This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Close". See series.
Where are you on your spiritual journey? And what would help you take the next step?
A couple of years ago we joined hundreds of churches across the country and participated in something called the Reveal Survey. The Reveal Survey came out of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, and it was a simple tool that was designed to help congregations assess the spiritual vitality of their congregation and to determine how best to help their folks grow spiritually. And it provided us with a helpful snapshot with the church at large in America and of our own congregation in particular. And there were a few insights I'd like to call to your attention this morning.
One of the discoveries the Reveal Survey made was that there is a predictable pattern of spiritual growth across congregations. Churchgoers tend to fall into one of four segments as they make their way along the spiritual journey.
The first segment of people we might call the "exploring Christianity" segment. These are folks who might say, I believe in God, but I'm not sure about Christ. My faith is not a significant part of my life. So these are folks still early in the journey, just beginning to understand Christianity.
People in the next stage we might call "growing in Christ," and they would be described by this statement: I believe in Jesus and I'm working on what it means to get to know him. So these are folks who have come to faith in Christ and are just beginning to grow in their understanding of him.
A third group of people we might call "close to Christ." These are folks who might say something like, I feel close to Christ and depend on him daily for guidance. So here are people who have a vibrant daily personal relationship with Christ.
And then there's a fourth group. Perhaps they're the most spiritually mature. These folks might say something like this: God is all I need in my life. He is enough. Everything I do is a reflection of Christ. So here are folks who've come to a place in life where everything in their lives revolves around knowing and serving and sharing Christ.
Now obviously this is a bit simplistic. No one falls neatly into four simple categories, but there are discernable stages as we make our way along the journey of faith.
Before we go any further, I'd like you to take a moment and find yourself on that continuum. Which of those four segments might you find yourself in? Are you still in the exploring stage, still getting to understand Christianity and the relationship with Christ? Maybe you're in that growing in Christ; you've come to a place of faith and are just beginning to grow in your knowledge of God. Maybe you'd say, no, I'm close to Christ; I have a personal daily relationship. And some might say, You know what, my life is centered around Jesus Christ, every aspect of it. It's helpful to know where you are so you can begin to discern where you need to go next.
A second insight that came out of the survey was that people need different things at different stages to help them grow spiritually. For instance, for the folks in those first couple of segments, the exploring and the new believers, weekly worship services are strong drivers of their spiritual growth. They count on that to help them grow in their faith. For folks in the latter two segments, weekly worship is foundational to their life, but it's not what drives them to a deeper relationship with Christ. For folks in the middle two segments, growing in Christ and close to Christ, personal spiritual practices become important drivers of growth—daily devotions, personal Bible reading, prayer, journaling, retreat—those kinds of things are important in those middle stages. And then for folks in those latter two categories, close to Christ and Christ-centered, what helps them grow the most are two things: serving and relationships. In other words, for those who are farther along the journey, weekly worship, daily devotions are absolutely foundational to their spiritual life, but the thing that helps them grow is either serving or relationships.
Now, serving is not the focus of our message this morning. Instead, we are going to focus on relationships and how they contribute to spiritual growth. It turns out that the farther you go on that spiritual journey, the more important relationships become.
Now one more insight to share and then we'll get to the Scripture. One of the discoveries we made when we took the survey was that Grace Chapel was a little bit weak in this area of relationships. Compared to other churches, fewer of our folks were in these kinds of deep spiritual friendships, and many folks felt that the church could do more to help them find these kinds of friendships. Now you understand why we are leaning so hard into relationships this winter and spring, why we're spending seven weeks on the subject of spiritual friendship. It's not just an interesting topic; it is absolutely critical to the spiritual vitality of the congregation and to your and my personal growth in Christ.
So that's a long introduction, but I wanted us all to understand the importance of the series and of this particular message, because this morning you are going to discover that wherever you are on that spiritual journey, spiritual friendships will take you farther and deeper than you could ever go alone.
