’s the third strand, the tip of the triangle. If our community of friends is going deeper in him, and I am, too, then we’ll find ourselves much closer together.

Developing friendship takes initiative, so we take initiative. Keeping closely in mind what sorts of people we want to be friends with and how we choose our friends, when we think of those we might reach out to, we might say something like, “Hey, I heard you say thus and so at that meeting. I’d love to hear more about that. Would you be up for a cup of coffee to talk about it?” Or, “A couple of us are going to a movie this weekend. You want to come?” Or, “You want to get some folks together for a BBQ on the holiday?” Or “You strike me as a wise person, and I’ve got such and such going on in my life. I’d love to run that by you. Can we do that sometime?” Or, “You want to get some folks together and go camping, or rent a house in the mountains for the weekend?” Take the initiative and see what happens.

Developing friendship takes transparency and vulnerability and honesty. This is to be open about real stuff going on in our lives, the real joys, the real struggles. Yes, of course, the dark places and the harder things, but also our dreams and our deep desires. When you let a person in, it’s not just letting them in to the harder things. It’s also about letting them in to the gorgeous things, who am I, all of it. And friends, the gorgeous things are always going to be deeper than the harder things, so we don’t want to spend all of our time there, do we? We want to hear each other’s heartbeats.

Developing friendship takes time, so make the time. Most of life is not like college, and it gets a lot harder as we get older. But then it gets easier again, actually. Retirement is a great season to develop real relationships. But for those with jobs, and kids at home, and volunteerism, and church commitments, and on and on, still we can make the time, even if it comes in smaller portions than we wish we could have. The jury’s out on the ultimate relational impact of social media and communication technology and our constantly connected world, but one thing’s for sure, it’s a lot easier to just pick up your iPhone and make a call to a friend and check in and see how they’re doing. One of you mentioned to me how valuable it is to check in with a good friend a couple of times a week, even just for five or ten minutes on the drive home to share how the day went. It’s good to get together at other times, but even just to pick up a phone and say, “How are you?” Developing friendship takes time, so we’ve got to make the time.

Pray together often. Speaking of college, I mentioned my friends Chris and Tom. College was where our friendship began at the end of freshman year, and it got deeper every year. Amongst us there was no competition, just the desire to sharpen each other, iron on iron, helping each other be who we knew each other to be. In other words, seeing the best in that other person and calling it out of him. I vividly remember weeping at our graduation when we went our separate ways, me to Boston and while they stayed in Minneapolis. They got married right after school; it took me another 10 years to get married, but our relationships stayed deep. We started a little foundation to give away money, but the real point was that we put in the by-laws that the board (that is, the three of us!) would meet every year to decide how to give a little bit of money away. In other words, the law held us accountable to keep our friendship alive, and many years we’ve actually been able to be law-abiding citizens!

I was with Chris and Tom this past February in Minneapolis. It had been a couple of years since I’d seen them in flesh, and it was so good. And we asked, “Why? Why has this been so good? Why, 25 years later, does this still mean so much to us?” And we all three agreed on the reason.

All throughout college, we met three times a week, late afternoons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in the prayer chapel for an hour. We talked about our lives, we talked about the world, we talked about women, and every time, we prayed with each other, for each other. This past February, we all three vividly remembered the sign-up sheet on the outside of that little prayer chapel: 5:00 p.m., MWF, 12 times a month, we’d go through and fill all the slots, “TCB,” “TCB,” “TCB,” “TCB,” “TCB.” Together this past February we said, “Praying together has got to be a lot of it, whatever this great ‘It’ is.”

So, Developing Friendships? Pray together, as often as you can at whatever stage of life you’re at. Three strands, tip of the triangle.

Now, a couple of concrete suggestions for us this morning. Let’s re-read that story about Jonathan and David and see if there is anything that applies to our own friendships. Maybe, if you’re needing friendship, I would encourage you to take some initiative, and even take some risks. Once again, just approach somebody you think might be a good friend and say, “Would you like to go out for coffee?” Reach out in love, and watch yourself get loved back. Maybe take an existing good friendship and take it another step further and deeper in light of what you’ve heard last week and this week. Maybe it’s as simple as reaching out to one of your best friends and simply affirming with words your friendship. All it takes is a phone call.

Then this. This is the one I’m really excited about. John’s sermon from last week and mine from this week will be on our website, both in audio version and in transcript. I would encourage you to choose one sermon or the other or both, and email the link to some of your good friends, and say, “Can we talk about this? Do these have anything to say to us? What’s next? What’s the vision? What’s realistic?” I’m going to send this to Chris and Tom, and to some other folks more locally, and to other folks scattered, and I’m going to write this: “You matter to me. I love you. You’re dear to me. With great gratitude for what we already have been given, is there more? Would you listen to these, and let’s talk.”

Now of course—and this is beautiful—some of you have heard these sermons at the same time together because you’ve been in the same room. So for those of you whose closest friends are already here, what’s next for you?

Remember Jesus, who saw their faith and healed their friend? He’s true. He’s the Son of God, he is God, God come as a man to lead us to life and to bless our lives. Jesus forgives, he heals, and he makes the deepest friendships not only possible, but a reality.

Maybe this sermon has brought to your mind some images of people you’d like to go deeper with, people that you already are pretty deep with. Just bring them to your mind.

God, we thank you for these gifts. And we humbly present our relationships to you and say, “Here, have them. Do with us what you will. We are grateful for what you’ve already given, but we want to give you more, and we want to do that together. So would you pour out your Spirit on us, to lead us deeper and deeper and deeper into the life that is really life. Amen.

Rev. Bill Haley is the Director of Formation at The Washington Institute and Associate rector at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

Photo CreditJon Swanson

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