“I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from the Father.” St. John 15.15
We have been playing phone tag for about a week now, and I’m really getting anxious to speak with him. Last week, I had a call from my friend Damien. He’s in Germany now, teaching in a high school and trying to decide if God wants him to be a monk, and we haven’t talked in a few months. He was my very best friend in my college days. We did everything together. We took the same classes, we played in the band together, we fished together and cheered on Duke basketball together, we prayed together and ate barbeque and drank beer together, we took road trips together – from Eastern North Carolina to Western France. We talked and talked about everything that was important: theology, politics, history, women, sports, our memories of the past and our dreams for the future – you name it. For the better part of three years, we were almost inseparable.
When I stop to think about friendship, as I must when I read the 15th chapter of John’s gospel on the feast of an apostle, I think first of those three years Damien and I spent together. I think of all the good times, all we learned from each other, all the growth we experienced. Having a friend like him was one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me in life.
Friendship is a topic in the air these days. We might think about the final episode in the lives of television’s most famous set of friends, which 51 million Americans tuned in to watch last Wednesday night. For some among us the topic of friendship touches close to home, because these next few months are the last weeks some of you will spend with the friends you have made here. You will see each other again, and play phone tag like I do with Damien, but it’ll never be quite the same again. These are days to spend cherishing those friendships, enjoying a few last laughs, and saying the things that need to be said.
And friendship is in the air as we gather here today because we are remembering St. Matthias. We don’t know very much about St. Matthias from the Scriptures. He’s only mentioned in that one passage from Acts we read this morning. The legends about his later life are rather vague. Some say he went to preach among the Ethiopians. What we do know for certain is that he was considered worthy to become one of the twelve apostles after Judas committed suicide, and this was because he was a friend of Jesus.
The apostles certainly had many functions and did many things, but first and foremost they were Jesus’ friends. They weren’t always his good friends, but they were his friends. They had hung out with him for three years; they had heard everything he said. They knew him better than anyone else. As we will see later, we too might rightly be called friends of Jesus, but not in that direct sense that the apostles were his friends.
What is friendship about? What does it mean to be a good friend; why is it that friendship is such a valuable and precious part of life?
We might begin answering such questions by saying that friends are those who spend time together. When the apostles go about choosing one to complete their number, their first criterion is to find one who “has accompanied up during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.” They want someone who has been around, someone who has really gotten to know Jesus well.
This aspect of just being with each other is such an important part of friendship, and yet in a world of such busy schedules and so many distractions, it is often hard to spend enough time with someone else to really become a good friend. I think a big factor in the popularity of the TV show Friends is that for ten years, through all sorts of ups and downs, those six characters were always there for each other. They liked spending time together, they committed to supporting each other. The theme song identified that factor that was so very attractive: “I’ll be there for you, when the rain starts to fall, I’ll be there for you, like I’ve been there before, I’ll be there for you, ‘cause you’re there for me too.”
As is often the case, people of our time find attractive what is missing in their own lives. Today, far too often people fail to distinguish between their companions and their friends. A companion is someone we enjoy being around, someone we find pleasant and interesting. A friend is a companion with whom we have formed an emotional bond, someone to whom we have committed ourselves in real way, even when, as is most often the case, that commitment is unspoken. A friend is someone who we will be there for no matter what. Often we say, “my friend A” or “my friend B,” when what really mean is: this person who I know and find pleasant did this or that. The person isn’t really a friend, just a companion. In a well-lived life our companions will be many, but our friends, if they are really our friends, will be few.
This is because true friendship takes so much time and effort. In his discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle quotes with approval a Greek proverb, “count no man your friend until you have eaten a pound of salt with him.” Aristotle wasn’t advocating lots of bacon, Mr. Yergey. He was saying it rightly takes a long time to form the kind of strong bond that is true friendship. And in an age like ours, when so much has to happen right now, right here, in an age that has almost bred the attention span out of us entirely, that type of long-term commitment will be difficult for us. And yet, as so often in life, it is the discipline of just such a commitment that can give our lives real meaning and structure.
You do have a great advantage in living here, in this community. Because there are few of us, and we spend so much time together, many of you learn very profoundly, what it means to be a friend. I believe some of you understand what it means to be there for each other much better than I did at your age. Here many of you do commit to each other, and some friendships I seen here have a heroic intensity that deserves the highest respect and admiration.
But friendship is about more than just being there. It is also about intimacy, about drawing close to each other, and intimacy is first is about sharing secrets. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells his disciples that he calls them friends, not servants, because he has revealed to them what his Father is doing. He has let them in on what has been hidden to the rest of the world.
