How many friends do you have?
By friends I mean: People other than your husband or wife or children or parents with whom you can share your joys and sadnesses, hopes and fears. I don’t necessarily mean neighbours (although our neighbours could of course also be our friends) as you may be on good terms or bad with them, I mean rather those with whom you are intimate, willing to share the challenges of life together, willing to be open; people who would know about that diagnosis, people who would know if you were struggling in your marriage.
But people with whom, you know for certain that what is said is not going to be repeated around the community; people from whom you are willing to take advice, however painful because you know that they share your values; you know that they are pointing in the same direction, as you are…
This year we have been running a series at Valley Worship on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In February at Valley Worship we looked at the new heart that we have in Jesus Christ when we are baptised by the Holy Spirit and born again from above and we become followers of Christ.
In March we looked at the new purpose that we have for our lives: A purpose beyond ourselves.
In May Gerry spoke to us about the new attitude we have as followers of Jesus. When we have the new heart of reborn followers of Christ.
In June, I talked about the new responsibility we have as followers of Christ: a responsibility to abandon our slavery and live out the lives God intends for us.
This month, I am talking about the new friendships that we have in Jesus Christ.
In the passage from Philippians read today Paul speaks about two people: Timothy and Epahroditus. I get the impression that Timothy is younger than Paul, Paul describes him as his ‘son’ and that Epaphroditus is the same sort of age, Paul describes him as his ‘brother’. Paul clearly is close to both of them.
But what sort of relationship do they have, as they are clearly not actually related?
In his book the ‘Four Loves’, CSLewis describes the four types of love that we experience as humans and about which the Ancients wrote:
Affection: the love which a parent has for a child and, hopefully, the love that a child has for a parent
Eros: the sexual love which lovers have for each other
Agape: the self sacrificial love that Christ had for the church, and hopefully husbands and wives have for each other, and
Friendship: the love that friends have for each other.
Lewis points out that friendship is a form of relationship which has been underemphasised in the modern world, with its preoccupation with sex, its preoccupation with Eros but that in the Ancient world it was regarded as the highest form of relationship.
The particular characteristic which friendship has which is not seen in the other loves is the focus of both friends on another object. Whereas in Eros the lovers are preoccupied with each other and can be imagined facing each other and in Affection and Agape, the parent or the child, the husband or wife, is focused on the other and can be imagined again looking at each other, in Friendship, the friends can be imagined standing side by side focusing on something else altogether, something in front of them both, which they share together. That thing could be a sport, a job or a hobby but equally could be school or university life, or being teenagers together in the same village going through similar experiences at a similar stage.
It could be a good thing they are focusing on and delighting in or a bad thing. Bank robbers can be as much friends with each other as ball players are with each other, for example but its the thing in front of them both which occupies their attention, which is the glue to their relationship.
So let’s look at an example. I go to a gym each week led by someone who is a keen Portsmouth FC supporter and season ticket holder. He sits next to someone in the stadium who is a different generation to him who has wholly different political views to him, who lives his life completely differently, but they share a love of Portsmouth FC, a love of Pompey. They can talk about the players, the club, the manager. They can dissect the matches and the players performance, endlessly and have enormous fun doing so and they can share this passion with others, because there is really no limit to the friends who can share a common focus. My friend at the gym says that he could pick up a conversation and have fun discussing Pompey with any of the 10,000 Pompey fans at the Fratton Park stadium. They may disagree about the performance of the goalie or the striker but at the end it is common love for the club which wins over disagreement.
But it’s important that they don’t stray off the subject of the club because they could run across some serious disagreement as their vast differences in, for example, politics become obvious and the relationship could come into jeopardy.
But sometimes it can be the other way round…Lucy and I recently went to a dinner with a former neighbour who is a militant atheist, of whom I am very fond. He shares with me the same sort of approach to politics. Our wives are very happy when we are discussing politics but we tend (both of us) to get kicked under the table when either of us strays onto the subject of Christianity!
