By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
A Middle School English teacher asked her class one day to write imaginative definitions of a friend. One student said, “A friend is a pair of open arms in a society of armless people.” Another said, “A friend is a warm bedroll on a cold and frosty night.” Others said: “A friend is a lively polka in the midst of a dreary musical concert.” (What? No rock ‘n’ roll?) “A friend is a mug of hot coffee on a damp, cloudy day.” “A friend is a beautiful orchard in the middle of the desert.” “A friend is a stiff drink when you’ve just had a terrible shock.” (How does a middle schooler know that?) “A friend is a hot bath after you have walked 20 miles on a dusty road.”(1) Lovely thoughts. Mark Twain said, “The holy passion of friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime if not asked to lend money!” Friendship… Friendship is clearly a wonderful thing.
A rare thing too. Last year The Clergy Journal(2) shared disturbing information about making friends: 60% of men over 30 cannot identify a single person they would call a close friend. Of the 40% who list friends, most were made during childhood or school years. Most women can identify 5 or 6 women whom they call close friends. A closer look shows that a lot of these were functional relationships. Friendship is not easy to develop.
Our lesson is about friends and friendship. If it has never occurred to you before, note that Christians were called “friends” before they were called Christians. That’s right. The New Testament says, “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians'”(3) — long after the death of Jesus and the dispersion of his disciples in the early days of the church. But Jesus himself said to the disciples, “I have called you friends.” Think about that. Let it sink in. “I have called you friends.” Before anything else. “I have called you friends.”
Another theme is pounded home as well – love. The Greek words agapáo and agapé are found nine times in the verses we read. “As the Father has LOVED me, so I have LOVED you; abide in my LOVE. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my LOVE, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his LOVE…This is my commandment, that you LOVE one another as I have LOVED you.” On and on it goes. Love, Love, Love!
Please note: the love about which Jesus speaks is not the romantic, mushy-gushy phenomenon that our generation thinks of when we hear the term. No one, not even Jesus, can “command” that sort of emotion – that just happens. More accurately, the love of which the Lord speaks is a characteristic, not of what sweethearts have, but of what genuinely good friends enjoy. This love, agapé love, is an act of the will.
What are some of the characteristics of a good friendship? Think of a few. Friends care about each other’s welfare. That makes sense. If you are my friend, I want the best for you. I want people to think well of you. I want no harm to come to you. In fact, deep friendships are often forged in the midst of common suffering. Soldiers returning from the battlefield will always speak angrily of the ugliness of war and yet, in the same breath, they will talk with warmth about the friends that they made. I can guarantee you that, as you and I are sitting here, deep friendships are being formed in the Red River Valley as folks dig themselves out of their disastrous flood. People, who were initially perfect strangers, having passed together through a terrible storm, an earthquake, or some other natural disaster, will suddenly feel themselves to be the closest of friends and years later will sit and reminisce about their shared experiences.(4)
Speaking of sharing, that is something else friends do. Material things, of course. Even money, despite Mark Twain’s humorous caveat. And more important, friends share what is inside. C. S. Lewis says, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one.”(5)
Years ago (I do not remember where), I recall hearing of an old African-American woman who had spent some seventy years as servant to a southern belle from childhood into her dotage. Now the mistress had died, and in an effort to comfort this old black maid, a neighbor said, “I’m so sorry to hear of Aunt Lucy’s death. You must miss her greatly. I know you were dear, dear friends.”
“Yes’m,” said the servant, “I am sorry she died. But we wasn’t friends.”
“Not friends,” said the lady, “I know you were. I’ve seen you laughing and talking together lots of times.”
“Yes’m, that’s so,” came the reply. “We’ve laughed together, and we’ve talked together, but we was just “quaintances. You see, Miss Ruth, we ain’t never shed no tears. Folks got to cry together before they is friends.”(6)
What else makes for friendship? According to Jesus, expectations are involved. “You are my friends if you do what I command you…And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” Have you ever been let down by a friend? Probably. Has your disappointment at being let down – or the other person’s disappointment at being let down by you – ever strained or even broken the relationship? Happens all the time, doesn’t it? Friendships are sustained when friends keep up their end of the bargain.
Friendship often requires sacrifice of some sort, and, in some rare cases, even the supreme sacrifice. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
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During the Vietnam War, a rural village had been bombarded with mortar shells and some shells landed on an orphanage run by missionaries. The missionaries and a few children were killed outright. Several other children were wounded, including an 8-year-old girl who had multiple injuries and was bleeding profusely.
In response to a runner sent to a near-by town, a young Navy doctor and nurse came with only their medical kits. The young girl was in critical condition and in need of an immediate blood transfusion. Blood typing indicated that neither American had the right blood. However, several of the uninjured children did.
The Navy doctor spoke some pidgin Vietnamese and the nurse some high school French. The children spoke no English, but some French. Using what language they had and sign language, they tried to explain to the frightened children that unless they could replace some of the girl’s blood, she was going to die. They asked if anyone would be willing to give blood to help. Wide-eyed silence met their request. After several moments of eye-searching, a little hand went slowly up, dropped down, then went up again.
“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed the nurse in French, “What is your name?”
“Heng,” came the reply.
Heng was quickly laid on a pallet, his arm swabbed with alcohol, the needle carefully inserted in his vein. After a moment he shuddered, covering his face with his free hand.
“Is it hurting, Heng?” asked the doctor. Heng shook his head no, but he kept sobbing, his eyes tightly closed, his fist in his mouth to stifle his sobs. Something was very wrong.
