Second Sunday in Lent
Friends in Christ
I have been blessed with more friends than I deserve. I thank God every day for my friends. There are a couple of people in my life, though—not counting Serge—who are in a special category. They are best friends. They know me really well—all the wonderful things, of course. But they also know things about me that I work hard to make sure the rest of the world doesn’t find out.
If you were to wander over to Barnes and Noble, you’d find shelf after shelf full of advice on love and marriage and parenting—but very little about friendship. This confirms my belief that our society puts a very high premium on romance and parenting, but that we’re not taught very much about how to be a good friend. To see if the numbers would bear me out, I looked on Amazon under advice books. For love and marriage, there were almost 13,000. For parenting, 7500. For “relationships,” 6500—and from looking at the titles, those were all about love and marriage. For friendship—one-seventh as many books.
But I would guess that most of us have far more friends than we have spouses, parents, or children. Am I right? Maybe it would be a good idea for us to think about what a good friendship looks like. In today’s scripture reading we have an example, from the friendship between Jesus and Peter.
Peter is the first of the disciples
to be called. He has been with Jesus
non-stop, since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has seen the healings, witnessed the
exorcisms, heard the preaching and the teaching. Peter is there when they are all out on the
“You are the Messiah.” Yes, Peter, that is correct. Jesus then tells disciples what that means:
31 Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly.
What! Suffering, rejection, death? (Peter overlooks the “rise again” part.) Peter loves his friend Jesus, and can’t bear to think of him suffering in this way. Peter has seen how hard Jesus has been working. Maybe he thinks Jesus is just tired and discouraged. Maybe he thinks that Jesus is faltering under the pressure of all that he’s been doing, that he needs a little bucking up so that he can complete what Peter understands to be his mission: to save Israel from the occupation of the Romans. So he challenges Jesus about this suffer-and-die business.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Don’t be hard on Peter. He is trying to help his friend. He just doesn’t understand yet that helping Jesus means being obedient to the will of God. Would that we were all as willing to help Jesus! And Peter is brave enough to say what he thinks. He cares enough to risk saying something Jesus isn’t going to like.
And Jesus really doesn’t like it.
33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
V V V
I’ve heard people admiringly say of someone, “What a good friend! I can tell her anything, and she always accepts me totally.”
That is not the model of good friendship that Jesus is giving us here. Jesus does not “totally accept” Peter—he says that Satan is using Peter to tempt Jesus away from the mission that he has received from God. Peter challenges Jesus, and Jesus challenges him right back. But it doesn’t rupture their relationship. Peter keeps his place as Jesus’ closest friend. We don’t usually think of friendships being contentious like this, or unpleasant in any way. We say that we inherit our families, so we’re stuck with them—but we choose our friends. They’re supposed to be nice to us, right?
But I ask you: what kind of friend lets something serious go by without a challenge? What could be less demanding than offering unconditional… what? Is it love when you let someone you supposedly care about prattle on without offering any response? Unconditional listening is not the same thing as unconditional love. Love includes caring enough to struggle on occasion, enough to ask hard questions, enough to occasionally rebuke, even if it turns out that we’re wrong, as Peter was.
I have heard people say, “This friend of mine is amazing. No matter what, he supports me. Through thick and thin. We can talk about anything, and he never judges me.” Well, of course we can say anything to someone who’s guaranteed not to argue. But what’s the point of that? We’ll never learn anything that way. It’s like being in an echo chamber.
V V V
As a church, we’ve been reading the book “Three Simple Rules” together. (If you don’t have a copy, there are a few left in the Narthex.) It is a contemporary interpretation of the General Rules that John Wesley wrote more than 250 years ago for the Methodists—three simple rules for a life that will, if followed, 100% guarantee that we will draw nearer to God. We don’t get 100% guarantees very often in life, do we? And the rules are quite simple:
· Do no harm.
· Do good.
· Stay in love with God.
The rules are simple, but not easy. In our study groups, we’ve been wrestling with the first rule: do no harm. (You are welcome to join us as we work through the other two rules.) Our initial impulse was to interpret this rule as: be nice. Don’t make anybody upset. But that is a wimpy interpretation of the rule. Anybody can say nothing. Anybody can make nice. But it takes guts to say something hard. Often that needs reflection and prayer first, to figure out what we really think so that we can say what we really mean. But sometimes we just have to do like Peter and Jesus did here, and say the unwelcome thing right in the moment. But that is not the same thing as lashing out. When we commit ourselves not to harm those with whom we disagree—no matter how near or far—new conversations and discoveries become possible. Our group has struggled with the idea that we can do something someone doesn’t like—even something that makes them mad—without doing harm.
This is a crucial point: to disagree with someone does not harm them. Do you believe that? I’m afraid my mother didn’t. Just before she died, in the fall of 1993, we were in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and we didn’t agree on who should be the next president. My mother took it as a personal affront that I wasn’t going to vote for her choice. I tried to explain my reasoning, but she wouldn’t hear it. I didn’t accuse her of anything—I just wanted to agree to disagree. But she felt that if I loved her, I would agree with her.
That, my friends, is not true. Even soul mates will not always agree. We will not always come to the same conclusions as even those who are dearest to us—much less with those who wander in and sit in the pew behind us.
But to disagree with someone does not harm them. What does the harm is
· talking behind someone’s back;
· disparaging their character, as if their disagreeing with us is a sure sign that they are bad to the bone;
· manipulating the facts, so that they obviously support our position;
· passing on tales that we have heard, as if they were gospel.
Remember, “gospel” means “good news”—and there is nothing good about gossip.
V V V
We are called together as a congregation, to be friends in Jesus. The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, binds us together in ways beyond even best-friendship. In that bond, we are called to speak the truth, as best we discern it, while always keeping our commitment to do no harm to those with whom we disagree. There’s a saying that the only way to get rid of an enemy is to turn him into a friend. When we see others as equally loved by God, equally invited to the table, then we find we’re standing on common ground. The things that bind us together are at least as important as the things that divide us.
Jesus didn’t choose his friends from a pool of perfect people. In fact, the disciples are really not that impressive. They repeatedly misunderstand Jesus—his actions, his words, his mission. When he is obedient to God, they can’t even stay awake with him. Peter, his best friend, will deny that he even knows him.
But friendship in Christ is stronger than that. Through their friendship with Jesus, these people are transformed. Peter becomes the rock of the church. As I mentioned last week, this band of scaredy-cats and losers are the reason we’re here today. Without them, we’d never have heard of Jesus.
As a congregation, we are called to be friends with each other in Jesus Christ. It’s more demanding than regular friendship, I’m afraid. Jesus tells his followers what that means:
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,i will save it.
Today we are receiving three new friends into our congregation. Friendship is powerful. In an honest friendship, we don’t always like what we hear. And when we speak, we’re not always right. But we move forward together, supporting one another, cheering the victories and grieving the losses together. I encourage you to practice your Christ-friendship here in this congregation, including our new friends Doreen, Chris, and Phyllis. In Christ-friendship, we can be transformed. Let’s practice together.
i Other ancient authorities read lose their life for the sake of the gospel