Friendships tend to arise from common experiences or a common focus. And friendship can wax and wane, when we leave school or university, when we finish our teenage years or leave the village, if the football team goes bust. When the common purpose ends, the relationship can easily deteriorate, when you meet up, into “do you remember when we” conversations; nothing substantial about today.
How different it is with Christian friendship: the relationship between Paul and Timothy, the relationship between Paul and Epaphroditus! Here we can see that, as in all friendship, the focus is on something else. Paul commends Timothy (verse 21) on his focus on Jesus Christ and his ‘genuine interest’ in the welfare of the Philippians. Epaphroditus is commended because his principal concern, when he was dying, was the impact his own suffering would be having on the people of the Philippian church who Paul also loves.
Paul describes them both as fellow servants, fellow workers, with him, fellow servants of Christ. Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus and the Philippian Church are focused together on Jesus and in this common focus is found their friendship.
When we have the new heart in Jesus Christ which I described in our Valley Worship in February, our focus changes away from ourselves and towards the priorities that Jesus sets for our lives: two great commands: love God; love neighbour and one great commission: make disciples!
These objects are so totally comprehensive to all aspects of our lives that they cover every little aspect of what we do and of who we are. This is because, as followers of Christ, as people with the new heart which I spoke about in February, we cannot live in silos. We cannot say to ourselves ‘well this is how I am with my work colleagues’; ‘this is how I am with my mates, playing cricket’; ‘but this (different) way is how I am when I am with church people on Sunday’….
The claims of Jesus Christ are for everything we do and about how we do everything. They are comprehensive; they cross all the boundaries and, if we have the new heart in Jesus Christ, they have top priority over everything else without exception.
You know you have a good Christian friend when he or she can give you advice that you don’t want to hear, but you recognise is right.
I have told this story many times before but here we go again! In 2005 when I was wondering whether I should leave the law firm where I was a partner, I met with my friend Harry for lunch in the City. “Should I leave the firm” I said “is it irresponsible to leave such a good job?”
Harry simply said, “Do you believe that you should seek first the Kingdom of God?” ‘Yes’ I said, rather reluctantly. ‘Well are you….?’
This was the catalyst for me giving in my notice, leaving on very good terms. And, of course, just a few years later, in 2008 the global banking crisis hit, and almost 50 partners were immediately sacked. I would certainly have been one of them, and it would have been painful and humiliating to leave under such circumstances. So it was really good advice calling me to scripture (Matthew 6:33) whose authority over our lives both Harry and I accepted.
But I cannot see how, without that common focus on Jesus, and his priorities, I could have received and acted upon such advice; why would I have left such a good job?
This is what Christian friends can do for us!
In September we will be running in this parish the Alpha Course. As you know, its just a basic introduction to Christianity but it also provides an opportunity, for those who wish it, to receive the new heart that Jesus wants for us all so that we can experience friendship with others, with him as our focus: friendship in him, friendship in Christ.
Little home groups often grow up after these courses as people often want to continue meeting together. Groups in which the challenges and joys of everyday life are shared, in which we are supported by prayer and by the presence of the Holy Spirit, and in which we can receive and give the wisdom which comes from a engagement in common with him in the total confidence that nothing will be shared outside the group.
As we meet weekly, in groups like this, our relationship grows and our focus becomes more and more directed towards Christ and we change to become more and more like Him.
So, if we have the new heart in Jesus Christ, I spoke about in February, which if we do not we can find on Alpha, if we want to do so, we can become towards each other like Timothy and Epaphroditus were to Paul: fellow servants and soldiers of Jesus Christ; carried by each other throughout life’s joys and sadnesses in Christian friendship.
And as we change in small ways and in big to become more like him, more like Jesus the world will be transformed.
Philippians 2:19–Philippians 3(NRSV)
Timothy and Epaphroditus
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. 20 I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me; 24 and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.
25 Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; 26 for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, 30 because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.