Friendship in Christ

Sunday, March 5, 2017: Sunday of Orthodoxy; Conon the Gardener, Mark the Ascetic, Righteous Father Mark of Athens, John the Bulgarian, Mark the Faster, Parthenios the New Martyr who contested in Didymoteichos, George the New-Martyr of Rapsani, Eulogios the Martyr, Eulabios the Martyr

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

What do the Scriptures say about the relationship between God and Moses? The “Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11, NKJV). And what was a singular blessing for Moses is something that Christ offers to all the Apostles. “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15, NKJV).

Immediately after this, Jesus tells the disciples that as He has befriended them, they are to befriend each other commanding them “to love one another” (v. 17). So powerful is this command that, as an old man at the end of his life, the Apostle John makes our mutual love the sign of our love for God. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20, NKJV).

In saying this, John adds nothing of his own to the Gospel. He is merely repeating what he heard from the lips of Jesus Himself. “By this, all will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NKJV).

Turning to the epistle we heard this morning, what else are the saints but, after Christ, our great and true friends?

Those who are “well attested by their faith” now stand before the Throne of the Lamb that was slain. They have welcomed us to their fellowship with Christ. And what do they do for all eternity? They glorify God and intercede on our behalf (see Hebrews 12 and Revelation 5). Thier love for God deepens their love for us.

As God befriends Moses and Jesus befriends the Apostles and the saints befriend us, we are to befriend each other. It is this, our bond of mutual friendship, that both only testifies to our faith and draws others to Christ.

To see this look at the Gospel we’ve just heard.

Immediately after hearing Jesus’ command “Follow me,” what does Philip do? He goes and finds Nathanael!

He goes to find his friend not out of disobedience but as the fruit of his new relationship with Jesus. Like the rest of the disciples, Philip won’t understand until much later what it means to be friends with Jesus. But even its first moments, his friendship with Jesus, or maybe more accurately, Jesus’ friendship with him, begins to change Philip. He wants to introduce Nathanael to the Messiah, to “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

We need to pause here for a moment and reflect on ourselves.

When people find out I work with college students they ask me, “How do I keep my child in the Church?” The sad fact is that not those raised in the Church and those who become Orthodox later in life, leave in distressingly high numbers.

Though I don’t have the numbers to say for sure, having spent several years looking at the demographic data, I suspect that in America the number of practicing and lapsed Orthodox Christians are—at best—about equal (and if anything, our numbers are better than they are in traditional Orthodox countries).

While there are many reasons why any individual will stay or go, I think one common factor is the quality of the person’s friendships with other Orthodox Christians.

The kind of friendship I mean is not the kind of casual friendship a person might have with a co-worker. While there’s nothing wrong with conversations at coffee hour about football or the weather or politics or television, these conversations aren’t significantly different from what people talk about at work.

No, the kind of conversations—and so the kind of friendships—that helps not just young people but all of us remain faithful Orthodox Christians is what we hear about in the Gospel.

Just as Philip does with Nathanael, we need to invite each other to enter a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. We do this by being willing to talk with each other about our own spiritual lives, our own struggles, and successes, as Orthodox Christian followers of Jesus Christ.

Does this mean we can’t talk about football or the weather or politics or television with each other? No, of course not! These kinds of conversations are a good and proper part of any friendship. If we never talk about our shared, everyday interests, our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ become stilted.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons we do such a poor job at keeping young people, is precisely because we get so concerned about instructing young people in the faith that we neglect befriending them. And let’s be honest here. None of us wants to stay around people who are always telling us what to think or how to behave. While we all of us understand some of that is necessary, a steady diet of it is off putting.

What is needed not only in our relationship with young people but also with each other is to strike a balance. To only talk about the spiritual life with each other is as unwholesome as never talking about our relationship with Jesus Christ.

And again, having spent a fair amount of time looking at the data about why people leave, I would ask you to consider the possibility that where we need to do better is learning how to talk to each other about our relationship, or lack of one, with Jesus Christ. We need to make the effort to speak with each other about what it means to us, personally, as Orthodox Christians to be followers of Jesus Christ.

So how do you do this?

Just begin. Start the conversation today.

Would you like to know what to say?

I can’t tell you because it isn’t for me to say. This is something that only you and your friends can decide for yourselves. And frankly, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the peace of the Church, it’s none of my business what you and your friends talk about.

All I can say is what Philip said to Nathanael. “Come and see.” Come and see what it can mean to speak to each other, face-to-face with each about your own struggles and joys, your hopes and fears, as Orthodox Christian followers of Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory