Johnny came running up to his mother after Sunday School proclaiming: “Mommy, mommy! I know what the Bible means now!”
“Oh,” she said, “what does it mean?”
“Basic Instructions before leaving earth!!!”
Now, while I might be prone to say the Bible is our basic instructions for living on earth but that doesn’t make for a good acronym, according to author Lillian Daniels, the Bible does provide a good model for – friendship!! And she cites our reading from Mark. She argues that the whole exchange between Peter and Jesus could only happen within the bounds of deep, close friendship. Only good, close friends care enough to rebuke on another! Only close friends care enough to call each other out!!
We know the story. Peter has just listened to Jesus talk about how he has to suffer and die. All that negative stuff really gets to Peter. He gets mad, pulls Jesus aside and basically says: “Hey! Quit it! No one want to hear that! It’s bad for you and it’s bad for us! Stop!” Jesus, in turn,
“rebukes” Peter with that famous line: “Get behind me, Satan!” Or in other words: “Zip it! You’ve totally missed the point!!” That interchange is a mark of a good friendship.
But it goes against the gist of our reading from James. He’s quite certain we should watch what we say. Our tongues can hurt, lead people off course. It goes against what I was taught too. I remember my mother wagging her finger at me and saying: “Watch your tongue!” It was usually right when I was on the verge of saying something I impertinent or when I was on the verge of talking back. “Watch your tongue!”
“Watch your tongue” went hand in glove with the other family rule: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!” So, I got the distinct impression that being a good person and in turn a good friend meant: “keep you mouth shut,” “be nice and always agree!” To argue was bad! So, I that’s what I did. I was nice. I was kind. I supported by agreeing. Then one day, a friend who had been very good to me in when I needed it came to me asking for my input. Some friends of hers told her that she was a bully and always had to be right. “Typical retired school teacher.” She wanted to know from me if that was what she was truly like. I don’t know about the retired school teacher part but I do know – her friends were right. She could be a lot of nice things but she could also be tenacious, stubborn and insistent that she was right! My family knew it. They avoided her like the plague. Now, she could also be kind, generous and caring but that didn’t take away from the fact her other friends had told her the truth. Now, it was my turn. But I skirted the issue. I reminded her of all her good qualities and totally avoided telling her the truth. And I’ve regretted it ever since. A good friend would have told the truth and given her the chance to change, mend friendships. But I was “nice.”
I suspect you have heard people say something like: “She is such a good friend. I can tell her anything and she will still accept me.” That’s a good friend, right? But really, is that enough? It doesn’t take much to sit back and listen to whatever your friends says and say nothing. Well, it takes a lot for me to stay quiet but sometimes that’s more because I want to talk about me not listen to them! But, to just sit and listen and say nothing – that’s not that demanding. You don’t even have to really engage at all or register what they’re saying because you are needed to reply. All you have to do is offer unconditional – what? – unconditional “love?”
Is it really “love” if you let your friend prattle on and on without saying something? Without asking some question, without making some judgment and offering some feedback? It may well be unconditional listening but it isn’t unconditional love!
I’ve also heard people say: “I can tell my friend anything. We never disagree. We never argue! They never judge.” If my mother hadn’t trained me so well to “watch my tongue” I would be prone to say “Bull*#$%%! Believe me, honey, she’s judging.” She/he is making assesments, questioning, evaluating what you say against what they know, against what the think. They’re just not saying it.” If they don’t what’s the point? If we never care enough to make a judgment, an assessment and then share what we think. If we never care enough to call one another out, how are we ever going to learn anything? How are we ever going to change?
Peter pulls Jesus aside because he thinks Jesus is wrong. Messiahs aren’t about suffering and death – even if there’s that resurrection think added in. Being a messiah means political liberation, spiritual renewal, the arrival of a just society at the hands of a conquering hero. It is not about death and self-sacrifice. Everybody knows that ask the other disciples. While Peter tries to straighten Jesus out, Jesus pushes back. “No, Peter, you’ve got it wrong. That’s the human perspective. I’m talking about God’s!” They butt heads, they argue. But eventually, Peter begins to see, a little, of what Jesus is saying. I suspect he doesn’t quite “get” it but after their interchange he was willing to listen and say: “Oh … Okay … Let’s give it a shot!” He grew. He changed. And who knows, maybe Jesus found defending his position helped him clarify for himself what he believed. That is what often happens with me.
This ability between friends to “rebuke,” to argue is actually very biblical and it not only happens between friends but also between the human and the divine. Take for example the interchange between Moses and God. After the whole golden calf thing, God was done with the Israelites. God was going to wash God’s hands of them if not destroy them. Moses intervenes. He argues with God and convinces God to change God’s mind!!
The Psalms are full of rants at God: “how long, O Lord!” “Why have you forsaken me!” “I’m not really thrilled with this, God! Change it!” They can do that because they know that the Holy listens and on occasion changes. And on occasion rebukes in return! Even Jesus called God out: “Why have you forsaken me?” The Holy and the human are close enough that they can call each other out – and stay friends.
We’ve all heard the expression: “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” That’s true up to a point. You can’t choose where you’re born and who the members of your family will be. But as we grow up, we do get to choose which family members we’ll hang with. We choose to invite Aunt Helen but never invite Uncle Max. We choose to keep in touch with some siblings while others only get a generic card at Christmas.
We don’t really get to choose our friends either. So much of how they get to be friends is happenstance: they happen to live in the neighbourhood, the same street or go to the same school. Your parents are friends with their parents so – you become friends. You serve on the same committee at church. Or your kids are in the same class. You both have similar Degrees. You work in the same place. We might choose who amongst all those people you come in contact with will become friends but the pool of possible candidates is circumstantial, beyond our control.
As Jesus learned whomever you choose, sure as shooting, once they are friends you’ll find you will see the world differently. Jesus learned from experience that friendship isn’t always easy. But Jesus didn’t want “yes men,” people who would blindly follow without question. He wanted friends beside him. He wanted people like Peter – a good and intimate friend.
I like the fact that Jesus didn’t choose from a pool of perfect people. His friends were far from perfect. Imperfect Peter denied his friendship with Jesus three times. And in the lonely moments that followed, I imagine, he rebuked himself more than once for his behaviour. At the same time, Peter went on to become “the rock” of the church. As Lillian Daniels says: he was a “rock” prepared and shaped by his friendship with Jesus.
I suspect one of the most undervalued treasures in life is a rich friendship. Friendship between those who care enough to argue and once in awhile rebuke each other.
In my “friendship” with the Holy and with grace and mercy – sometimes it is the occasional rebuke that most reminds me I am loved!
Thanks be to God. Amen