The great philosopher Muhammad Ali once said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”
When I was applying to be a pastor here at Bradley Hills, I was struck by your description of this church as a “joyful community of spiritual friends.” I have often thought about Quakers, not Presbyterians, when I thought of spiritual friends, but the word “friends” certainly does apply well to the people of Bradley Hills. You get along as well as any congregation I have seen. If you are visiting and interested in a group that likes each other I commend this one to you.
So for the next several weeks we are going to be talking about friendship. Ali says it’s hard to explain but we are going to try. About what is means to be in friendship with God, about the responsibilities of friendship and about what it means to be in friendship with each other.
Today we begin with the only person called a “friend of God” in the Hebrew Bible – Abraham. If we are going to get into a new year exploring the friendship of anyone, Abraham is not a bad place to begin. Let us pray. Gracious and loving God, may your Holy Spirit come into this text now and surround us, filling it with meaning and us with understanding for our living. In Christ name we pray. Amen.
As if you haven’t had enough scripture already, let me read from 3 other brief scripture passages. First from 2 Chronicles, “Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of your friend, Abraham?” Then from Isaiah 41, God says, “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend.” Note here it is not Abraham who is claiming to be God’s friend but God who is making the suggestion. From James 2 “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God.” Three times Abraham was called friend of God. It’s interesting for us to think about how his friendship with God develops.
One of my favorite descriptions of parenting describes four stages of a parent’s relationship with a child. We talked about this around Bible Music Camp last August when we focused on the Spirituality of Parenting in worship. It holds that when a child is at birth through age 5 they need a parent, someone who tells them what to do. From age 6-12 a child needs a teacher, someone who can teach them things. Show them how to do stuff. Mold their behavior. Then as a teenager, a young person needs a coach, someone who can guide them and give advice, even when there is some pushing against each other. And then after age 20 a young person needs a friend.
Genesis 17 and 18 contain four visions of Abraham’s relationship with God and they follow a similar progression. Abraham did not start out being a friend of God’s, but more like a child at birth. In Genesis 17 we see a vision of God as a parent; telling Abraham what to do. God says “I will make my covenant before you,” and Abraham immediately bows down before him. God even names Abraham as a new parent would. Abraham is 99 years old but a new life begins at that with his renaming. God tells him how it’s going to be – that he will become the father of many nations. And in a “someday all of this will someday be yours son,” moment, God tells Abraham that the land of Canaan will be an everlasting possession to Abraham and his descendants.
Then in the second part of Genesis 17, God teaches behavior. God tells Abraham he must keep God’s covenant and that he and his descendants must be circumcised. Like an obedient child, Abraham behaves accordingly.
When we get to Genesis chapter 18, and God acts like a coach for Abraham. Like a parent no teenager wants to be seen with, God appears under cover with two others, gives Abraham some advice and tells him something he didn’t know, that he will have a child. Abraham’s wife Sarah has been eavesdropping in the next tent and laughs at the news. When questioned Sarah denies that she laughed, and like a parent to a teenager, God calls her on it and says “yes you did.
Then in the second part of Genesis 18, note how God treats Abraham. God asks “shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” No, God decides to tell Abraham of God’s plans to find out what is going on in Sodom and Gomorrah and if the sin there is really as bad as everyone says to bring justice to the cities. God sends some representatives ahead and when God does Abraham walks over and shares his own thoughts with God.
Abraham challenges God asking “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” This statement reminds me of the ideas of William Blackstone that underlies Western systems of justice, that it is better for 10 or 100 guilty people to go free than one innocent person suffer.”
God tells Abraham if God finds 50 innocent people there God will spare the cities. Then Abraham asks, well “what if you find 45 innocent people?” And God says if “I find 45 innocent people I will not destroy it.” Abraham begins bargaining with God and each time challenges God with a lower number. “What 40 innocent people are found,” or 30, or 20 or even 10, “will you spare it then?” Each time Abraham asks God he does so with great respect, saying “I have been bold to speak” or asking “that the Lord not be angry.” Or saying “let me speak once more.“ They are not what teenagers today would call “BFF’s, best friends forever,” total equals. God is still God, but by this point in their relationship, Abraham acts as a friend would.
