COLUMN: Real friendships are different

Published 7:37 pm Sunday, May 12, 2024

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Last week I talked about cheap imitations. Last week I also talked about how Jesus didn’t warn his followers about falling for cheap imitations. Ultimately, if they were alive and abiding in him, he told them they might not themselves be cheap imitations. 

Now, in John 15: 9-17, one of the many things the text causes us to notice is that real friendships are different. I know this scripture could sound just like last week’s. It picks up where we left off then. But there’s an important difference!

Joy Moore, in her comments on this scripture, points out a truth that this teaching from Jesus taps into. Perhaps the single deepest human longing, she says, is to belong. 

I’m not sure about you, but I know that to be true. I believe, on some level, introverted or extroverted, all of us in some way yearn to know that we belong. We want to know that we are not spanning a lifetime alone.

To that end, Jesus does something surprising here. He calls us “friends.” Obviously, he is so many things to us. 

Friends is just an interesting word that leaped off the page at me this time as I read this passage in light of us focusing on what life is like on this side of the resurrection. Jesus uses that word to describe our relationship with him.

Someone has said, and I find this interesting, that we go through life and, if we’re fortunate, wind up with a small handful of real friends — maybe three or four true ones. The same person estimates that along the way, we accumulate a lot of what they call buddies. 

The true work might come in discerning the difference between real friends and buddies. Because they’re both good to have, right?  

Buddies are important. They’re fun. They’re good or even something better than good. They come alongside us, or we alongside them, for a time. Maybe even for a long time.

We have some good times. We may even help each other in some way or another. Buddies have their limitations, though. It’s not the sort of thing you want to get lost too deep in your head pondering. But you know what I mean. 

There’s some utility to being aware of the differences and who is who. Real friends? There are all too few for most of us. 

Real friendships stand the test of time. They survive changes in circumstance, usually even including geography. They’re fun, but they can also handle serious situations when life calls for it. Sometimes friends even become chosen family. 

That’s why real friendships are so few for most of us. Comedian Lewis Grizzard used to laugh about an old saying he had heard. He’d say, “A good friend would bail you out of jail? A good friend would be in there with you!”

Friendship doesn’t figure prominently in the theological world, and it doesn’t pop into our heads readily. It’s a secular word, it seems to us, maybe. A good one, but not usually a central one in our scripture.

Jesus here doesn’t use the Greek “agape” word for love that we hear in other places in the NT. He uses “phileo” instead, the word for friend or brotherly/sisterly love. This word nearly always suggests a context of gathered community, as well. 

Did you know that in 1st-century Greek and Roman cultures, friendship was an important part of the democratic ideal? No less than Aristotle said this: “It is true the virtuous man’s conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will, if necessary, lay down his life on their behalf.” 

Did you hear anything that sounded familiar just then? Plato said similarly, “Only those who love wish to die for others.” 

It was Jesus himself who said that his definition of love and friendship was to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. According to ancient philosophers, the other prevailing hallmark of the time was whether one could speak openly and frankly with a person. 

Jesus was preparing his followers for a time when he would no longer be with them. He was laying down a path for what very soon became the early church. An interdependent and reliable gathering of friends who share one thing in common: faith through Jesus himself. Sadly, today, we value church participation less and less. But we still don’t want to be alone.

Dr. Charles Qualls is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.