This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Close". See series.
Last week I tossed out a question and invited you to respond: is it possible to be spiritual friends with a non-believer? For the past six weeks, we've been talking about spiritual friendship, about the fact that God uses these friendships to form our faith, to shape us spiritually. We've talked about the things spiritual friends do for each other. We pray for and with each other. We speak God's Word into each other's lives. We serve alongside one another. We hold each other accountable. Those are wonderful things. But they sound like things that Christians do for one another. What about all the people in our lives who are not Christians, people of other faiths or of no faith at all? Is it possible to be spiritual friends with them? The answer according to those of you who responded is, yes—overwhelmingly yes, unanimously yes. Every single person who responded said, Yes, it is possible to have such friendships.
Now, I wasn't all that surprised by the response. What I was surprised by was the intensity of the yes. I expected and hoped for a handful of e-mails. I got an arms-full of e-mails. And there was passion behind the e-mails. People wanted me to know how enthusiastic they were, how grateful they were for these friendships.
The second thing that surprised me was how reciprocal the relationships were. I expected stories of how believers had shared their faith with their non-believing friends and helped them along their spiritual journey. To be sure, I received stories like that, but I got just as many stories—in fact I got more—about how people's non-believing friends, people of other traditions, have helped the believers to grow spiritually, how God has used them in their lives. Listen to a couple of the e-mails I received.
When I first started coming to Grace Chapel, one of the things I was wrestling with was the secular-sacred separation in my life. On Sunday I was spiritual, but during the week I was cold and dry. That all changed when I made a few Jewish friends at work. Person "A" was Orthodox, and person "B" was Reformed. Labeling myself as an evangelical Christian initially put up more walls than bridges. Eventually we found some common ground that let us talk about our faith and how it had shaped our lives. I learned a lot from them about the importance of religious traditions and values being passed on to our children.
Someone else wrote,
Many of my teachers in A.A. have been people who worship the God I believe in, even though they see him from a different angle. Before I was a believer, they were there for me through horrific life experiences that come with alcoholism, including suicidal tendencies. In retrospect, I believe God used them to keep me alive until I could get to him. By the way, I'm still friends with them. We spend a week golfing every summer. I used to be the biggest degenerate of the crew. Now they call me Flanders, after the Christian goody-two-shoes on the Simpsons.
You get the idea. The folks who wrote in wanted me to understand that not only were their relationships with people of other faith or no faith important to them, but that God had used those relationships to form them spiritually. And so that leads to a simple idea for this message: spiritual friendships with people of other faith or no faith are not only possible, they're powerful. God uses them to shape us and to accomplish his purpose in our lives and in theirs.
Now, that doesn't mean that friendships with people of other faiths are always easy. We all know relationships that have gone sour because of religious differences. Sometimes people get pushy. Sometimes people get offended and they feel judged. Religious differences lead to fights as often as they lead to friendships. So how do we cultivate spiritual friendships that lead to growth in both of our lives?
Spiritual friends care for each other's souls
Let's look at one more set of friends that we find in the Scripture: Philip and Nathanael. We find their story in John 1. Now this particular encounter takes place early in Jesus' ministry. He hasn't really gone public yet, but John the Baptizer has been preparing the way for him, telling people to watch out for the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. We'll pick up the story at verse 43:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me." Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. He found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."
Now we're not told a lot about these two men Philip and Nathanael. Chances are they grew up together in the same town of Bethsaida. People didn't move around a lot in those days, so they were probably friends since childhood. They probably went to synagogue together every Sabbath, went to school together, skipped stones on the Sea of Galilee. It's also possible they were fishing buddies. They grew up right near the Sea of Galilee. Later on in John's Gospel, toward the end after Jesus' resurrection when Peter decides to go fishing, he asks, Who wants to go along? Nathanael hops in the boat. So they may have been fishing together for a long time. However it happened, they seemed to be friends. Not brothers, like Andrew and Simon Peter, but friends. In fact, they turn out to be spiritual friends. They are both seekers after God. They were dissatisfied with the religious system of the day. They were disillusioned by the hypocrisy of their religious leaders. They were tired of stale rituals and tedious parsing of the Law. They were looking for something more, something deeper. And so when a firebrand named John began preaching out by the Jordan and baptizing people, they went out to hear him together. And it appears as though they talked about what they heard together. They searched the Scriptures together and they talked with each other about who this one might be, when and from where he might come.
So the first thing we learn about spiritual friends is that they care for each other's souls. They take an interest in each other's spiritual well-being. Now that may seem rather obvious, but it's an important place to start, because it's the spiritual dimension that sets these kinds of friendships apart from ordinary friendships. It's this dimension that makes these kinds of friendships deep and long-lasting.
