In these post – Easter days, the saints at Crafton Heights are spending time studying the first letter of Paul to his friends in Thessalonica. So far as we know, it’s the first written record of a response to the resurrection. Our text for April 21, 2013 was I Thessalonians 2:17-3:13
Not long ago, I spent a considerable amount of time with a man who was in a profound crisis. This man had just experienced a spectacular “fail” in his personal life…and it had become public. He made a bad decision – actually, an entire series of bad decisions – that wound up causing great pain, disruption to himself, to people he loved, family, etc. When his shame and his pain were great, he called and asked to meet with me.
As we sat at lunch, I asked him, “How did you get here? What happened in your life that made this seem to be a good idea? Surely you did not want this outcome, I can see.”
He thought about it for a while and said, “Dave, it was a long road. I didn’t know what I was doing at first, but before long, I could see it coming. It was like a train wreck – it seemed inevitable. I couldn’t see any way out – and so I kept on doing what I wanted to do even though I knew that it would blow up.”
I didn’t know this person well, but I knew that he had two jobs. The one he worked alone – which meant that he spent a lot of time essentially unaccountable to anyone (as long as he turned in his reports on time and that sort of thing). At the other, however, he saw the same three or four guys with great frequency. They spent hours in the same room every single week. And, I learned, this was not only at work, but it involved some personal time, too. When I learned of these men, I asked him, “What about those four guys? They are with you all the time. Didn’t they see it coming?”
He shrugged. “I guess so. I mean, nobody said anything to me about it. The truth is, Dave, we don’t talk. I mean, we work together and hang out and all, but we’re not really friends.”
I pressed him on this one a little, and said, “OK, then, who ARE your friends?”
He was silent for a few moments, and then he looked at me and said simply, “You are, Dave.”
Houston, we have a problem. A guy you have lunch with 2 or 3 times a year qualifies as a “friend”? Don’t get me wrong – I’m a great guy. And there are several people that I see a couple or three times a year that I would say are my “friends”. But none of those people are my only friends. I am not counting on any of those people to have a meaningful impact on my daily life. If the closest thing that you have to a friend is a bucket of wings with me twice a year, you have a problem.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We take care of our health, we lay up money, we make our roof tight, and our clothing sufficient, but who provides wisely that he shall not be wanting in the best of all property – friends?”
I thought of that when I read today’s reading from I Thessalonians. We see here, as we have throughout this series, Paul’s deep passion for the Gospel, for Christ, and for the church. He is, at his core, committed to helping this institution get grounded and solidified.
We have also noted Paul’s deep passion, respect, and love for a group of men that includes Timothy and Silvanus (the other authors of this letter) as well as Titus, Barnabas, and other leaders in the church.
Last week, we took apart chapter two, and noted his heartfelt love for the people of Thessalonica. Do you remember the array of language that he employed to discuss the depths of his bonds with the church there? He couldn’t mix his metaphors fast enough to get at the depths of intimacy that he sought with them – in various points, he was a baby, a mother, a father, a brother, and an orphan… It’s easy to see here the depths of his love for this community.
Today we see how that sense of connection works its way out in their lives and relationships. Remember, Paul had left Thessalonica after having been beaten by an angry mob which then, in fact, pursued him into the next town over. From there, he eventually made his way to Athens and then Corinth – but as it says in verse one of chapter three, he couldn’t take it any longer. The sense of isolation was too great, and so he sent Timothy back up to at least see how things were going and to bring his greetings to them.
Timothy, as you heard, brings great news, which creates an explosion of joy from Paul. He then closes this section of the letter with a prayer for their reunion so that their faith might be deepened.
He is not eager to see them so that they can synch their iPods, or get caught up on the big game, or compare pictures of their grandkids. None of those things are bad – but that’s not why he wants to get together. He wants to be together because he believes that somehow, he and the leaders of the church in Thessalonica make each other better people and more faithful followers of Christ.
Beloved, friendship is a spiritual issue. Who you let into your life, and how, has a great effect on the way that life plays itself out.
And if friendship is a spiritual issue, then it would follow that loneliness is a spiritual problem. In fact, Genesis 2:18 describes the first man walking around the earth and God says, “This is not good”. In the Genesis narrative, sin and rebellion – evil – has not yet entered the world. But the fact that the man is lonely is not good.
I have a theological basis for what I’m saying. If I asked you how we were made, I hope that sooner or later someone would get around to saying that humanity is created in the image of God – that something of who and how God is is central to who and how we are.
You know that God exists in community of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To be God is, by definition, to be in relationship.
It would seem to me, then, logical to say that a part of what it means for us to be humans is to confess that we exist in community. We were created for relationship.
Yeah, I get it Dave. Look, don’t worry about me. I have lots of friends…
Do you? I’m not talking about
- Facebook friends – the kind of friend I’m talking about is someone that a) you know and b) you care about and c) you respect.
- People who come over and watch the game with you, or who will go fishing with you
- Not beer-drinking, adventure chasing, adrenaline junkies.
And it would seem that we are obsessed with friendship in our culture. How can I justify spending an entire sermon on something that we talk about so much? You can’t get away from idea of friendship! Just turn on your computer and look what shows up – All kinds of photos and sayings and quotes about friendship. Usually cute kids or animals involved, or a lot of nostalgia about the kinds of friends we used to have. We use kids and animals when we talk about friendship because we think, somehow, that friendship is childish.
Having said all that, I would submit that many people today have few, if any, real friends. We don’t know how to talk with someone about meaningful issues and observations without either a) thinking that there is a romantic relationship blooming or b) choosing sides in a current political or sports debate.
Interesting to note that the church today spends so much time exalting marriage, lifting it up, praising it…despite the fact that our founder, Jesus, never married; the most influential 1st century advocate for faith, Paul, actually recommended against it – yet both of these men spent substantial time developing, pursuing, growing intentional relationships with friends (Jesus and the 12, Paul and Timothy, Titus, Silas, Barnabas…). Real and intimate friendship was crucial to the life of the early church.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a ceremony called adelphopoiesis, which is literally translated as “brother-making.” In much of the church’s story, friendship plays a prominent role – and there is a precedent for intentional friendships to be blessed by the community. The church believed that it was important for people to be connected intimately and honestly with each other. Again, when I say “intimate”, please do not think of sexuality. There are some revisionist historians who have confused this rite with same-sex marriage. We can talk about same-sex marriage if you like, but not now – because that’s not the meaning behind the practice of adelphopoiesis.
And when I talk about the idea of intentional friendship, please know that it is not my intention to denigrate marriage – I like my wife. I love my wife. But she is not my only friend.
In fact, I sometimes wonder about the ways that the death of a spouse affects us. I see people who have been brought to the brink of such deep and profound grief. Could it be because in some cases, that means that we have lost our only friend in the world?
Do you have friends?
If you were suddenly home-bound, unable to get out, who would come to see you? Who would come twice?
If you had something gnawing at you, to whom would you turn to for advice/input/support?
If you were in the situation I described at the beginning of this message, who would call you out before the fail went viral, and prevent you from engaging in such self-destructive behavior?
Who do you spend time with that knows you, that loves you, and that helps you to be a better person?
You know, of course, that this is hard work. This kind of relationship takes energy, intentionality, discipline, risk. It’s a lot easier to just hang around and watch the game, to be honest.
Yet this kind of friendship is what we were made for.
To return to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he also said “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”
So I have some homework for you this week. I wonder if you can be intentional with at least one other person. I am asking you to check in with that person.
– ask about that person’s “real self”
– share your real self with the other
– don’t just spend time, or share stuff; spend and share your being with another
Ask about the possibility of being friends, or about the state of your relationship.
We are charged with helping each other grow. How are we doing on this? In what ways are we engaging and equipping each other to do the things for which God created us?