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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 17, 2017

 The Elixir of Friendship

1 Samuel 18:1-4; John 15:9-17

            “We are as we love.”  That is what Carlisle once said, and I have always believed he is right.  At the end of the day we measure our lives by how we stand with the people we value, the people whose companionship – a word that means literally “to share bread with” – matters deeply and greatly to us.  While Christian faith gives us a lens through which to see the whole world, a faith that cannot help us in our most important friendships is no faith worth having.

            One of the first gifts given to us in creation is the gift of companionship – “It is not good that man should be alone,” says God, before creating woman.  The motivation is sheerly out of God’s concern for us, it is an act of love.  God does not say that it is “not practical” or “not functional” for the man to be alone.  God says simply that “it is not good.”  Which makes our companionship with others something that is inherently meant to be “good.”  Adam’s need is our need as well.  It may be part of our DNA.  We need to find ourselves connected somehow to someone or ones other than ourselves.  This Genesis passage can be read as a passage about marriage, but not all of us marry, and not all of us are called to marriage.  I think even more fundamentally it is a word of our need for human community.

            Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “We were created for friendship with God.”  Yet even God realizes that our connection with God, our Creator, as good and life-giving as it may be, is “not good enough.”  So the creation of a companion for Adam comes as a gift of the grace of God, our ultimate friend.  Just as God exists with the Trinity as three different persons, yet ever and always undivided, so we find life in our connections to others.  We are all different; to draw close to another is to discover how different we all of us are!  But we need each other in all of our difference.  “No man is an island.”

            Today I want us to consider the treasure that is human friendship.  To help us I want us to turn to the passage in Sirach, commonly called Ecclesiasticus in the Roman Catholic Church, which regards the apocrypha as Holy Scripture: “A faithful friends is a secure shelter, … there is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his excellence.”  Again, “A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find one.”  (“Found only by those who fear the Lord,” says another popular translation.)

            That is the first thing I want to remind you this morning.  Friendship, true friendship, is a treasure.  True friendship is hard to find, like treasure, and true friendship comes from God, who wants to be our friend.  We all know about the great and enduring friendships of history – the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias is a lovely story, and if you have not read it in years, revisit it.  The Biblical account of David and Jonathan is one of the most beautiful accounts of friendship.  “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”  Isn’t that a beautiful, powerful description of God’s intention for friendship?

            To treasure means “to value highly, to cherish, to keep carefully.”  We have all heard the saying, “to have a friend you must be a friend.”  This is what it means to treasure your friends, to treat them as the precious gifts that they are.

            I am reading a book on marriage called, Cherish.  Gary Thomas says it is “the one word that can change everything in your marriage.”  It comes, of course, from the church’s liturgy in the wedding service, where we say, “by His Apostles, Jesus has instructed those who enter into this relationship to cherish a mutual esteem and love.”  Marriage is many things.  It is important for husbands and wives to be lovers, to keep dating, to keep romance alive.  But it is equally important to remain friends, to cherish each other as friends.

            I had a friend in another community who had failed twice at marriage.  He was a generous soul, a very successful orthodontist, a man with many strengths who also had his weaknesses.  (Unlike the rest of us, who only go from strength to strength!)  One day when we were running he said to me, “Next time I decide to marry, remind me instead to find a woman I hate, and buy her a house.”  My poor friend did not learn that marriage must be about friendship.  I am glad to tell you that he found a partner with whom he has built a wonderful marriage.  They are best friends, and seeing them at a wedding in April was a joy.  They treasure each other.  Many years ago we had dinner with them, and my friend told us that he gets his wife coffee first thing each morning.  I thought, “Doesn’t wisdom come from strange places?  I have done it ever since!

            We were created for friendship with God, but God gave us human friendship as the next best thing.  And if you have friends that you value, treasure them, cherish them.

            Note secondly what Sirach says: “The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendships in repair, for he treats his neighbor as himself.”  This implies that friendships can fall apart, and we know that they do.  The sturdiest friendships require maintenance; they must be kept in repair.  It takes work to maintain a friendship – not just affection or mutual attraction or even respect – but also work.  More often than not, such work is found in the little things, the ordinary courtesies and kindnesses of life.  When William James prepared to head off to Harvard, his Uncle Henry told him, “Willie, I have three things I want you to remember at Harvard.  The first is, be kind.  The second is, be kind.  And the third thing is, always be kind.”

            If you own a car, you need to keep it in good repair.  I have had a timing problem with the hatchback on my car and our automatic garage door, resulting in three deep scratches running down the back of the car.  I called yesterday about getting them fixed.  They won’t fix themselves! 

            If you own a house, there is always something about that needs repair, or at least attention.  “The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendships in repair, for he treats his neighbor as himself.”  Friendships do not keep themselves up – it takes effort, intentional work to keep the friendship alive and healthy.  “The best way to have a friend is to be a friend.”

            I am not a big fan of social media, which may just be a confession that I am becoming a grumpy old man!  But I do like Facebook’s notion of turning the word “friend” into a verb.  It makes for bad grammar, but in relationships, friendship is not simply a feeling or a sentiment.  It is also a call to action, a summons to keep things in repair.  My experience is that when things go south in a friendship, it is often a chance to go deeper with that person than you ever would have if everything simply floated along on the surface.

            Finally, please note that the wisdom of Sirach, a Rabbi names Joshua ben Sirach who wrote this book of Hebrew wisdom, is that the ideal for friendship comes to us from God.  Christians often sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus!”  And Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  This is the deep meaning of Jesus’ cross.  It is God’s great expression of how greatly the Lord God desires friendship with us.

            To be friends with this God is to be friends with the world.  Frankly, true friendship with God should draw you closer to everyone else created in the image of God.  It gave to Albert Schweitzer “a reverence for life.” 

            Yet not everyone has understood this connection.  I am a huge admirer of Woodrow Wilson, a man of profound Christian conviction who read chapter of the Bible out loud every day of his life, prayed three times a day, and then again at every meal.  But at the end of his life, someone said, “All Wilson had were slaves and enemies.”  He failed at friendship!

            When E. Stanley Jones was a young man, he felt one night in a church the call of Christ.  It led Jones to India where he served Jesus as a missionary for much of his life.  He said of that night, “I felt as if I had swallowed sunshine … I felt as if I wanted to put my arms around the world.”

            Christians ought to be the best friends in all the world, because in Jesus Christ, we discover how great a friend God is to the entire human family.

            “What a friend we have in Jesus!”  What kind of friend of Jesus’ are you?



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