Christi O. Brown: Holy friendships

A pastor in South Carolina reflects on the deep friendships that enable us to embody the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ together.

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The Rev. Christi O. Brown preached a longer version of this sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on Oct. 12, 2014.

Philippians 4:1-9

It was under fairly extreme circumstances that Paul was writing this letter to the Philippians, a congregation of friends with whom he had a long partnership in the work of the gospel. At the time he wrote this letter, Paul was in prison, awaiting trial by the Romans, with the likely outcome of death.

We Southerners should be proud of Paul. Our mamas taught us the art and importance of sending a good, handwritten thank-you note, even when we may not feel like it. From dire circumstances in his dark, damp prison cell, Paul wrote a good old thank-you note, full of joy, thanksgiving and hope.

It turns out these church friends of Paul had sent one of their parishioners a long way to visit him in prison and to deliver a gift from the congregation. But this visitor also brought news of a disagreement between two leaders of the church. So what originally began as a simple thank-you note from Paul to the Philippi church instead turned into a teaching moment, a detailed exposition and exhortation on how to be a Christian community, particularly in the midst of conflict.

If you’ve studied Paul’s writings, then you already knew there was no way we should have expected that he would send just a short and simple note.

Paul uses the “sandwich” method in this part of the letter. The first layer of opening sentences is like a piece of bread, full of softness and positivity. The second layer is the meat of the matter, getting down to the point and even packing a punch with flavorful commands. The final layer of closing sentences is once again soft and encouraging. To this day, it’s one of the most effective methods for getting your point across.

Though Paul did not explicitly describe it as such, the teaching in these nine verses can essentially be seen as guidelines to friendship rooted in Christ, or what one might term “holy friendship.” What I find especially interesting about this passage is that it is not about an individual relationship with one friend but rather a group of holy friends. And these kinds of friendship groups are incredibly special.

In my life, I have been blessed to have a number of individual holy friendships, but there have been only a few times that I’ve had groups of holy friends. I first experienced this in my adult life with my women’s small group in Atlanta. We were all working professionals in our 20s who attended a large coed Sunday school class. The class was so big that it was impossible to know everyone in it.

One young lady from the class felt called to start a small group that would meet weekly in the garage apartment above her parents’ house. She sent a group email to the class explaining when and where the group would meet, what Bible study we would begin with, and that folks should simply come if they were interested.

Eight of us blindly showed up that first night, not knowing one another from Eve. As I sat down in my sweaty workout clothes, I glanced around at the other young women, who all looked pristine and beautiful in their stylish outfits. Though feeling a little out of sorts, I thought I would give the group a go. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would become more than a group that simply came and went weekly. Little did I know what God had in store for us.

Our group relationship formed with a long, gradual climb as we got to know one another. After a few months, though, we began hanging out outside our small group, and our relationships grew quickly from there. That first small group meeting was over 12 years ago. By now, most of the women have scattered across Atlanta’s suburbs, and two of us live in South Carolina.

Though long-divided by time and distance, these are some of my most trusted and loyal friends to this day. Three of us ran a marathon together. None of us have missed each other’s weddings, and you can always find us out on the dance floor together at the receptions.

These days we see each other only once or twice a year, and now we have 10 kids in tow and two more on the way. We have been through breakups, infertility, miscarriages, cancer, adoption and even a set of triplets together, all from afar.

These are things, when we met in our 20s, that we never imagined we would experience together. What’s amazing is that we met as a group for only two years, and we had plenty of theological differences, but the bonds we made with each other via Christ by studying Scripture and praying together weekly will last a lifetime.

Without a doubt, I could call up any of these seven ladies with the deepest hurt or anger or sadness that I have, and they would pray for me and walk beside me. Blest be the tie that binds holy friendships, indeed.

It was this kind of deep group friendship, rooted in Christ, that Paul was encouraging in this passage. Here are some key indicators of holy friendship he highlighted.

We are to:

• consider friends our brothers and sisters in Christ
• affirm and love one another, standing united in Christ
• help our friends through conflict with one another
• be loyal to each other and struggle through things together
• rejoice in the Lord and take our prayers to God
• practice forbearance and gentleness with one another
• meditate on things that are true, honorable and worthy of praise
• share the peace of Christ with each other
• keep on keeping on in the work of Christ together

Paul packs a lot into these nine verses, and this is a long list, but it also is something for which we can strive. Throughout this entire letter, he encourages the Philippians, and us today, to worthily embody the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ together, stressing the virtues of compassion, loyalty, sharing and harmony.

He especially emphasizes togetherness and reciprocity, indicating that deep friendship is not a one-way street -- it is a give-and-take from both sides, full of mutual caring, loving generosity and that interesting term “forbearance.” Among all of Paul’s beautiful and flowery words in this passage, perhaps the most intriguing concepts in terms of holy friendship are those of forbearance and synergy.

If you asked folks for words that describe deep friendships, I highly doubt that forbearance would make the Top-10 list. And yet Paul -- and even St. Benedict, in his rule for community life -- upholds this concept as critical to deep, long-term relationships.

