Lesson 5: Christian Friendship

Christian friends in prayerWhenever I spoke of the Church as a “family of families,” I heard from singles, couples without children, and same sex couples. They all said such language made them feel excluded. I understood what they meant, but could never come up with better imagery. After all, the Bible calls God “Father” and other Christians “brothers and sisters.”

Then recently, I realized all of my favorite writers thought friendship was our hope for building a more humane community in our technological society. When I decided to give a talk on the topic, I found there is another tradition that defines the Church as “friends” and is at least as biblical as “family.”

All four gospels picture Jesus calling us to extend our love beyond biological relationships. The first three report Jesus warned his teachings might break up families. They make clear to follow him meant joining his band of friends as they traveled the roads, sharing all things. The Gospel of John says much the same when it builds to a climax in the Last Supper with Jesus making friendship the highest value. He says now that he has shared all his knowledge with his followers; he regards them as friends, not disciples. Then he proclaims there is no greater love than to give your life for your friend.

Here I am in the last stages of my life finally realizing it can be helpful to substitute: “friend” for “ neighbor” in some of our basic teachings. “Love your friend as yourself” certainly captures the meaning better than “Love your family as you love yourself.”

And it is also more challenging as it removes all restrictions on my ability to choose whom I want as friend. In fact, it forces me to allow myself to be chosen as well. Jesus was called the friend of tax collectors and sinners. At the Last supper he even calls Judas “friend.” Paul wrote, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no male or female.”

The Christian goal is to make all friends. We are to love even our enemies, returning good for evil in order to make them friends. That is quite different than the Greeks and Romans who defined friendship as appropriate conduct between men who were members of the city. Friendship is pretty much good citizenship. It assumes common values and goals. The most classic statement used for a millennium by Christians as well as Romans was Cicero’s “Friendship is good will and charitable agreement in all things, human and divine.”

Many see electronic media enabling us to practice the Christian ideal. However, unless we accept Jesus’ understanding of friendship, we end up communicating beyond borders but only with people who are just like us.

Next week I’ll start examining characteristics of traditional friendship worth sustaining and reviving. We all know some of them, such as sharing. Others have been often forgotten, such as friendship as a way wisdom and God, and friendship as playfulness and self-denial.

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