Back in high school I had a couple of friends, named Barry and Richard. Both of them were Jewish. Both of them were brilliant. One was valedictorian; the other was salutatorian. I was not third, just so you know. We talked about all the things that kids talked about at that age in those days. We talked about algebra and girls and the latest Beatles album and all those kind of things, but we also talked about bigger things. We talked about the Vietnam War. We talked about the divorce that one of the guy's parents were going through. And we talked about religion. I went to their bar mitzvahs. Richard visited my youth group. Barry's parents wouldn't let him visit my youth group. We used to get into arguments about the Old Testament. I would quote a verse from Isaiah pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. Barry would go home and look it up in Hebrew and come back the next day and set me straight as to what he thought was the proper interpretation.
We went our separate ways after high school, and Richard became a doctor and Barry became a linguist. We've hardly seen each other in thirty or forty years, but I would still consider them friends. We exchange holiday cards once in a while. We found each other on Facebook. When I went to Israel, I sent them my pictures. When Barry was lecturing at Harvard, we met in town, and we had lunch together. I had lots of friends in high school, guys I played ball with and listened to music with, but the only friends from high school I keep in touch with and still think about are Barry and Richard, because we were spiritual friends. We cared for each others' souls and we still do.
David Benner is a leading thinker on the subject of spiritual formation. He says this: "Spiritual friends nurture the growth of each other's inner self and help each other become whole people." What we're discovering this morning, what I learn through all these e-mails, is that this can happen even when people don't share the same faith. Listen to this e-mail I got from someone in the congregation:
When I was out of work in 2009, I noticed that one of my fellow job-seekers made comments that suggested a religious faith. We got together for lunch. I was the first evangelical that "M" ever got to know. He's active in the Bahá'i community. He explained to me about Bahá'u'lláh and the origins of the Bahá'i faith. We agreed to pray together for the rest of our job search and the rest of our support team. In 2010, I was able to successfully refer him to a job where I work, so we see each other regularly now and have had lunch together … caring for each other's souls.
And this one:
I have a couple of neighbors who are mothers of my son's friends. I asked them if they wanted to come over for coffee, and we could study a Bible passage and pray for our sons. Both immediately said yes. I have learned that the question Can I pray for you? is a great way to start spiritual conversations, because that's what friends do. They take an interest in one another's spiritual well-being, in the development of their whole selves.
Spiritual friends care for each other's souls.
Spiritual friends share good news
The second thing we learn from this little story is that spiritual friends share good news with each other. Somewhere along the way, Philip has a personal encounter with Jesus, and he comes to believe that Jesus is the one they've been looking for, the Messiah of Israel. What's the first thing Philip does? Verse 45: Philip found "Nathanael and told him, 'We have found the one Moses wrote about.'" Philip was so excited that he couldn't wait to tell his friend the good news. And isn't that what friends do with each other? We share good news. If you see a good movie, if you get a new job, you call your friends and you tell them. You want to share the news with them. You want them to share your experience. It's natural for friends to do that.
For some reason when the news is spiritual in nature, things get a little weird, don't they? We get uncomfortable and tentative and apologetic. Imagine you're taking a coffee break, you're talking with a coworker, and you say, C-C-Could I talk to you for, ah, just a-a minute about something? I-I know it's a little unusual, but I-I-I don't want to pressure you or anything like that, but you … this weekend, I-I went to this new restaurant, and-and it was really good, and, and, now I know you may already have restaurants that you like to go to, and that's fine. You may not even believe in restaurants. That's okay, too. But just thought maybe you might, I don't know, like to try this restaurant.
How ridiculous is that? We would naturally tell someone about something good that we found. So why does it get so difficult when it becomes spiritual?
Maybe we should take a lesson from Philip here; he simply announces his good news, believing that his friend will be glad to hear it. Maybe we should get used to saying over coffee, "Man, we had a great service at church yesterday," or, "I read the most interesting thing in the Bible this morning."
Maybe we'd be surprised at how interested our friends would be to hear that news. Here's an e-mail I got from someone:
A few years ago as a first time mother with a two-month-old, I joined a play group in hopes of finding friendship and support during the survival years. I became friends with a woman named "J." I knew from conversations that she did not know God but believed that a God did exist, somehow, somewhere. I was never preachy about who God is, but I also did not ignore the fact that he was an important part of my life. When I went through a hard time, I shared some of the things I had prayed about and that God had said to me. I had no idea what she thought about that in those early years of our friendship. After a few years, we moved to different cities. She went through a difficult time and started asking me some direct questions about who God is and how I talk to him. It's been four years now. Our children are bigger. Our friendship is deeper. And she has recently joined a church and is pursuing God with all her heart.