More than any other action, it is telling our secrets that allow someone to get close to us. Our secrets are an important part of who we are. We are so interesting to one another precisely because we are mysterious. If you have no secrets you are either very uninteresting or very unpleasant, and probably both. When we allow someone to draw close to us, in friendship as well in romance, we do so by bringing a bit of the mystery of ourselves out into the light. This act of telling secrets always implies a great amount of trust, for when another person knows what we keep most deeply hidden, he knows how to hurt us the worst, just as he probably knows how to help us best. Knowledge always brings power, power for good or evil, and it is only when we count someone our true friend that we are willing to give them that power over us. To tell someone a secret is to give a most precious gift, and like all gifts, secrets must be given freely, and with the best of intentions.
But good friendships are about more than just being there or sharing secrets with each other. They also bring growth, as friends encourage and challenge one another to make one another into better people. Friendships can also drag us down, of course, but when we become friends with good people, we can be inducting ourselves into what has rightly been called a school of the virtues. As the great Anglican divine Jeremy Taylor wrote, “friendship is the greatest love, the greatest usefulness, the most open communication, the noblest sufferings, the severest truth, the heartiest counsel, and the greatest union of minds of which brave men and women are capable.”
We don’t have time for me to delve into all of that, but we might at least say that true friendship will bring sacrifice, “the noblest sufferings” as Taylor calls it. Jesus described this so perfectly when he said in our Gospel Lesson, “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Being a true friend is about seeking the other’s good before your own, helping your friend even when such help is difficult and costly, learning the price of loyalty and the value of putting another before yourself. I know that when I have felt weakest and most troubled in life, my friends have been there for me, to offer support and give freely of their time and resources. I hope that many of you have also found friends who support you when you are troubled, and that you have been able to pour yourself out to help your friend in trouble.
As a part of growth, friendship is also about being able to have that conversation that includes what Taylor calls “the severest truth.” If your friend has done something cruel or fallen into a destructive habit, you may know you are his true friend when you can say: “why are you doing this. You aren’t acting like that person I have always respected and loved.” “Do you realize how much you are hurting others.” We can say such things to our friends because they know that we love and support them even when we must criticize them. When they are our genuine friends they will value the “severe truth” we share because they know we want to use it to make them better.
Perhaps the most profound and most beautiful part of a friendship, though, is a particular kind of knowledge that I find very difficult to describe. Cicero famously asserted that a friend is “another self”—now what he meant by that, I think, is something like that experience we sometimes have with deep friendships. that experience when we seem to know the friend as well as we do our own self—when our friend seems a part of us.
You might feel this when you’ve played so much basketball with a friend that you know exactly what moves he will make, or maybe there’s been a time when you have laughed so long and deeply with your friend that you seemed to become one, or a time when you talked so long together, that you begin to complete the sentences for each other. These experiences are remarkable and precious because they are rare. They are about transcending our individuality and merging with one another, they are about communion.
You know, at the heart of the Christian faith lies a rather radical assertion about the nature of friendship that becomes most evident when we gather here at this altar for what we call “Holy Communion.” Through Jesus, God can be our friend. I found it really interesting when I was reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics this week, that Aristotle goes through a discussion of who can be friends. Can fathers be friends with sons, slaves with masters, and so on. And one of the questions he asks is, “Can men be friends with God?” And Aristotle’s answer is most certainly not, men cannot be friends with God because the gap is so big. God and humans don’t have enough in common to become friends. There can’t be any real communion.
Aristotle, of course, didn’t consider the possibility of the Incarnation. He didn’t take into account that God might become a person, a person who could gather friends around himself and be there for them when they needed him, a person who could tell secrets, a person who could lay down his life for those he loved. Aristotle didn’t consider that this might just be the one thing that God wanted the most in all the world, to take the people he had created, and make them his friends, to draw them to himself, to bring that most profound experience of communion with Him into their lives. Aristotle, that is to say, didn’t consider the possibility of Jesus.
But in Jesus, God is still opening up to us, every day, that chance to become his friend, and for me, at least, it is here at this Altar more than anywhere else that I find the one who is my friend. A nineteenth century Communion hymn begins “Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face.” Here, it is saying, I know you as the one who is there for me, no matter what. Here, O God, you reveal more of yourself to me each time I feed on you. Here, O Lord, you give me the forgiveness and strength that I need to live a better life. Here, O God, you draw me to yourself, and make me new. Here I find, you, the best of all my friends.
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word. He preached this sermon on St. Matthias’ Day, 2004, to the students and faculty of Saint James School, St. James, Maryland.