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May 6, 2018

ABIDING FRIENDSHIP

A couple is putting together the guest list for their wedding. The young woman asks her fiancé, How many friends have you got in all? He responds:

 

No idea. Ten really good ones. Ten more peripherals. A score or so right at the outside edge, virtual acquaintances. A few more from college, a few picked up at work, perhaps an ex in there somewhere. One or two borrowed or stolen from other friends. An ex-[room]mate or two. Not as many as I used to have, that’s for sure.

 

He later asks his bride-to-be, How many varieties of friends are there? She answers:

 

Oh, loads. For a start there are friends you don’t like. I’ve got plenty of those. Then there are friends you do like, but never bother to see. Then there are the ones you really like a lot, but can’t stand their partners…there’s the one you’re friends with not because you like them, but because they’re very good-looking or popular and it’s kind of cool to be their friend. Trophy friends…There are friends of convenience—they’re usually work friends. There are pity friends who you stay with because you feel sorry for them…There are—

 

He stops her from going on and on.[1]

 

This little conversation lifted from Tim Lott’s novel “White City Blue” raises two questions most of us have pondered: Who are my friends and just what kind of friends are they?

 

The ancient philosopher of Athens, Aristotle, considered these questions in depth. There are three varieties of friends, he said. There are those we use for our benefit. These friends make us look good, improve our lot in life or get us what we want. Then there are those we find pleasant. These friends are fun to be around, simple as that. And then there are those we care for deeply. These friends we want the absolute best for and they seek the best for us as well. These ones are the true friends, Aristotle argued.[2]

 

We may have many kinds of friends, but true friends are rare. That such friendships are rare is natural, said Aristotle, because people of this kind are few. [These friendships] need time and intimacy; for as the saying goes, you cannot get to know each other until you have eaten the proverbial quantity of salt together. In other words, real friends emerge out of the bitter and hard experiences of life. For that reason, they are rare.[3]

 

According to our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus had twelve real friends. As the joke goes, it was a miracle that Jesus had 12 close friends in his 30s.[4] In his final speech to his disciples, he calls them friends—for they tasted the proverbial salt together. They were faithful to Jesus through accusations and persecutions. They were committed to his cause despite the cost. Though they faltered, they loved him more for who he was than for what he could make them be. Through time and trial, real friends emerged.

 

Even though these disciples have done what he commanded and worked for his kingdom-cause, Jesus tells them they are not slaves—they are friends. This distinction is important. For long before Jesus, Aristotle argued that friendship between a master and slave is impossible.[5] Friendship is only possible between human beings who treat one another as such.[6] Jesus assures his disciples: there is no inequality among them.

 

It is easy to miss what is being said in this gospel lesson. On first reading, Jesus’ declaration of friendship seems like a sentimental statement. Yet with these words of Jesus, John the gospel-writer is making a controversial claim about the relationship between God and humans. Aristotle, who was influential in John’s culture, argued that friendship between the human and divine is impossible—due to the inequality between them. John counters Aristotle’s claim with the story of Jesus. He tells us that Jesus is God become human. In becoming human, God overcomes the inequality. As one of the first Christian hymns goes, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…being born in human likeness.[7] God goes the distance to bring human beings into companionship. When God in Christ says I have called you friends, it is a declaration that is true for us all. Real friendship with God is made possible: God abides in us and we abide in God.

 

Now if friendship with God is possible, then it is certainly the case that friendship between any apparent unequal is possible too. While Jesus called his disciples friends, the pattern of Jesus’ whole life was making friends with unequals so as to eliminate the inequality.

 

Early on in John’s gospel we hear about Jesus asking for a drink from a Samaritan woman at a well. John is sure to remind us that Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.[8] And yet these two share more than a drink; they share the truth of each other.

 

Jesus was also known to invite sinners and tax-collectors to tables occupied by the righteous and tax-burdened. For Jesus, any invitation to share a meal is an offer of friendship.[9] And even at the end of his life, Jesus paid mind to the criminal on the cross next to him, promising to be his friend in Paradise.[10] These are the friends Jesus made. Such friendships are not only possible for us, they are actually the ones our world we really needs.

