This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beautifully, Tragically, Fully Human". See series.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam writes
Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league in Michigan. Lambert, a 64-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan Hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years, when Boschma, a 33-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert's need and unexpectedly offered to donate one of his own kidneys.
"Andy saw something in me that others didn't," remembers Lambert. "When we were in the hospital, Andy said to me, 'John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn't hesitate to do this all over again.' I got choked up." Boschma returned the feeling: "I obviously feel a kinship [with Lambert]. I cared about him before, but now I'm really rooting for him." The photograph in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American.
Unfortunately, contends Putnam, friendships like these are increasingly rare in our world today. C.S. Lewis saw this coming nearly 50 years ago. "To the ancients," he wrote "friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it."
David and Jonathan
The Bible does not ignore friendship, and in David's life we have a beautiful example of human friendship. Saul is a relentless man, a man on a mission, a man who doesn't just want to make David's life miserable; he wants to kill David. In all, Saul would make six attempts on David's life. David was always ducking to avoid a spear or sneaking out a back window while Saul's wife put a dummy in David's bed to trick Saul's death squad (19:11-17). In the midst of the battle for David's life there is an oasis of grace: David's friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul. David is running for his life and, breathless, frightened, urgent, and troubled, he meets up with Jonathan. Despite his accomplishments and popularity, David is fighting a battle and he's in trouble: "As the Lord lives and as you live, there is only a step between me and death" (20:3). Jonathan finds it hard to believe that his own father would try to kill David, but David is his friend. Even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, Jonathan does what friends do for one another: he pledges his loyalty. In verse 4 he says, "Whatever you want me to do, I'll do for you."
David knows that Saul is throwing a party, and David is supposed to be there—a perfect opportunity for Saul to carry out an attack. Actually, it's a feast called the New Moon celebration (see Numbers 28:11-15. By the way, for those of you who think God is a killjoy in the Old Testament, read these prescribed feasts and celebrations; God is always telling—commanding—people to throw parties in order to enjoy him, his good gifts in creation, and community). So David and Jonathan devise an elaborate plan to keep David alive. It's a gripping drama (it would make a great movie scene), and I hope you read it for yourself because it's a wonderful story of two friends trying to make their way in a fallen world. Basically, the plan is that Jonathan will tell his dad that David had to be away for personal reasons. If Saul accepts the story, David will know that he's safe; if Saul gets angry, David knows that he will have to run. Verse 24 reads: "So David hides in the field, waiting for the outcome of his fate, his life hanging in the balance." The New Moon festival begins and the king sits down to eat.
Saul is seated against the wall so he can protect himself from any assassination attempts. The drama is so intense. But David's place is empty. On the second day, Saul grows suspicious, so he asks, "Where is the son of Jesse?" Jonathan tells his father that David is away on personal and family reasons. But Saul, who doesn't buy the story, explodes in foul-mouthed anger: "You son of a perverse and rebellious woman?"—a nice way to translate a phrase that means more like, "You son of a slut." "Don't I know that you've sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame?" and he hurls a spear at his own son. By now, Jonathan gets the point. His father, the king, really is out to murder David. After the New Moon feast is over, Jonathan goes to the field and in coded language tells David that what he fears are all true: Saul will kill him, it isn't safe, flee at once. Apart from one other brief meeting, this will be the last time David and Jonathan will see each other.
David is in the midst of a battle. This is war. It is not only a war for his life; it's also a war for his soul. Saul is literally trying to kill him, but the circumstances also threaten to kill David's spirit. In chapter 16 we saw that David was God's anointed. That means that God called David to be the next king. David is chosen. But he has to be patient and wait on God's timing. He can't allow his heart to grow hard or bitter; nor can he allow the fear to overwhelm him with despair. What does God do? In the midst of the chaos and craziness, in the midst of one of the fiercest battles of David's life, God doesn't deliver David from the battle; instead, he sends a friend into the heat of the battle, a man who will fight with David and for David. His name is Jonathan.
This is still God's pattern for the Christian life. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are in a battle. Jesus said, "In the world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). The rest of the New Testament concurs (see 1 Peter 5:10; Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 6:12). What does God do for us in the midst of the battle? Certainly God gives the Holy Spirit, the Parakletos, the one called along side of us. But God also provides for us in the battle by giving us friends like Jonathan. In this passage we have a picture of the body of Christ, Christian community, and Christ-centered friendships. The friendship between David and Jonathan was a rare—perhaps even unheard of—thing in the ancient world. But in the church, the body of Christ, the New Testament model for Christian community, what David and Jonathan shared is utterly normative. What does a Christian friendship look like? What do friends do for one another?