Spiritual friends allow us to be ourselves
So to show you how that works, I'd like to introduce you to a remarkable circle of friends that we find in the Scripture. This is a group of friends who most likely would fall into those latter two categories, the more mature followers of Christ. I can say that with confidence because one of them is Jesus. He was pretty far along on that continuum. But so were the other three. In fact, they may have been Jesus' closest friends, apart from the disciples. So we meet them in the Gospels three different times. We're going to look at three different passages briefly this morning, and we'll begin in Luke 10:38.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Now we don't have a lot of background on this trio of siblings—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But it does appear that Jesus had a special relationship with them. The evidence suggests that they were a fairly well-to-do family and an influential family in their community. They lived in Bethany, which was just outside of Jerusalem. And it seems as though their house had become kind of a home base, even a retreat house, so to speak, for Jesus when he was ministering there in Jerusalem. Their house provided him with a place to go where he could rest and relax, to get away from the press of people and be with folks who not only believed in him but people who loved him and enjoyed him.
Now, this is the first description we have of their encounter with each other, but we get the feeling they already know each other at least a bit, because what struck me about this account as I read it another time through is how comfortable and honest they are with each other. Take Martha for instance. She's ticked off and she's not afraid to show it, even to Jesus. You'd think that if you had the preacher over for dinner you'd want to make a good impression. Right? You'd be on your best behavior. Not Martha. She lets her sister have it. She doesn't just let her sister have it, she lets Jesus have it. Look at verse 40: "Lord, don't you care …? Tell her to help me!" Martha is a no-nonsense gal, and she's not afraid to be herself even in the company of Jesus. But the same thing is true for Mary. It was not a woman's place to be sitting at the feet of a rabbi. In fact, that may be part of what has Martha so upset. It's not just that she's stuck in the kitchen doing the work. It's that Mary has abandoned her traditional role and is acting as if she's a disciple. But you see, that's what Mary was. She was devoted. She was passionate. She is a disciple, and she's not afraid to be herself, even in the company of Jesus.
And because these two are so honest and so fully themselves, Jesus is able to speak powerfully into both of their lives. He's able to affirm Mary for her devotion to his teaching, and he's able to redirect Martha's passion gently yet directly. We don't know how Jesus said it—"Martha, Martha"—but the words suggest a certain tenderness, even a certain delight in who Martha and Mary were as people and his joy at being with them.
And that's one of the ways spiritual friends help each other grow. They allow us to be our true selves.
Somehow we have made it through six weeks of this series without talking about one of the most popular TV shows in recent history, Friends. It aired for ten years. The final episode in 2004 was the most watched episode of a TV show of the decade. And you know the storyline: six young adults trying to make a way for themselves in New York City. I honestly wasn't a big fan of the show, and generally speaking, it wasn't allowed to be on in our house. But you can't deny the cultural resonance and impact of that show. A whole generation of young adults came of age under the influence of that show.
The reason it came to my mind is because one night a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to unwind for a few minutes before turning in for the night, doing a little channel surfing, and Friends came on. So I jumped in for half an episode. And with this series in the back of my mind, I was asking myself, What is it about this show, about these characters, that makes them so appealing to so many people? I think it was the comfort ability that these six friends had with each other. In the high pressure, image-conscious, unforgiving environs of Manhattan, these six friends could be themselves with each other. Joey's a goofball. Phoebe is ditsy. Monica is controlling. But it doesn't matter. They're still friends. They could come home cranky or giddy. They could be juvenile and it didn't matter. They were still going to be friends. "I'll Be There for You" is the theme song. They had this understanding that no matter what happened, no matter how things turned out, no matter who they turned out to be, they would still be friends. And there's something powerful and liberating about that, about the freedom to be yourself in the company of another person, because if you're free to be who you are, you're free to become someone better, someone you long to be. And for everything that the show got wrong, that part it got right.
Spiritual friends allow us to be our true selves. That's important, because we can't grow if we're pretending. We can't grow if we're hiding. We can't speak into each other's lives unless we are being honest with each other. We can't become who God wants us to be until we face who we are and do that in the company of other people.
Karen and I were clear about that when we joined our life community several years ago. We made it clear to the group that they had to allow us just to be our regular selves, regular people. I didn't want to be the Bible answer man. Karen didn't want to be the cheery pastor's wife. We just wanted to be our real, unvarnished selves without wrecking someone's image of the pastor. And this group has been wonderful to us that way. They show us absolutely no respect whatsoever, and it's been great. A lot of pastors don't get that kind of freedom in their own congregation. We've been grateful for it.