 

It may seem impossible that a Harvard-educated Taiwanese teacher could form a real friendship with her eighth grade student of the poor Mississippi Delta, but this is the true story of Michelle Kuo and Patrick Browning. After graduating, Michelle joined Teach for America, which assigned her to a school in Helena, Arkansas for students expelled from the mainstream schools. Michelle was subject to the blatant disrespect of her students. It wasn’t long before she got mean. But in her second year of teaching, Michelle tried a new tactic with her students. She taught free writing, which encouraged her students to express themselves through poetry and journaling. Several students flourished as they learned to share their experiences of poverty and loss through written word. One of these students was Patrick Browning, who was fifteen and in the eighth grade. Patrick was quiet. He lived in a neighborhood where the shootings were so frequent that the city council had threatened to impose a curfew. Michelle taught Patrick to write poetry that gave voice to his violent experience.

 

After her teaching contract expired, Michelle moved to pursue a law degree at Harvard. Just before graduation, she found out that Patrick killed someone by accident and was awaiting trial in jail. She drove back to visit him. Seeing Patrick, Michelle realized, the inequality between [them] had widened. They were of different worlds; the products of vastly different experiences. Yet still, she felt the need to help him. Forsaking job offers, Michelle moved back to the Delta so she could regularly visit Patrick. She discovered he dropped out of school not long after she left. So Michelle resumed teaching him. They read and reflected on Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin. They recited poetry every day. Patrick produced arresting poems and wrote astonishing letters. She wanted him to hope. He wanted her to believe in God. She provided him legal assistance. He helped her confront racism. She equipped him to get his GED. He helped her realize her vocation. Later in life, Patrick wrote to Michelle: you are the person who brought me out of my depth. Whatever you do I’m with it to the end.[11]

 

Michelle and Patrick’s relationship demonstrates all that qualifies for true friendship, as Jesus defines it. A good friend is willing to lay aside life’s pursuits for the sake of the other. A real friend is faithful, committed and reliable through time and trial. A true friend holds nothing back, but shares all that is good with the other. A genuine friendship has no disparity, no inequality; there is nothing owed, nothing deserved. In such friendship, companions always seek what is good for one another, for goodness’ sake.

 

There is something else remarkable about this friendship. Michelle does not pick Patrick to be her friend. He is her student. But in the course of their coming together the student/teacher roles give way to friendship. We can choose our friends. We can pick what kinds of friends we have. But it is also possible that true friendships emerge from circumstances beyond our choosing. If we are open to them, they will change our lives.  

 

I said earlier that Jesus invited people to his table. This invitation was an offer of friendship. All those who sat at the table were friends, by little choice of their own. An Easter belief of ours is that Jesus still invites us around his table. All of us around this table are called friends, by little choice of our own. There is no room for inequality at this table. Everyone gets an abundant share. Here are not so much friends of our choosing, but those God has chosen for us. The decision we have to make here is just what kind of friends we will be.

 

Are the friends we find here for our benefit? Are they just pleasant acquaintances? Or are we willing to set aside our comforts and conveniences for the best interest of the friends we find here? Will we be faithful, committed and reliable through time and trial? Will we share all the good things of God with them? Will we affirm the good in them and seek the best for them?

 

Jesus invites us to abiding friendship around his table—with God and one another. He says that if we so abide, we will bear much fruit. Our world needs the fruit of the vine—the fruit of true friendship.

 

So look around. Here are friendships made possible. What kind of friend will you be?

~ Pastor Jon Nelson

 

 


[1] This anecdote is quoted in Alex Nehamas, On Friendship, 101-102.

[2] Nichomachean Ethics, VIII, iii.

[3] Nichomachean Ethics, VIII, iii.

[4] https://twitter.com/mormonger/status/975497709548314624?lang=en

[5] Nichomachean Ethics, VIII, vii.

[6] Nichomachean Ethics, VIII, xi.

[7] Philippians 2.

[8] John 4:9.

[9] I am indebted to Jean Vanier for this insight found in his book with Stanley Hauerwas, Living Gently in a Violent World.

[10] Luke 23:43.

[11] My telling of this story comes from Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A Student, and a Life-changing Friendship. All quotes are Kuo’s.