Friends are rooted in God.
There is a phrase that rounds off the two major sections of this story. It occurs in verse 23 and 42: "The Lord is witness between you and me." David and Jonathan frequently ask for the Lord's presence in their friendship. This is a friendship in which both friends have said, "This isn't about me or you, it isn't about us; this friendship is about God." This is amazing. Ego is not the issue. Who is first—who gets the credit and recognition—is not the issue. That's why Jonathan doesn't display any jealousy or envy. Please understand what's happening here: Jonathan is the son of the king. He will be the next king. He is the heir to the throne, the crown prince. But look what happens in chapter 18:4. Jonathan gives his robe to David. The robe was a symbol for the kingdom; Jonathan is giving him the kingdom. He's saying, "The kingdom that should come to me really belongs to you. You deserve to be king."
To us, this would be the equivalent of a presidential candidate—who clearly has the inside track to the presidency—turning to this closest rival and saying, "Look, I know I'm leading in the polls, I know I should be the next president, but you're really better qualified. You deserve to be the president, so I'm going to bow out and tell everyone to vote for you." How likely is that? That's impossible, unless we place Christ at the center of our friendships.
David and Jonathan were so intent on, focused on, and passionate about doing God's will that they came to the place where it wasn't about their egos or comfort or agenda. They demonstrate what C.S. Lewis claimed was the essence of friendship—a common quest, a shared vision, and a unified mission. "Friendship must be about something," Lewis said, "even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominos or white mice … the common quest or vision unite friends …. You will not find the warrior, the poet … or the Christian by staring into his eyes as if he were your mistress: better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him." In other words, how do you make life-changing friendships? Well, here's what you don't do: you don't set out to make friends. You set out to love and obey God; you decide to make God first in your life, to make him your rock and your refuge and your fortress. You set out on a mission with Jesus and say, "You have the best vision and quest anywhere, and you are my Lord, so my life is all about you and doing your will, even if I have to suffer and die." Then as you grasp God's vision and mission as found in the Bible, you will be drawn to other fellow-visionaries for Jesus, and your souls will be knit together as one. But if you start by saying, "I'm lonely and I need to find some friends," you'll always end up disappointed; Jesus isn't your Lord, so you try to make others your god and refuge.
Friendship depends on a common vision, a common quest. That's the whole point of Tolkein's The Fellowship of the Ring. What binds Sam and Merry and Pippin and Frodo together? It's the common quest outside of them. Even in a small group, if your goal is just to make friends or have a good time, your small group will become stale. If your goal in going to church on Sunday morning is just to see your friends or preserve fond memories of better days in the pristine past, your faith will grow old and stale. The key is to get excited about God, to pursue Christ, to follow him, to have your life captured by a vision for God's glory, and to share the message of Christ. Then you'll find others who are captured by the same vision. Suddenly you'll find yourself fighting, praying, and battling beside them. You'll never have to worry about having friends.
Friends let friends in.
The friendship between David and Jonathan actually begins in chapter 18. After David had been anointed the next king and went on to defeat the giant warrior Goliath, we read that "Jonathan became one spirit with David," or, literally translated, "spirit bound with spirit." Another way to say this is that they got beneath the surface; they moved from the superficial to the depths. And as they grew in friendship, they were able to share their deepest hopes and fears and dreams. That's exactly what David is doing at the beginning of chapter 20: "There is only a step between me and death." In the midst of his trouble, he cries out to God (you can read more about the prayer attributed to this period in David's life in Psalm 59), but he also needs a brother, a human friend. So he tells Jonathan: I can't handle this by myself; I'm confused and scared and I need your help. Friends are vulnerable. They realize that they cannot fight alone and they need fellow-warriors to stand with them in the battle.
The friendship between David and Jonathan is unusual in the ancient world. As a matter of fact, some people today claim that because they were so close and so vulnerable, they must have been homosexual lovers. I have two things to say about that: first, the word for friendship is the Hebrew word aheb, not the word used everywhere else for homosexual relations—yada. Second, as Tim Keller points out, this really depends on a gender stereotype. For instance, if this story was about two women, would we suspect homosexuality? Probably not. But are women the only ones who need "spirit bound with spirit" friendships? Absolutely not. What does the New Testament say about friendships and Christian community? "Love one another … confess your sins to one another … encourage one another … pray for one another." That is normal Christian community. Spirit bound with spirit. I need you and you need me.
