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Holy Friendship

My mom tells the story of working in a clothing store as a young woman. She could hear someone sniffling in a dressing room and after awkwardly hesitating for a moment, she asked if everything was okay. It turns out the young woman in the dressing room was shopping for a dress to wear to her father’s funeral. And she was so, so sad. My mom invited her and her husband to come to my parents’ home for supper. And there a decades-long friendship was formed.

In 1988 my parents moved our family to Henderson County, NC. My mom’s new job was as the director of the child development center at my church. I was in the two-year-old class and there I met a best friend who has been with me ever since. My sister also met her best friend in the after-school kid class.

I could tell you other stories of how I met close friends throughout my life, and if I had to guess, I would say you could tell me your own. In this room we very likely have stories of life-long friends, of friends who were there for us in a season but have since faded away, of friends who became like family, of friends that come and go in our lives as the seasons change. Friendship is so important, and yet, close friendships are declining across our culture. Recent research shows that 12% of adults in the US report having no close friends.[1] The number is higher for men- 15% report having no close friends.[2] Both of those numbers have risen significantly over the past three decades. The numbers do seem worse for men in general; less than 50% of men say they are satisfied with their friendships.[3]

You may already know that loneliness and social isolation are on the rise. It seems that in the US, this alarming trend is due to later marriages, adults moving more often, working longer hours, traveling more often for work, and spending more time with their children than previous generations.[4] And if we don’t just want friendship for friendship’s sake, there’s another reason why having quality relationships matters- friendship has protective benefits for your long-term health. People with close friendships report less depression and anxiety.[5] Scientists suggest that having no or low-quality friendships is as dangerous for your health as smoking 20 cigarettes a day; people with these kinds of relationships are twice as likely to die prematurely. Another study notes that life just seems more manageable with a friend beside you. These researchers found that people judged a hill to be less steep when they were with a friend.[6]

We need friendships. We need them because the hills are steep, and we get tired. We need them because, as we talked about last week, the burden is too heavy to be pulled alone. We need them because they make life better, healthier, and happier. And throughout scripture, not just here in 1 Samuel, but in many places, we see over and over the ways that friendships are a gift. And listen, I hope that all of you are among those who are satisfied with your friendships, that you do feel connected and supported, but I can’t assume you all are. And equally important is that there are so many in our society who are crying out for connection, crying out to be seen and loved. So today is about deepening our own connections as well as being able to offer connection to others.

Dr. L. Gregory Jones, the former dean of Duke University Divinity School and current president of Belmont University has done a great deal of research on a kind of friendship that he calls “holy friendship.” He defines those relationships by three markers. Holy friends are “those who name the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us dream the dreams we otherwise would not dream.”[7] His colleague Victoria Atkinson White writes in her book on the topic that “A holy friendship consists of more than a pair of friends. God is at the center of it; thus, it is set apart, privileged, and protected. A holy friendship is different from an ordinary friendship because it is held in God’s love and part of God’s bigger, ongoing story in the world.”

What we know about Jonathan and David from 1 and 2 Samuel indicates that they were engaged in a holy friendship. Jonathan, the son of King Saul and presumably the heir to the throne of Israel, encounters David first as he kills the giant Goliath. And from their first interaction, the text says that their souls were bound together. Jonathan removes his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt and gives them to David. He symbolically abdicates his throne and gives his power over to David. And later, when King Saul, full of insecurity and rage plots to kill David, it is Jonathan who intercedes and forces his father to relent. Saul breaks his promise and plans to kill David, but Jonathan finds out about it and warns David. Over and over, Jonathan chooses David over his own father, over his own safety. The two live as souls bound to one another, blessing each other, making and keeping their promises. And when both Saul and Jonathan are killed by Philistines, David weeps for them both. After David is in power, now King David, he scours the country for any of Saul’s remaining family. For Jonathan’s sake, David seeks to care for anyone who survived. He finds Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. David welcomes him into his home, giving him all of Saul’s land. According to 2 Samuel 9:11, Mephibosheth eats at David’s table like one of his own sons.

Let me remind you of Dr. Jones’ three-part definition of holy friendship. Holy friends are “those who name the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and help us dream the dreams we otherwise would not dream.” When David is hot headed and sure of Saul’s plotting, Jonathan seeks to make peace. He doesn’t let David run roughshod over his father, but he reins David back in. So even though David ends up being right, Jonathan can call out that sin. Jonathan also immediately sees God’s call on David’s life. He sees David’s gifts and affirms them. He helps David dream and David’s dream becomes Jonathan’s as well. It’s a holy friendship.

If we look in the gospels at Jesus’ relationships, we see similar patterns. We see Jesus calling out the sin in the lives of his disciples, and to be clear, it doesn’t come from a place of judgement, it comes from a place of restoration and reconciliation. And Jesus offers affirmation and a forward path for his friends. Take Peter for example- he’s featured prominently in a few sermons lately. We see Jesus affirming Peter’s faith, going so far as to rename him Peter the Rock, one who will lead the church. We also see Jesus tell Peter to “get behind [him],” and call him “Satan” when Peter wrongly tries to misinterpret Jesus’ purpose. And still we see Jesus forgive Peter’s denials and give him a calling “to feed [Jesus’] sheep.”

We need friendships of all kinds, but holy friendships are where we grow in our faith, our understanding of God, and of ourselves. But they don’t happen by accident. These kinds of friendships require openness, vulnerability, a desire to invest in someone else and to allow someone to invest in you return. They require accountability and trust. They require love. Victoria Atkinson White notes that sometimes these relationships come “the crucible” these are the times that you walk together through an illness, a divorce, or another hard time. Sometimes they emerge through time- these are simply the friendships you’ve had for a long time. Oftentimes if you’re friends for long enough, you find yourself in the crucible eventually. But sometimes holy friendships emerge in a moment; you simply connect with someone. And you build on and commit to and deepen that connection, rooted in a mutual love of God and of the other.

There’s another story from scripture about friendship that helps me to understand all of this. In Mark 2 we read, “When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Of course, this is a story about Jesus healing a paralyzed man, bringing him back into wholeness both spiritually and physically. But don’t miss this- the man comes to Jesus not of his own power, but because of his four friends. His four friends would have carried him to the house, and then seeing that they were not going to get in, they would have climbed up stairs or a ladder to reach the roof, which they then disassemble to lower their friend down. They undertake a pretty extreme effort to get their friend to Jesus, even taking into consideration that roofs were meant to be accessible in that time.

Holy friendship is a commitment to get your friend to Jesus. It’s also accepting the help of others, letting people get you to Jesus when you need it. We need one another. We were made to be in relationships, to be connected and bound together. Pursue deep friendships, pursue holy friendships. Be the kind of friend who would go to whatever lengths necessary to bring your friend to Jesus, and let your friend do the same for you. Love and be loved. It’s the best part of life. Amen.

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