“Choosing our Friends” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I am going to be sharing from the book of James again this week. James is beloved by the Church of the Brethren for its practical, down-to-earth wisdom about Christian living. Other folks have been inspired by the book of James as well, including Bill Wilson and the authors of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is no doubt that James is practical, but that doesn’t mean it’s very easy or comfortable to read. As we consider the good gifts we receive from the open hands of God, and the fruit which we bear as a result, James has some direct words for us.
This passage begins with a characteristically blunt question: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” If you remember from last week, we don’t know for sure who the author of James is — it may be James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus — and neither do we know to whom this letter was written, or under what circumstances. So we don’t know what those conflicts and disputes are that James is writing about, but the beauty — or the discomfort, depending on your perspective — of this advice is, we don’t need to know the specifics. Conflicts and disputes come out of some common sources. Envy, jealousy, and selfishness. Maybe those aren’t the only causes of conflict and dispute, but that covers a lot: things that we want but we can’t get, or don’t have; things we ask for because we want them to keep for ourselves. And James in verse 4 chooses a very interesting term to scold people who want things they can’t have: Adulterers! Which is interesting, because as you know, an adulterer is someone who is married but has an intimate relationship with someone other than the person they are married to. We weren’t even talking about sexual misconduct, James is talking about conflict and disputes in the Christian community.
We get the explanation in the next sentence — this is still verse 4: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God: Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend with the world becomes and enemy of God.” Oh boy. This is a touch teaching for me. Aren’t we supposed to love the world? Help our neighbors, partner with our community, support those in international ministries? John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world . . . So hang on with that tension a little bit while we try to get some more context for what James is teaching.
You may know that there is social science research that has found that a significant indicator of your behavior is what your friends are doing. You don’t have to read social science to know this; anyone who has raised adolescent children is familiar with this phenomena: none of us want our kids to get in with the wrong crowd — for example, the crowd which is engaging in risky sexual behavior, criminal activity, or using alcohol or drugs. Sure, we try to raise kids to know right from wrong and to embrace and live according to our values, but peer pressure can be a powerful force — especially during those teen age years. You don’t have to be a “bad kid” to experiment with risky and potentially destructive behavior. I believe this is what James is thinking of when he names friendship with the world. The world is a bad influence on Christians. The world which James is writing about is not the beauty of Creation, or even the potential for good which we all carry as the image of God. The world is a place which has been corrupted by envy and greed and selfishness. Your talk about being a faithful Christian is what matters here: if you are sleeping around with envy, greed, and selfishness, you are cheating on God. I believe that we can love the world as God intended it to be, and work to build the kingdom of God by the way we live and treat others, but James is saying if envy, greed and selfishness are what is shaping the way you live, you cannot claim to be a friend of God.
It is interesting what James’ solution is to friendship with the world. He does not say, “Go to church; be friends with other Christians instead.” Those aren’t bad things, in my opinion, but that is not James’ prescription. Here’s what he says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” In other words, we need to model our behavior on the best there is; not so that we become God, but so that others can see and become friends with God through us. We don’t turn into our friends, but they shape what we do and what we value. Jesus Christ is the only human being who was so near to God that he was God; the rest of us are called to follow that example to the best of our ability.
There is no one-size fits all model for friendship, but healthy human friendships can help to give us a glimpse of the encouragement and support which God freely offers to those who believe and draw near to God. It is documented, again by social scientists, that friendships help to lower stress, boost our immune function, and strengthen mental health. A primary researcher in this area is Dr. Robin Dunbar. I read an article about his research in a March 2015 Time magazine. According to Dr. Dunbar’s research, the human brain is capable of maintaining a broad social network of between 100-200 people: an average of around 150 people whom you know. Most people have regular interaction and support from a network of about 15 friends, including relatives or extended family. For optimum health of relationships, you need 3-5 close friends, people in whom you can confide about anything, people with whom you feel safe and whom you trust . Dr. Dunbar found in his research — remember, this was six years ago — that when asked about how many close friends they had, about 30% of the Americans answered: zero. I can only imagine that percentage would be higher today, as COVID kept schoolchildren and families and church members more separated. It’s a sobering thought.
Friendship with God or friendship with other people is not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Anyone can be a friend of God, and I believe we all should be striving for that. Healthy friendships are not one-sided: no friendship which is based on What have you done for me lately? will be able to withstand even ordinary stress. In order to be friends with God, we have to give up the competition and jealousy and materialism which a corrupted world tells us we need in order to be accepted, or to be of worth. God’s criteria are different from that of the world. Friendship with God means blessing the poor in spirit, and those who mourn; blessing the merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers. This is the teaching and the example we have been given by Jesus Christ.
But I believe that our friendship with God is nurtured in community with human friends: people who listen to us and love us anyway, people who walk beside us, people whom we trust enough to listen to if they tell us we’re going the wrong way, friends whom we admire and want to be like, because they are like the God we serve.
I have been blessed to be part of Christian communities all of my life. They have been a place of comfort and joy for me, but there have been times that they have, frankly, been a source of conflicts and disputes. This is similar to the teaching we examined last week about blessing and cursing, and how those can come from the same person; churches can draw us closer to God or be places of conflict. God’s position doesn’t change, it’s about how close to God we locate ourselves. We can make choices about friendships. We can opt out, of course, and be one of the 30% who does not have a close friend. This won’t insulate you from conflict, but it will insure that you don’t lose any close friends over it. Or, you can do the messy and sometimes painful work of being in community with other people, and work to draw closer to God in the process. This is no guarantee that other people won’t behave badly, but if we are all aiming for the target of What would Jesus do? How would Jesus respond? There is bound to be less conflict and more grace. Last week I used the example of words as the hardware which holds the scaffolding of community together: friendship, with God and with other people, is the mortar which holds the living stones of the church together. I don’t want to beat this metaphor senseless, but mortar is powdered cement: powdered cement has to be mixed with water in order to do the work of cementing things together. Friendship is the powdered cement: the water which is mixed in is the grace of Jesus Christ. Without that ingredient, no Christian community is built together.
Be a friend to God, be a friend to others, and may the grace of Christ hold us together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.