Do you have friends like that? Is there someone in your life with whom you can be completely unself-conscious? Are you that kind of a friend to people? Do you give them the freedom to be themselves on their way to becoming who God wants them to be?
Spiritual friends talk about difficult issues
A second way that spiritual friends help each other grow is by talking about deep and difficult things.
Let's look at John 11. We don't have time to read this entire story of the raising of Lazarus, but a few verses will help us understand what's happening here. Let's pick it up at John 11:1-3:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."
We get a sense here of the close relationship that Jesus enjoys with these three siblings. "The one you love is sick." If you skip down to verse 11, Jesus actually says to his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep …." But then for some reason, Jesus delays his journey to Bethany, by several days. So by the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already died. We'll pick up the story at verse 20: "When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 'Lord,' Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.'"
Once again we find Martha being brutally honest with Jesus. She is not afraid to vent her feelings and her frustrations, and she dares to wonder out loud if he still might be able to do something. Verse 23:
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she told him. "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
This is a remarkable conversation. Right here by the side of the road, they are talking about the deepest, most difficult things human beings can talk about—sickness, sorrow, suffering, loss, death, tragedy, and the life to come. Mary isn't afraid to ask Jesus a hard question: Where were you when we needed you? Jesus doesn't hesitate to stretch Martha's thinking: "I am the resurrection and the life." He doesn't hesitate to invite her to take the next step of faith: "Do you believe this?" And the conversation ends with Martha making one of the most complete confessions of faith anywhere in the Gospels, just as profound as Peter's: "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God …." Martha has grown in her faith, right there by the side of the road.
Later on, Mary's going to come and she's going to ask the same question with the same intensity. Jesus is going to stand by the grave of his friend and weep. I mean, these are tough moments for these friends—sorrow and tension and misunderstanding and disappointment—but they're there for each other. And the story ends with Lazarus walking out of the tomb, restored to life, reunited with his family. The glory of God was revealed for the whole town to see. Talk about being there for each other.
That's a remarkable experience. It teaches us that spiritual friends aren't just there for each other in hard times; they talk to each other in hard times. They're not afraid to face the big questions of life and death. They ask hard questions of themselves, of each other, of God. They stretch each other's thinking. They dare to think out loud with one another. They give each other opportunities to embrace a new truth or to take another step of faith. Spiritual friends don't just show up at the funeral; as important as that is, they find you a week, a month, a year later and they ask, "How are you doing, really, with God?"
It's nice to have friends that we can talk to about the weather and the stock market and the kids and the Red Sox, but sometimes we need to talk about big things, deep things, hard things. Many folks in our society have no one to have those kinds of conversations with, and that's where spiritual friends come in. They invite us to talk about those things. And that's one of the ways that the TV friends failed each other. Oh, they were there with each other through all kinds of life experiences, that's for sure. But they rarely stretched and confronted and challenged one another to become their better selves. They rarely asked the big questions of life, and obviously never pointed each other towards God. That leads us to our last thought.
Friends are attentive and responsive spiritually
Spiritual friends help each other grow by being attentive and responsive to one another spiritually.
In the final scene with Jesus and this group of friends, they are at a dinner party in Bethany. It's the night before Passover, the night before an awful week in Jesus' life. No one else at the party seems to be aware that any of that is going to happen, but Mary is aware. Mary senses that something is up. And so while everyone else is feasting, the Gospels tell us, Mary gets up from her place and quietly crosses the room. She takes out a jar of expensive perfume, breaks it wide open, and empties it on Jesus' head and on his feet. Then she uses her hair to wipe the perfume onto his feet. The guests are scandalized: How inappropriate. What an extravagance. This could have been given for the poor!
But Jesus says, "Why are you bothering her? She's done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial."
Mary was sensitive to what was happening spiritually at that moment. She had been listening when Jesus spoke about his suffering and his death. Her eyes were on Jesus that night, and she detected something in his countenance, a burden, a preoccupation. And when the Spirit prompted her to do something, something risky, she didn't hesitate. Jesus needed a friend that night. He needed someone in the room to understand the burden he was carrying. He needed someone to remind him of his Father's presence and the sovereignty of his plan. And Mary of Bethany was there for Jesus that night.
