Lutheran Bishop, Germany
A couple of weeks ago I had a board meeting in one of the homes for disabled people in Germany. I am a member of the board for more than 20 years and during these years I got to know many of the about 300 persons living there, some of them for more than 50 years. Usually we start with a service. All of a sudden a young man took place beside me and told me: Jesus is my friend. Are you a friend of Jesus? - Yes, I answered. – Then you are my friend, too. And he shook hands with me. Things like that happen almost every time when I come to this home. Friendship to Jesus means friendship to other people.
I spent 8 years of my life in a school located in a former Benedictine Monastery. Away from home you need friendship, reliable friendship. In the book Ecclesiasticus 6,16-17 we read: “A faithful friend is an elixir of life, found only by those who fear the Lord. The man who fears the Lord keeps his friendships in repair, for he treats his neighbour as himself.” Most of us spend most of our time sorting out our personal lives, our little trials, sagas, victories, and defeats. At the end of the day we tote up our score, not for or against the great social or intellectual systems of the world, but in terms of how we stand with the people we value, and perhaps even love. It is easy for religion to pronounce upon the great affairs and events of our time; it can and must do so, but a heavenly religion that cannot help us sort out our daily dose of human experience is of no earthly good.
The first gift given to us at creation is the gift of companionship: “It is not good that man should be alone,” says God before he provides Adam with Eve. The motivation is charitable; he does not say that it is not practicable or convenient for man to be alone. He says, simply, that it is not good, and he proceeds to remedy the matter and provide for the first relationship, the essence of which is companionship each for the other.
Adam’s need is our need; perhaps we inherited it from him. We need to find ourselves somehow connected to someone other than ourselves. Yes, we are connected with God, our creator, we have that ultimate relationship and we bear the mark of the maker, but even God realizes that this is not enough, not good enough; and so what begins with Eve is not so much a license for marriage as a warrant for fellowship and companionship, the most intimate and ultimate form of which is friendship, itself the gift and the grace of God. The ultimate form of this gift, of course, is friendship with God. This is what we get through wisdom when wisdom, passing from generation to generation, makes us “friends of gods and prophets”.
Somehow, however, friendship with God is not in itself sufficient for most of us, and this is why God’s gift is so sensible and practical in providing us with the incentive and opportunity for human friendships as a prefigurement of the divine: God has given us the gift of intimacy as a sign of the intimacy he shares with us. In the Apocrypha, from which our text is taken, we read: “A faithful friend is a secure shelter; whoever finds one, has found a treasure” and again we read: “A faithful friend is an elixir of life, found only by those who fear the Lord.”
We learn that friendship is a treasure. True friendship is hard to find, like treasure, and true friendship comes from God. Maybe this is why we have so much trouble with our friendships; something so valuable, so rare, and so divine seems out of place and out of character with the realities of our friendships in the world. We all know about the great friendships of history. David and Jonathan, for example. The model of Jesus, a friend gives up his life for a friend. We know the rules – to have a friend is to be a friend; a friend in need is a friend indeed – and we pursue these ideals, always looking for that perfect friend who will support us and comfort us and encourage us for ourselves and despite ourselves.
Yet, these ideals notwithstanding most of us are scared by the battle of experience over hope. We know, perhaps more than we would like, the truth of that aphorism directed against Winston Churchill which said: “He had no enemies; only his friends thoroughly despised him.” Usually when a Mafia corpse is discovered with cement shoes, those questioned reply with shock at the death of their old colleague: “Why, he didn’t have an enemy in the world; only a friend could have done this.”
Despite all of this, however, friendship continues to be the ultimate model we pursue to combat that loneliness in creation which God himself has said is not good. Babies are drawn to whoever or whatever is drawn to them. Little children like to run in packs. Teenagers look for the “best friend”, that person beyond blood who is to share the universe with them; and all of us sort ourselves out in some effort, in some way, to share the gift of the Garden. That is what friendship is, and that is why we pursue it even though it is not easy to achieve. Note that they can, and we know that they do, fall apart, and fall into disrepair. While we can take the desire, the necessity for friendship as natural, even divine, we cannot take friendship itself for granted.
It takes work to maintain a friendship, not just contact but work. More often such “work” is to be found in the little things, the ordinary courtesies and kindnesses. The credit for success is given to small things just as, in the reverse, the blame for failure is also given to small things. The use of the word “repair” in our text is telling. Any of you who maintain property know how difficult it is to do so on a large scale. It is the little daily, weekly, annual chores that keep the whole going. To try to do everything at once in one grand renovation seldom works. “The man who fears the Lord,” the lesson says: “keeps his friendships in repair.” Is it worth the work? We might wonder. Perhaps friendship is too costly, too demanding.
The search for friendship is a defence against an anonymous and indifferent world. It is our chance, our hope, to make something more of our time here than mere survival of existence. That is why the gift of friendship is so great a gift from God. The risks are worth taking because the prospect of the alternative is too grim even to think about. Christians know, or should know, that their only great expectation is in God, and that for the rest, life comes with no guarantee except the necessity of effort. There are ideals to which we do and must cling: loyalty, trust, truth, love, joy. These are the ideals, but they serve to sustain us in their absence, for that what ideals are. Thus the Apocrypha tells us that the best friendship is that which allows the ultimate friendship of God to rule as a model for our immediate efforts, allowing for failure and forgiveness, for hope arising out of disappointment, and for charity, the lubricant of all relationships worth having.
The friendship of God as a model for our friendships – why? A couple of years ago a father and his little son were visiting one of these wonderful domes in our country. In the middle of the Dome you walk under the arms of the crucified Jesus Christ to the next part of the church. This young boy stood there for a while and then he asked his father: “Who is that?” And his father answered: “I don’t know” and kept on going. Finally the son thought out loud: “Isn’t it: Come into my arms?” The crucified Lord invites us: Come into my arms.
This is what a believer experiences. It is a wonderful sort of friendship. In the Bible Abraham and Moses are called “friends of God”. In the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John Jesus calls his disciples “friends”. He himself found friends where he had not expected it. Friendship is not just a feeling. It is a connotation for persons of faith. What we call in the tradition of Lutheran Theology – and not only in Lutheran theology – but maybe there in the most complicated way, “justification by grace”, is exactly this: God looks at us as friends: undeserved, unmerited, so we are called to look at others in this perspective. He invites us to this friendship as a way of thinking to others.
That is what we are invited to do in these days of the Peace Prayer – in dialogue, in respect of differences. I am a friend of God, and so are you. That is what the disabled man I referred to in the beginning was telling me. That is what the friends of Sant’ Egidio are practising with their friends in Rome and Antwerp and all over the world – friendship with the poor, and this friendship has a name and a face and a biography and a dignity. The world indeed needs more friends, more believers who experience this kind of friendship.