Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Old Posts: A Meditation on Friendship

This is an old post from a couple of years ago. I think I only ever posted it on Myspace.

Anything really worth having takes work. This is especially true with relationships, and so it is often considered such with regard to marriage. But it is also true with regard to friendships. "Friendships come and go," people say. But why it has to be this way, I don't know. In fact, I would question whether or not it does. In our country, marriage has mostly ceased to be a commitment and has become a commodity. It seems like every other week I am hearing about somebody getting a divorce, even people who I would have never expected to. And our philosophy about friendship seems no different. Certainly, the two aren't parallel. There are no covenant bonds in friendship, though it is worth noting that in the two supreme examples of friendship in Scripture, that of Abraham and God, and David and Jonathan, there were, in fact, explicit covenant bonds. What that should mean for our friendships today, I do not know.

Ours is a selfish society. This results in divorce, but it also results in a failure to maintain deep, long-term friendships. Even finding a true friend seems nearly impossible. But then maintaining that friendship, nurturing it even through difficult times, and sustaining it over many years, is something of a pipe dream. Nobody seems to consider that this might not only be the result, but also a major cause, of our shallowness. A failure of friendship contributes to a feeling of unrootedness, a sense that we don't really belong anywhere or to anyone. We long for an identity, something outside of ourselves to tell us who we are and who we should strive to be. Much of this is, of course, due to the failure of the family in our society. But families who fail to give sacrificially of themselves by reaching outside to those without families eventually find themselves ingrown and dying.

Friendship requires a type of intimacy, a sharing of life. Jesus addressed this in his words to his disciples at the Last Supper:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17)

This section of Jesus' words are structured as a chiasm, which is a literary structure containing symmetrical thoughts while moving progressively in a logical fashion. Here is the diagram I would suggest for this section:

A – the command to love one another
B – to love is to lay down your life for your friends
C – you are my friends if you do what I command you
D – servants don't know what their master is doing
D' – friends share in what friends are doing
C' – you didn't choose me, I chose you
B' – you should go and bear fruit that will abide
A' – the command to love one another

In a chiasm, the center section is the focal point or the central meaning of the passage. Here, it is the transition of the disciples from being merely servants to being friends. This is contained in the parallel D and D'. And the intimacy we see is not merely a sharing of feelings or interests, but a sharing of vocation. Jesus came to live and to die. The disciples sharing of this was not merely in imitation, but they were called to participate in the vocation of Jesus. It was through them that the work of the Father would be continued, and even the work of Jesus Himself.

It is interesting to note the change from servanthood, or slavery, to friendship. Such reflects the teaching of Paul with regard to the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. We see this in Galatians 3 & 4, where Paul tells how those living under the Old Covenant were children and therefore no different that slaves. And yet those who are in Christ are in the New Covenant. They are Christ's, they are children of God, and they are Abraham's offspring (Gal. 3:26, 29).

When we add to this James's discussion of Abraham's obedience (James 2:21-24), we see that as Abraham obeyed God, so should we, if we are truly his children (see also John 8:39-41). And, as James tells us, Abraham was called the friend of God (James 2:23). So just as Abraham was God's friend, so all that are in Abraham are not merely servants, but friends of God.

And yet, this does not eliminate all notions of authority, obedience, or accountability. "You are my friends if you do what I command you," Jesus tells them. We have a hard time conceiving that it is possible that those under authority might actually be friends with those in authority over them. And yet Jesus says this is not only possible, but it is necessary for those who would participate in his ministry. This should bring to question the modern approach to ministry, which is shaped on a business model rather than a Biblical model. Pastors are to be servants, walking and living among those they serve, rather than CEO's who show up in the offices and factories every once in a while to pretend they really care about the people who work for them.

One aspect of the passage that I have left out of my diagram involves Jesus' relationship with his Father, yet this is a key aspect of what he is saying. The work to which the disciples are called is the work of the Father. This is the work which Jesus came to do. The disciples were, in being adopted into the family, also being brought into the family business. And in being brought into the family business, they would have communion with the Father as Jesus does.

The whole passage is bracketed with the command to sacrificial love. It is only true love if one lays down his life. It involves finding one's place in the God-ordained structure of a community or family and being obedient in that vocation. And it involves the sharing of life, that is, of truth and experiences.

Kind of hard to do if one spends most of his spare time drunk in a bar. Or glued to a recliner in front of the TV or the internet. Or, for that matter, if one shuts out all those "difficult" people in preference of those nice, cozy relationships that take no work and therefore never grow. Jesus spent three years discipling twelve men. All had their faults. None of them fully understood his work, even up until the point he left them. And all of them abandoned him in his darkest hour. He gave himself when he got nothing in return, knowing that the harvest never comes in the same season in which you sow.

The perfection we long for isn't meant to exist in this world. We live and we die, and we spend much time in between wondering whether we are actually doing anybody any good. But God is the gardener, and He assures us that when we die and fall into the ground as He has commanded us (John 12:24-26), He will cause to spring up from our death fruit that will abide.

And this is as true in friendships as anywhere else. This doesn't answer all the questions, of course. By the nature of friendship, it takes the effort of two people, and if only one is willing to do the work necessary, it seems to stand that the friendship won't get very far. Yet this remains, that God calls us to serve one another sacrificially, obeying His calling and sharing our lives with one another. If even the whole world abandons us, we may still serve the world, knowing that God is our friend, and He will never abandon us, but will stick closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).


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