Friends are attentive and responsive spiritually. Sometimes we are so deep in the weeds we can't even see where we are or where we're going, but friends can, if they're paying attention, if they're listening to us and listening to God and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. And when friends are there for each other, God is there for all of them. Isn't that what Jesus said? "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them." When we are there for one another, we create a space for God to be present and to do what only God can do—to raise someone to new life or to minister to our deep need. Friends do that.
I've shared with you before about my "dark night of the soul" experience quite a few years ago. It was an awful, lonely time for me spiritually. I despaired at points of never finding my way out of that darkness. But in the midst of that, a mentor, an older woman, spoke into my life. She said to me, "God must really love you to let you have this kind of experience." I said, "What do you mean? How is this an expression of love?" She said, "God is trusting you with this darkness. He must be leading you to a very deep place with him." And that insight changed everything for me. It was still dark, but I no longer felt abandoned. I felt loved somehow and began to look and listen for what God might be doing in and around me through that experience.
Spiritual friends pay attention to us and for us. They help us hear God's voice, feel his touch, and know his will. Do you have a friend like that? Are you that kind of a friend to someone?
This week I discovered a group of friends, right here at Grace Chapel, who are experiencing these kinds of things. They are members of a life community that meets in Beverly. The group has only been together for a couple of years, but they're already beginning to discover these kinds of friendships. It turns out this group of friends have been there for each other through all kinds of things in just two years—funerals, weddings, new babies, military deployment, job loss, relational breakdowns, sickness. They have been there for each other. But they've also helped each other grow through those experiences. Listen to some of their comments in light of the things we've been talking about this morning.
We've been sharing our life stories with each other, and it's helped me to hear other people affirm how God is working in my life.
I have never been so confident that a group is praying for me, and they're always careful to follow up and ask how I'm doing.
We eat our hearts out and talk about how God is part of our lives.
They compiled a list of all the hard questions that they and their friends are struggling with, and week by week they try to find biblical answers to those questions. Recently they studied the Prodigal Son and discovered, to their disappointment, that most of them are like the older brother. One of them said, "I've been challenged to grow beyond an obedience based on fear to an obedience springing from love." One of the older couples in the group has become kind of a mentor to some of the others. She says, "At a time when our youngest will be leaving for college, God has given us a whole new family to encourage, listen to, pray for, and feed." Who could ask for more than that?
Isn't this what we're all asking for, for friends? And that's why the show was so popular. It wasn't Joey's jokes about Jennifer's hair. It was the friendships. We all want people who will be there for us. We want people who will let us be our true selves. We want people with whom we can talk about the important issues of life, friends who will pay attention to what God is doing in and around us. We want people who will be there for us in a way that allows God to be there for us as well.
However, these kinds of relationships can't be programmed. The church can't hire a staff member for friendships. They can't set up a new department for ministry. These kinds of relationships are found by people who are seeking them, by people who take some initiative, by people who join a group or serve on a team, who introduce themselves to somebody. What a church can do is to create an environment that values and fosters friendships. What it can do is give people a common language for talking about friendships. What a church can do is create opportunities for people to connect with each other. And we are intentional about doing that more effectively.
So if you've been sitting here through this series or this sermon saying to yourself, I wish I had friends like that, don't sit around waiting for someone to call you and don't wait for the church to start a new program. Look around you. Ask God to direct you and then take a risk. Introduce yourself to someone. Invite someone for coffee. Open your home. Make yourself available. Make a phone call.
That's what I did. Honestly, I got both convicted and inspired by this series. And so I called an old friend who lives not too far away, in New Hampshire, someone who's known me for a long time. He's a man of deep faith. He knows me well. I can be myself with him, and he'll speak the truth to me. I said, "Let's have lunch," and we did a few weeks ago. We made a commitment to do that once a month in the days to come.
And I'm hoping that hundreds of us will make phone calls and extend invitations and find and deepen friendships, because wherever you are on your journey of faith, friends will take you farther and deeper than you could ever go alone.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.