Monday, March 1, 2010

Friends Beneath the Surface

How many true friends do you have? In the age of Facebook, when the sheer number of friends we have is a kind of status symbol, this is a relevant question. C. S. Lewis commented that “Friendship is the greatest of worldly goods…If I had to give a piece of advice to a young man about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends" [The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (29 December 1935)]. The Apostle Paul understood what a gift deep friendships are, that friendship is truly life giving. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he mentions two dear friends, Timothy and Epaphroditus who are important both to them and to him (Philippians 2: 19-30). These are among the most personal and emotionally transparent remarks in his letter where we learn four powerful principles that will help us to be ‘friends beneath the surface’:

The principle of investment: Like Paul, we must invest in our friendships through communication and commitment (19). “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you.” Friendship requires investment…time, communication and commitment. As you can guess, when I say “friendship” I am talking about more than “friending” someone on Facebook. I have nothing against the online social networking site (I use it myself)…but becoming someone’s true friend involves a lot more than two clicks with your computer’s mouse. Five times in this letter, Paul calls the Philippians his “beloved” friends, and there is no doubt that they felt the same way, for they sent Epaphroditus to help Paul in his imprisonment. Now Paul wants to send Timothy - his long-time friend and co-worker who was with him when he founded the church in Philippi (see Acts 16) along with Epaphroditus back to Philippi so “I may be cheered by news of you.” It would be easy to glance over these words of intention without appreciating the effort involved in fulfilling them.

Picture yourself in a world in which there is no postal service, no telephones, no cell phones, no email connections; no cars or airplanes to speed your journey; a world in which a long distance letter to your best friend must be carried in person, over sea by sailing vessel and over land by foot or horse-drawn carriage. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay estimated that if a courier were to travel from Rome to Philippi—assuming he went by sea across the Adriatic and then traveled on foot—it would take from 6 to 8 weeks [William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 1982]. All this is to say that in order for Paul to send a letter and then receive news of the Philippian Church it would take a huge investment of time and energy. That’s how important it was to the Philippians that they stay in contact with Paul; and vice versa. May God deliver us from superficial relationships. May he help us to go deeper in our connections with one another… not neglecting to meet together as Hebrews 10:24 says some are in the habit of doing; but spending much time together as Acts 2:46 says the first Christians did; engaging in real face to face communication that requires love, time and commitment.

The second principle of friendship that Paul reveals here is the principle of shared interests: As Paul cosidered the human resources he had available in his imprisonment it was clear that there was only one man who truly shared his priorities and his concerns. “I have no one like [Timothy] who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare." Paul remarks surprisingly that "All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ ….” Who these self-seeking friends are, we do not know, but Paul says of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (lit. of the same soul), no one who shares my soul deep convictions and priorities like he does. He and Timothy shared a common interest in furthering the interests of Christ.

Friendship is always about something, a common interest or goal. When C. S. Lewis compared lovers and friends he said "Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; friends side by side absorbed in some common interest" [The Four Loves, HBJ: 1960, p. 61]. Certainly lovers can be friends (they need to be)…but friendship is a special kind of love focused on a shared activity, interest, conviction, or taste…whether music or sports, hobbies, food, and especially, beliefs. Having said that, I am convinced that there is no bond among friends that is more powerful than the desire to serve the Creator. I’ll never forget the time I first met one of my closest friends as UC San Diego. He and another guy introduced me to intercollegiate rowing, which was a close bond between us. But though we trained and raced together over hundreds of hours, there were many other friends I made through rowing that I have not seen in years. What was different about this friendship? The bond that cemented our friendship was the common call into the pastoral ministry. I clearly recall the conversation we had one night at a party in which we talked about that sense of call. Thirty years later, we are still close friends. We meet with other friends and colleagues twice a year to encourage one another, study and pray; and that circle of friends continues to expand.

One more point about the principle of shared interests. Paul contrasts those he knows who are only concerned "with their own interests," and Timothy who is concerned with "the interests of Jesus Christ" (which, as we find here, is also a genuine concern for the interests of others, cf. 2:4). One of the hazards of friendship is that our common interest, our common concern can become an invisible wall that shuts others out. Like Timothy, when we are truly focused on Jesus our instinct to shut others out is reversed…because we begin to look out for the interests of others; not just our own. Our circle of friendship becomes an open circle, rather than a closed circle. Even in the church we can lose sight of Jesus and begin to focus on lesser priorities and interests. But Jesus will not be a second rate interest. He wants to be first, and all other interests, hobbies, passions, and past times (even our most cherished 'religious activity'), must serve the goal of welcoming and inviting others into the circle of his forever friends.