This whole litany of Abraham lowering the request until only 10 righteous people are needed to spare the cities would seem at first to be Abraham testing God. Challenging God to rethink the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is one thing a friend does, to speak truth to someone. To tell them when they are wrong. I have found in my own life that it is my real friends will speak honestly to me. Caring involves telling someone before they make a mistake.
In questioning, Abraham discovers the deeper nature of God. That God is a God of grace who is willing to spare the sinful for the sake of the innocent. This knowledge proves critical for Abraham later in life as we discover in Genesis 22 when God famously asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The very child Sarah was caught laughing about. Abraham trusts God and prepares to sacrifice Isaac perhaps having faith that in the end God is likely to spare his innocent one.
Look at the progression of Abraham’s relationship with God. By chapter 18, gone is the one sided parental attitude of ordering and instead we hear God treating Abraham more like an adult a peer, a friend. God listens and includes Abraham’s ideas and thinking in his own plans, respecting as a parent acts towards a child as they reach adulthood.
In the Book of James chapter 2, as we heard, Abraham is depicted as being God’s friend, and the Greek word for friend is a familiar one, Philos. Part of the word Philadelphia the city of brotherly love comes from the same root. That word in Greek means “trusted confidant,” which Abraham was. What distinguishes the kind of friendship that Abraham is described as having is that it is an experienced based relationship. Friendship is developed over time and connection. This is distinguished from other kinds of love based on family connection, values or unconditional affection. An experienced based love, or friendship, takes time to develop. It doesn’t happen on day one. Abraham wasn’t born God’s friend. He developed a dynamic relationship when he was 99 years old. You might have had a bond with a sibling from early on or loved your child unconditionally from the first days you laid eyes on him or her. But your best friends became that over time. People you went to school with or were on a team with or lived with in college, or took some special trip with or served with or pledged your life to.
Many of my parents’ best friends are the Presby-wed group at my church growing up in small town Ohio where since the 1970’s they have had dinner with the same group of friends most Friday nights. This group raised kids at the same time, served on lay ministries together at their church, went to memorial services for each other’s parents, visited each other in the hospital and celebrated each New Year’s Eve. They became friends over time. By living life. Through experience. It’s why the poet writes, “Old friends, tried and true, once more we our youth renew. Cherish friendship in your breast, new is good but old is best. “Make new friends, but keep the old. Those are silver these are gold. Friendships that have stood the test, time and change, are surely best.”
While Abraham seems to be testing God in our passage, I think that what is really happening is that God is testing Abraham. For as any parent knows, the goal of raising your child is for them to be as independent as they can be. For them to be able to make decisions on their own. I think when God asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?” God is considering sharing his plans because Abraham is going to be a powerful nation, the father of peoples and the keeper of the faith. In Genesis 18, verse 19 we read that God is depending on Abraham to direct his children “by doing what is right and just.” For God to depend on Abraham, Abraham needs to prove that he knows what is right and just. So God lets him in on his plans of destruction and to God’s satisfaction Abraham argues that God should spare the innocent. Abraham proves he knows what is right and is willing to stand up for it asking “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Note it is God who ends their conversation in verse 33. I think Abraham would have kept going from 10 innocent people down to 5 or 1. But Abraham has proven he knows justice and mercy. He was ready to pass the values of the faith to future generations and to act independently to keep the covenant. Not like a child but as a friend of God.
As we begin a New Year, we do so looking for new resolutions. With Lent not far off, perhaps this is a time to begin a renewed commitment to our spiritual practices. Like rediscovering an old friend through prayer. The cover story of this month’s Presbyterian Today magazine down the hall has some tips. Whatever our age, now is an appropriate time to consider what it is like first to be a child of God, created and loved unconditionally, but then to deepen our commitment to experiencing God, through weekly worship and daily relationship. Not hiding but practicing our prayer, scripture reading and praise of God so that we can live with spiritual depth and maturity when life becomes difficult. Thinking hard about what is right and just and considering how to stand up for it. And asking ourselves, how can we develop such a friendship with God this year?
For God doesn’t seem to come to us directly in the trees as we look out from our homes as God came to Abraham. True, but then we have an advantage Abraham did not. We have the revelation of Jesus Christ. Divinity in a form we can relate too. One who sacrificed for the mercy and innocence for sinners. If real friendship is based on experience, then the experience of learning about, loving and living in relationship with Jesus Christ is our way to develop friendship with God. But for more on that you have to come back next week. May it be so. Amen.