Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
We all need friends and companions. In the very first book of the Bible, we are taught that it is not good for man to be alone. God searched for a suitable helper for Adam, but it wasn’t until Eve was created that this need was fulfilled. And ever since then, men and women have been searching for the perfect companion. For the wise and scholarly, it is said that, “A friend is like a book: you don’t need to read all of them, just pick the best ones.” For the connoisseurs of good food, it is said, “Their New Year’s resolution is to help all their friends gain ten pounds so they can look skinnier.” Apparently even millennials need friends, as they say, “Why call someone when you can just decide where you and your friend want to meet by exchanging 76 text messages?” Yes, we all need friends and companionship- especially God’s faithful servants.
Our scripture this morning teaches us that holy friends and companions play an important part of our faith journey. In the Old Testament story of Elijah and Elisha, we read that everywhere the two went, everyone knew that God was about to take the prophet Elijah up into heaven in a whirlwind, but that his young companion Elisha refused to listen and to let him go. He still needed something from the older prophet. Jesus, in our New Testament story needed something from his disciples as well. At Jesus’ transfiguration on top of the mountain, his three closest disciples were with him. They would share a friendship which was deeper and more complex than with the other disciples. The same is as true today, you and I need friendships that allow us to take on the challenges of life- and of the work of God’s kingdom.
L. Gregory Jones, a senior fellow at Duke University suggests that “holy friends” are different than mere acquaintances and colleagues. They nurture and encourage us to live the life that God intended for us. While friends celebrate our mutual joys and interests, “holy friends” challenge us. He states that, “Holy friends challenge the sins we have come to love,” which may make them seem like spoil sports, but also “affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream of.” Ultimately, holy friends are the one who make all the difference in our lives.
Consider the prophet Elijah. His name no longer on the A-list of invitees to dinner. As a late friend and former politician once described himself, “He used to be somebody.” Elijah was almost always found on the opposite side of the crowds. He lived in the kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and was the defender of the Jewish faith over against the pagan worship of the Canaanite deity Baal whom the King embraced. Elijah performed miracles such as raising from the dead, holding back the rains and bringing fire down from the sky. But in spite of all these great things, he wrestled with his faith. Even fellow prophets were against him. But he had one, holy friend who kept him focused on his work and calling.
When Elisha was but a young man plowing the field on his parents’ farm, Elijah saw him and literally threw his prophet’s mantle over him. As far as we know, the two were strangers to each other, yet Elijah glimpsed something in this youth that no one had seen before, and Elisha had the courage to accept the prophet’s call. We don’t know how long these two were bound together in holy friendship, but it was long enough for the young Elisha to be willing to take the spiritual mantle of the prophet Elijah.
Apparently, Jesus needed “holy friends” as well. For three years, he journeyed with his 12 disciples, but for some reason, Peter, James and John played a more of an important role in his life than all the others. And like all “holy friendships,” he spent time together with them. Not just quality time, but a quantity of time. Jesus needed their constant and sometime misguided friendship to keep him focused on God’s calling. And it was the memory of these conversations with Jesus and times together that would offer Peter, James and John strength and courage in their darkest hours.
As L. Gregory Jones wrote, we all need “holy friends” to “challenge the sins we have come to love, to affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and to help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream of.” But more importantly, I would add, we need these holy friends for those occasions in in life when we encounter life’s spiritual opponents. And they do come. A disease that has gone undetected too long, a child wrestling with substance abuse and depression, a spouse who has lost their commitment to their wedding vows, and the list of spiritual struggles goes on and on. As I often say, when you have the mark of the cross upon your brow, it seems you have the devil’s target upon your chest. Holy friends make these battles bearable.
With that said cultivating these holy friendships is hard work and there must be safe places where we can move from “acquaintance” or “colleague” to “holy friend.” That is why I believe that God has given us the church, as imperfect as it may be, where you have every right to expect that God will provide you with “holy friends” who will nurture you.
Now don’t be surprised if it takes time to find the “holy friends.” Not all our relationships in the church are the same. Someone else’s religious language may not speak to you. Someone may seem too zealous or close minded, rather like the chairman of the evangelism committee whose team motto was, “Fight like you’re the third monkey trying to get on Noah’s ark.” And others may seem a little too apologetic and wishy-washy. They are so afraid to offend anyone, that they pray, “To whom it may concern.” Holy friends are rare, but always a gift.
Perhaps that is what the stories of Elijah’s fiery chariot ride to heaven and the Jesus’ transfiguration upon the mountaintop teach us. We might expect that Elijah’s departure in the fiery chariot would be a major spectacle admired by thousands, but instead we read that only one person was present to see Elijah’s brilliant ascent, and that was Elisha. The same was true of Jesus’ holy conversation with Moses and Elijah at his transfiguration. Only three of his disciples, Peter, James and John were present on the mountaintop. But these few followers were changed by what they had seen and heard.
You and I actually need these holy friends every day. We need them to offer an honest perspective on our lives and to keep building up our hope. When our sons Vitali and Alexei were young, and they were fast asleep, I would stare at them in their beds knowing that I was a perfect father. Of course, that’s not how it felt during the day. But when I allowed myself the time to be with holy friends in Bible study, and in prayer I knew that I could begin again the next day. It was through their words that God was gentle prodding me to return to them in the waking hours that they needed me. It was there in their valleys of life that I could make a difference. Even now as am growing older, and so are they, I know that they do not need me on the mountain top, they need me in the deep valleys.
That is true for your friends and family as well. They don’t need you on a pillar or a mountain top. They need you, your wisdom and compassion to walk with them and help them make sense of their valleys and God. That is the assurance and hope that true holy friends can offer. It may be messy business. But the story of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ isn’t about our perfect pilgrimage though life. It is the story of Jesus coming down, descending all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss. And it doesn’t end there. Jesus also offers the assurance they he will lift you up. That is the good news you are invited to share as holy friends to transform the lives of those you love.
No doubt, we can all identify people who have been, and continue to be, holy friends in our lives. You may not remember their words exactly, but you remember how you felt in their presence. They had that uncanny ability to challenge you, to mentor you and inspire you to climb higher. Perhaps, you weren’t aware, but they also certainly had one final thought for you and that is your challenge for today. And to whom are you now a “holy friend?” We all need friends and companions- especially God’s faithful servants. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.