During the first Gulf War, there was an essay written called "In the Face of Death—What Makes a Soldier Disregard Instinct." In other words, what would compel a soldier to defy the fear of death and live sacrificially for the cause? According to this study, the main motivator was simply this: you do it for one another in your squad, your team, your company. "When you get down to zero hour," said one soldier, "and it's you and almost certain death, it's the team … that sends you over the ridgeline." We could translate the "instinct" that holds us back as the more biblical term "sinful nature," or "the flesh." What will compel us as followers of Jesus to ignore the flesh, fight the battles we're facing, and lay down our lives for Christ? Certainly, the Word of God and the rich resources of the Holy Spirit and a desire to bring glory to God will compel us, but it is also the team—the "one another's" of the Bible.
If you don't realize your deep need for brothers and sisters in Christ to walk with you through life, not just for the good times, but to share the deepest parts of your life, then you may have one of two spiritual problems. The first problem would be that you don't realize that you're in a battle—a battle for your heart. You're oblivious to the battle that is raging all around you. This is a tragedy, because it necessarily means that you're losing the battle. Another problem would be that you're in the battle, but you're not fighting it God's way. God's way is in community. You're fighting it like the Lone Ranger. Do you remember him? He's alienated from himself, and he's alienated from other men. He has no name. He shares nothing about himself. He needs no one. That is not God's way to live.
There are so many reasons not to let people into your life. The columnist Ellen Goodman once said that we are a nation that keeps moving away. Initially, we move out West to the frontier. Today we just move away from each other. The frontier is within, and we move away from our spouse or our church whenever we don't know how to solve something. The Gospel calls us to stop moving and start loving (Galatians 6:2). Loving is hard work. It costs you. But without friendships—people who will battle beside us, share our burdens—ultimately, we're weak and defenseless.
Friends are loyal.
Notice what Bible scholars call the "covenantal language" of this friendship: Jonathan "made a covenant with David" (18:3), David says, "Show kindness to your servant, for you have brought him into a covenant with you before the Lord" (20:8) and Jonathon asks, "Show me unfailing kindness like that of the Lord as long as I live" (20:14, 15). The key word is the Hebrew word chesed, which means fiercely loyal love. It is the word translated as the loving-kindness or steadfast love of God. It means that God has made a covenant with us and he won't negate it. It is loyal love.
This theme of loyalty was taken seriously by these two friends. Proverbs 17:17 says, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." In other words, friends won't let you down just because your life is complicated. Jonathan is willing to be David's friend even when it's risky, costly, or inconvenient. David's life and problems were messy; rather than back away and be comfortable, Jonathan willingly walked into the mess of David's life. Later on, when Jonathan was dead, and David was secure in his rule of the kingdom, David looked all over his lands and asked, "Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan's sake?" (2 Samuel 9:1).
Friends are loyal, even when it's inconvenient. When was the last time someone told you, "I am there for you, and I'll do whatever you need to get through this battle"? That's not usually what happens. Perhaps our biggest fear is that people will see the real us—the real messiness of our life will be exposed, and then they'll bolt. Christians believe in sin. We know there are messes in life. Every person is carrying pride and lust and greed and doubt and baggage from the past and fear about the future. But friends don't bolt when the mess comes to the surface. I have a friend who calls or emails me every Monday morning to say hello and ask about a certain battle that I face. He does it every week. He almost never forgets. Friends demonstrate loyalty.
What kind of friend are you? Are you passionately pursuing Christ? Is that your mission and your quest—even above finding friends? Are you vulnerable, and do you allow others to share your struggles with you? Are you willing to pursue that kind of "spirit bound with spirit" friendships? Are you loyal, even when friendships are messy, convenient, and costly? If you think this is optional to your spiritual life in Christ, you're greatly mistaken. It is something God takes with the utmost seriousness. Christ did not just come to save your soul and make sure you go to heaven. He came to create a new humanity, a redeemed community that will gather around his throne—people from every tribe and tongue and nation who will celebrate and praise his name (Revelation 7:9-11).
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.