This past week I was blessed to spend a couple of days hanging out with friends in Greenville, South Carolina. I have known Susan, Ken, and Leeann for only three years or so, when I joined a committee for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that they were already serving. In a short period of time, they have become some of my closest friends. When we are working together, we are writing theology exams for our denomination’s ordination process, and it is wonderful to bond with them in our common love of theological tradition and the church. But what has pulled us together runs deeper than theology. These friends understand (and to varying degrees share) my extreme introversion. They endorse and encourage my love of bourbon and gin. Perhaps most important of all, they match my school-bus sense of humor with disgusting antics of their own. (Well, Susan and Leeann are happy to meet me in the gutter with inappropriate jokes and innuendos, while Ken futilely tries to model humor that is a little less adolescent.) They care about me, not because I do something for them, but simply because I am. Two days with this Fun Bunch yielded more laughs and spiritual restoration than I have enjoyed in a long, long time. It was holy time.
It may strike us as odd to think about hanging out with friends as holy time, especially in a theological tradition that often has not known what to do with friendship. Christianity rotates on the axis of love, of course, but that love is usually captured in devotion to the Good Samaritan. Ideal Christian love, we are told, is agape—universal benevolence, love for the stranger or enemy, “disinterested” (that is, not invested in what we might get in return for our love). It is the love of the Samaritan for the stranger he encounters on the road to Jericho. As a result, too many Christian thinkers have regarded friendship as inferior to Christian agape, for friendship is everything agape seems to warn against. Friendships aren’t universal but partial and particular; we share friendships with some people and not others. Friendships aren’t love for the stranger, but affection for people we know well and like. And friendships are decidedly “interested”—you and I are friends if we are invested in one another and mutually draw from the relationship. Friendship may be a good thing, we’ve been told, but it hardly rises to the level of Christian agape.
To define the ideal of Christian love exclusively in terms of the Good Samaritan, however, is to miss the richness of the Bible’s exhortations on love. Yes, Jesus tells that story of the Samaritan to expand our sense of the neighbor for whom we are responsible, but he also baptizes the idea of friendship as an expression of Christian virtue and a manifestation of agape. In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his relationship with his disciples as friendship and declares that “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Friendship isn’t inferior to “real” Christian love; it is Christian love. The Apostle Paul thought so too, for in 1 Corinthians 13 he gave us an ode to Christian friendship and reminded us that it provides opportunity for us to practice virtue. Christian friendship is agape.
It is in this sense that a couple of days bathing in the love of close friends can be an experience of the holy. Friendship also serves as an apt description of the connection we experience with sisters and brothers in the larger church, those we perhaps don’t know as intimately but with whom we nonetheless share a fundamental connection as members of the Body of Christ. Before meeting up with my friends in Greenville, I spent three days with another very good friend, Mike, leading a retreat for his congregation. What a glorious experience that was, largely because the members of Fourth Presbyterian Church embraced me enthusiastically as a friend in Christ. We didn’t know each other intimately, and we didn’t necessarily share common life experiences or political perspectives. And yet to a person, the members of this congregation made me feel at home, among friends, simply on the foundation of our shared identity as pilgrims on the Way of Jesus. That’s friendship as Christian virtue. That’s agape in action.
I explored the idea of friendship as Christian virtue in my recent book on forbearance, and when I was writing that chapter, my lovely spouse quipped, “You spend an awful lot of time thinking about friendship for a guy who doesn’t have any.” She was joking, of course, poking at my introverted need to spend a lot of time alone. In retrospect, though, I wonder if she meant it as a little bit of a challenge, to be more critically reflective on how much (or little) I appreciate the friends in my own life. I’ve been trying to do more of that this past year. I give thanks to God more often for good friends in faraway places, folks like Mike, Ken, Susan, and Leeann with whom time and distance prove to be no foil to the bond we share. And I appreciate more than ever the sense of the holy I feel in relationships closer to home—people like Jeff, Jessica, Al, and Jackie who bless my every day with agape. Thomas Aquinas described the telos of the Christian life as friendship with God. To the extent that these people and others reflect the image of God in my life, friendship with them is indeed an infusion of the divine.