Just then a Vietnamese nurse arrived to help. Seeing Heng’s distress, she spoke to him in Vietnamese, listened to him, quickly answered him, stroking his forehead, soothing and reassuring him. After a few moments, Heng stopped crying, opened his eyes, and a look of relief spread over his face. Looking up, the Vietnamese nurse explained to the Americans, “Heng thought he was dying. He misunderstood you. He thought you asked him to give all his blood to save the little girl.”
“But why should he be willing to do that?” asked the Navy nurse.
The Vietnamese nurse repeated the question to Heng, who answered simply, “Because she is my friend.”(7)
Have you ever had a friend like that? At least one that I know of. It was on a hill called Calvary, outside the city wall, and overlooking the town dump. It was there that your friend and my friend died that we might live. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
How do you get to be Jesus’ friend? Jesus told us: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But even as simple a statement as that could lead some to misunderstand if we take it out of context. Friendship with Jesus is not simply about following some rules, as that sentence might lead us to believe. Remember what the command IS: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, if you want to be my friend, be a friend to my other friends. That sounds so simple. But we know it is not.
For whatever it is worth, we have not come upon this relationship with Jesus willy-nilly, nor by accident. As Jesus reminded the twelve in that Upper Room, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
There was an episode on The Wonder Years some years back about choosing a basketball team in Gym class. The teacher chose two captains who then picked the rest of their teams. As usual, the poor players were always chosen last which did little to help the self-esteem of those chosen after everyone else. Some of Kevin’s friends, who were usually chosen at the bottom of the list, complained to Kevin. Kevin brings their complaint to the teacher, who promptly makes Kevin one of the next captains. He has to choose his team. His best friend – and one of the worst players – looks at Kevin with eager anticipation. Will Kevin choose him early in the rounds…or be like all the other captains?
Kevin chooses his friend – and he felt good about bolstering his ego. So the next round, he chooses another poor-playing friend. Some of those he had chosen were getting after Kevin. “Pick some of those good players. We want to win this game.” Kevin kept picking the losers – and he felt good about it – and they felt good about being picked early.
How did Kevin’s team do? Did David knock off Goliath? No way, José! They were miserable! They did not come close to winning, but they enjoyed the game. They were not playing to win. They were playing to have fun.
If Jesus wanted to win in the religion game, he should have chosen the Pharisees. They were the pious people. They were the ones who prayed at least three times a day. They knew their Bibles. They worked hard at obeying ALL of God’s laws. They fasted once or twice a week to show their religious devotion.
But whom did Jesus choose? Not the Pharisees. There were fishermen – known to be crude and foul-mouthed, impatient and hot-headed. He chose a tax collector – and everyone knew those people were swindlers. He chose a zealot – a fanatical revolutionary, and one who wanted all the tax collectors dead. Must have made for some interesting dinner conversation. Jesus chose us – known sinners, known to be somewhat less than perfect, known to have all kinds of problems in our lives. God elects the rejects.
But there is a little difference between Jesus’ team of poor players and Kevin’s team, who at first wanted to win. Jesus’ victory is already assured. So it is no longer about winning and losing. It is about enjoying the game.(8) Having fun in the process. What was it he said, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete?” Filled with joy! Life abundant! What a Friend!
The other day, as I was driving in to the church, I came up behind a car at a stoplight which had a bumper sticker paraphrasing the slogan decrying drunk driving. This one said, “Friends don’t let friends die without Jesus.” I understood the sentiment, but I wanted to change it to “Friends don’t let friends LIVE without Jesus.” Over and over and over let it be said, Jesus is more than fire insurance. Jesus is joy. Jesus is peace. Jesus is life abundant.
Friendship. Recalling those definitions with which we began all this, we can add Charlie Brown’s inimitable insight – standing all alone, Charlie says, “A friend is someone who sticks up for you when you are not there.”(9) That is a bit like a eulogy. What brings that to mind is the funeral in this sanctuary last Sunday afternoon – Oliver Bailess – a man who many of you counted as a friend. There were a number of folks “sticking up” for Oliver. It was a moving service and no part more so than the scripture that Chip Bailess had chosen and asked me to read to summarize his father’s life. As I read the selected passages, I thought what a marvelous tribute the verses were. Then, for some reason, I thought about my own funeral service, and wondered how my son might choose to remember me. I hope he will not have to decide soon, but I would be more than content if, when the time comes, I am remembered as JESUS’ FRIEND.
How about you?
1. John Killinger, “A Celebration of Friendship,” via Internet, Lectionary Homiletics
2. May/June 96. Quoted by Larry Linville, via Ecunet, “Sermonshop 1997 05 04,” #4, 4/28/97
3. Acts 11:26
4. Fr. Charles Allen, S.J., via Internet, “Friendship,” http://www/spirituality.org
5. William Adams, via Ecunet, “Illustrations for This Sunday,” #302, 5/3/97
6. A post by Susan Andrews, via PresbyNet, “Sermonshop 1997 05 04,” #53, 5/1/97, brought this story to mind.
7. Carol Myers, Holland MI, via PresbyNet, “Bottom Drawer,” #2717, 3/31/96
8. Brian Stoffregen, Rock Springs, WY, via Ecunet, “Gospel Notes for Next Sunday,” #3417, 4/28/97
9. Doug Behm, via Ecunet, “Illustrations for This Week,” #295, 4/27/97