Forbearance toward one another includes patience, gentleness, tolerance and even mercy. This idea of mutual forbearance indicates that deep friends will not have froufrou, happy, lovey-dovey relationships all the time. The truth is, those kinds of friends don’t fully know each other.

It is the deep friends who walk through the muck of life together and see the good, bad and ugly in one another. Of course we see the good in friends, but why the ugly? Because we’re human. If we’re dedicated to one another, then we will spend a lot of time together, and there will be no escaping the very human, sinful side we all have. And that’s where mutual forbearance comes in.

There are times in our friendships that we will simply have to tolerate one another, with all the gentleness and grace and mercy we can muster, and only with the help of God. As we hold one another accountable, we will also hold one another closely. Forbearance is a “bearing forth” of one another, indicating that there is forward movement together. Though essential, this is not an easy task, which is probably why we have so many acquaintances but so few holy friends. It’s hard work!

This week I met with a man many of us here consider a model of holy friendship. As I sat by Pastor Bill Arthur’s side at the hospice house, I asked him his take on forbearance and friendship. He had many wise words, but the first thing he said is that it starts with self-awareness. That if we are not able to acknowledge or bear with or care for the hard parts of our own selves, then we won’t be able to bear with or care for others’ messiness. He said there is no marriage, no church and of course no friendship that prospers without forbearance. It is a necessity.

He told the story of a friend of his who was never able to keep friendships. He did something that made Bill mad one day, and Bill told him, “You’re not walking away from me. I might be really angry with you right now, but I’m sticking around, and so are you.” They’ve been friends now for over 30 years.

Bill’s story reminded me of one I once read about a troubled teenager who ran away from both home and school all the time. One day, his teacher ran after him. The boy ran through streets and fields, dodging and jumping over obstacles. His teacher followed close behind, also running through streets and fields, dodging and jumping over obstacles. Finally, the student stopped running and walked toward his teacher.

She said, “Why did you stop? What made you come back to me?” He said, “This is the first time anyone’s ever cared enough to run after me.” Sisters and brothers, those deep friendships are worth running after. More precisely, these holy friends are worth running with together, side by side, through the obstacles of life.

Will these friends cause headaches in your life? Absolutely. Will those headaches subside? With a prescription of mutual humbleness, gentleness and forgiveness, yes. The other thing Brother Bill said is that each time he was looking for a new church to minister, he always looked for one that not only preached forgiveness but practiced it. For there is no healthy church, just as there is no healthy friendship, that does not practice forgiveness.

Neither forbearance nor forgiveness is a one-way street with friends. We are all sinners, and we are all saints. There will be times we are the ones in need of tolerance and mercy, and there will be times we need to dole out gentleness and grace. It is a reciprocal relationship, and we do it together, with one another.

Paul uses the Greek prefix syn- multiple times throughout this passage. It means “with,” and this preposition makes all the difference in the world in holy friendships.

In this letter to the Philippian congregation, Paul emphasizes the active participation of companions as co-followers in the service and mission of the gospel, calling these friends synergon.

I love that Greek word, because it sounds so similar to our English word “synergy,” which means a combined effort that results in increased effectiveness. Together as co-followers, companions, holy friends, there is nothing in life we can’t face together or do together better. Holy friends call each other forth to a shared life in Jesus, becoming a community of people who sustain one another in the journey of faith, rejoicing together in the Lord.

In this passage, the command “rejoice” is plural, as are the rest of Paul’s commands, indicating that we are to do all these things together, and that our joy is incomplete unless it is shared.

Just as Paul encouraged the Philippians to forbear with one another and rejoice in their holy friendships, so I encourage you to as well.

It’s not just the Bible study groups or Sunday school classes you might expect where folks find their holy friendships. I’ve seen them formed in the kitchen preparing Wednesday night dinners, in Haiti while painting houses, in the back of the sanctuary preparing to usher, in the parlor while knitting prayer shawls, in the mountains on youth retreats, in the gym while walking laps together, on committees planning children’s events, in the sanctuary while arranging flowers, in the choir room practicing singing, and the list goes on and on.

My friend Elise Barrett is here this morning to sing a song. She wrote it about her holy friendship group, an ecumenical writing cohort of 10 folks from around the nation that began meeting two years ago.

Their first meeting took place the week her husband, Chris, was initially diagnosed with cancer. Their second meeting happened not long after Elise and her family had moved to a new town and Chris had been hospitalized for weeks. The third meeting was the week after her husband’s relapse into cancer.

Each time, she almost did not go to the meetings because of the difficult circumstances. But each time, with the nudging of the Holy Spirit, she did decide to go. She boarded a plane and met with this group, only to discover that this small community was what she calls “God’s precise provision and manna” for her.

Like Paul, Elise took the time to write a thank-you note to her group of holy friends. Hers is in the form of a song, “This Is for You,” that beautifully depicts how this group of friends in Christ, who are as theologically diverse as they come, walked beside her during some of the most difficult times in her life -- listening, loving, holding and hoping together. It is my hope that you will enjoy the music and the meaning of her words, taking them to heart.

Most of all, my beloved brothers and sisters, I hope you will engage in the gift of holy friendship, full of mutual forbearance, synergy and rejoicing together in the Lord. All praise and glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.