In addition to the principles of investment, and shared interests, Paul models the principle of honesty. Like Paul we need friends with whom we can be completely honest (25-28). Paul continues, “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…..” One of the most beautiful things about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is its transparency. N.T. Wright points out that “If all Paul’s writing was solid, dense, abstract theology we would never have known what he was really like as a human being" (Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, p. 111). What Paul writes concerning Timothy and Epaphroditus gives us a window into Paul the person, not just Paul the theologian. Tom Wright remarks that if we didn’t have paragraphs like this we might think that Paul sailed through life free of worry or trouble and without a care. So in v. 25, Paul speaks of Epaphroditus as the minister to his need. Yes, Paul had needs; and he wasn’t afraid to say so! In the first century, a prisoner survived on the good will of friends and family who brought food and supplies. Paul’s needs were real…he truly appreciated the encouragement Epaphroditus brought him.

Paul goes on to speak in v. 27 of how God had mercy on Epaphroditus and on him by sparing him from death “so that I would not have one sorrow after another.” What was the first sorrow, Paul, on top of which Epaphroditus would have added another? No doubt, Paul would have said, “My imprisonment and being unable to see my brothers and sisters in Christ.” But Paul, didn’t you tell us to rejoice in all circumstances (1:18, 4:4)? If Epaphroditus had died, wouldn’t you have wanted to rejoice that he was with the Lord? “Yes,” I think Paul would say, “I do rejoice that Jesus has won the victory over death and that he promises us the gift of eternal life” but I also feel the sadness and grief when I lose a dear friend…just as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11). Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean my life is free of sorrow or sadness…but the deep conviction and settled hope that God is good even if the news isn’t.

Paul knew sorrow, and then again in v. 28 Paul says that he is the more eager to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi so that he might be “less anxious.” But Paul, don't you say in ch 4, “Do not worry about anything, ” but surrender it to God "with prayer and thanksgiving?” “Yes, I did,” he would presumably say, “But this is something which I am also practicing. It’s not theoretical…it is a real, daily, dependence upon Jesus.”

I am truly reeling from news this week of the death of one of my colleagues, a gifted pastor who took his own life. Evidently he suffered from major depression. It made me realize again that we desperately need friends who will look for the signs of depression and hurt and offer love and support (and this is by no means to say that he did not have that support). Some of the signs of clinical depression are an inability to sleep or sleeping all the time, no interest or pleasure in all or most activities, significant weight loss or gain, feelings of worthlessness -- often several of these experienced at the same time). Jesus’ followers are not immune to depression. They’re not immune to sadness; and they should be on the front lines of those who are looking out for those who are in need.

Finally, Paul's words about Timothy and Epaphroditus remind us of the principle of honoring. Of Ephaphroditus, Paul charges the Philippians with these words: “Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people because he came close to death for the work of Christ….” Friends honor one another. Paul was filled with gratitude for his brother and co-worker and fellow soldier Epaphroditus who risked his life to help him; and his words model how we should “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12: 10). In particular, we are to honor our friends and co-workers for their sacrificial service to Christ and to others. True friends invest in their relationship, they share common interests, they are honest…and they show honor.

The other day I was watching one of those amazing Planet Earth documentaries produced by the BBC which captures some incredible footage of the oceanic white tip shark that roams the blue water of the Pacific. After the documentary is over, there is an epilogue, a "diary" that shows how they got this incredible footage…the days they spent on the boat hunting for the sharks, then chumming the water to attract them, then diving into the water without any protection, not even air tanks -- relying only on observation, nerves and experience to dictate how long they stayed underwater in their company. At several points, the sharks get so close to the divers that they are literally bumping into the cameras. I watched in amazement that no one was attacked or killed! But what impressed me was their courage, how they watched out for one another; and when it became too intense their willingness to say “Let’s get out of here.” It’s one thing to say on the boat, “We’re going to film white tipped sharks today,” it’s quite another to get in the water and do it. These were not just co-workers on a fishing expedition, these were friends beneath the surface (literally) sharing a common passion, risking their lives together for a great adventure; and their heroism was honored by those who made the documentary.

Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). He risked everything, he laid down his life for us whom he calls his friends and followers. His was and is the model of true friendship which Paul saw reflected in the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus. I need those kinds of friends, friends like Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus…but more importantly I want to be that kind of friend…how about you?

King Jesus, we are tired of superficial relationships which are based on self-interest; that lack commitment, compassion, responsibility, and cost us nothing. We pray for the gift of genuine friends, and the will to be one. We pray for friendship forged by common interests and shared priorities, especially when they unite us in service to you and your interests in this world. We thank you for the close friends with whom we can be honest and transparent, friends with whom we can dream, weep and laugh; and in particular for those who encourage and run with us as we persevere to the finish line of faith. Such friends we honor with our words, with our prayers, and with our mutual service to you, our true master and forever Friend. Amen!

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