Maybe we shouldn't be so afraid to share our spiritual lives with others. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that it is the ultimate expression of love and concern for another person.
Many of us are familiar with Penn Jillete. He is a magician of the famous duo Penn and Teller. Penn is an avid and militant atheist. A couple of years ago a fan gave him a Gideon Bible, and Penn didn't mind. In fact, he appreciated the fact that someone was concerned enough to share that with him. He wrote this in a blog: "How much would you have to hate someone to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them about it?"
Sharing good news is the ultimate expression of love for a friend.
Spiritual friends are honest
A third thing we learn from the friendship of Nathanael and Philip is that spiritual friends are honest about their doubts and differences. Notice how Nathanael responds to Philip in verse 46: "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nazareth was an out-of-the-way, nowhere kind of town. Today it might be like someone saying, "We have found the Messiah! He's from Cleveland." Cleveland! Nothing against Cleveland, but in many people's minds it's just not the kind of place you expect a messiah to come from. (If you're from Cleveland, no e-mails, please!)
You see, Nathanael was skeptical. He had some difficulties with what Philip was telling him, and he wasn't afraid to say them out loud. Friends give each other freedom to express their doubts and differences.
I've been sharing with you my growing friendship with Rabbi David over at Temple Emunah, the conservative temple here in Lexington. One of the things I enjoy about that friendship is that we don't dance around our difference in belief. In fact, we explore them. We ask questions. We challenge each other's interpretation and application of Scripture. That friendship has enriched my life spiritually. I'm inspired by his devotion to prayer, by the way he has ordered his entire life around the teaching of God's Word. That would never have happened if we hadn't shared our differences with each other.
Listen to this e-mail from someone in our congregation:
Over the past five years "M" and I have logged hundreds of miles running together, and in the course of doing so, we have gotten to know each other well. I've never had a close friend who wasn't a believer. And consequently, I've been asked some of the genuine questions that nonbelievers have. Because our friendship has such a solid foundation, we can think about those things without resentment, hostility, or disrespect. She occasionally attends Grace Chapel with me, and we go running after the service, during which time we discuss our thoughts and questions about the sermon. My faith is stronger than it was when I moved here six years ago, and I'm certain my friendship with "M" has played a big role in my growth.
Spiritual friends are honest about their doubts and differences, and that honesty, those differences, help them to explore and seek and discover truth.
Spiritual friends invite each other to explore
The fourth thing we learn from the friendship of Nathanael and Philip is that spiritual friends invite each other to take a closer look. I love Philip's response to Nathanael in verse 46: "Come and see." He doesn't take it personally when his friend pushes back. He doesn't get offended. He doesn't get into an argument about the merits of Nazareth as the home place for the Messiah. He just says, Why don't you come and see for yourself.
When it comes to matters of faith, you can only explain so much. Sooner or later, a person has to have a personal experience with God. People have to encounter him personally in order to make a decision. And all friends do is try to facilitate that encounter, that experience.
I shared with you earlier this year about how meaningful my trip to Israel was last summer. The only reason I got to Israel was because my friend Rabbi David invited me. Well, he didn't invite me; he pressured me. Actually he demanded that I go. Every excuse and reason I gave he demolished. And the reason he did that was because he'd been there so many times and had such rich, spiritual experiences. He knew what it was like, and he wanted me to have that experience. He wanted to experience some of those things and places with me. Now, I've heard people talk about the Holy Land my whole life, but I never got there until a friend said, "Come with me and see."
There are people in your life who have never experienced a worship service like we enjoy here every week. They've never heard someone talk from the Bible in a way that was clear and relevant and made sense. They've never really sensed the presence of God in a group of worshipers. And they may never have that experience until someone, a friend, says, Come with me and see.
Here's an e-mail from someone in our congregation who is on the receiving end of one of these invitations:
Before I met "J," I was influenced by my grandmother and my mom, who are Christians. But I didn't believe in God. After I met "J," she picked me up and brought me to Grace Chapel. I don't know what happened to me, but I wept when we sang the holy songs. "J" told me that it was God touching my heart. So I continue to come to Grace Chapel every week and have become a Christian. Now I'm bringing my non-Christian friends to Grace Chapel. I hope God can guide them to be members of our spiritual family. And it all started with an invitation.
We are coming up on the easiest time of the year to say, Come and see. People are more likely to come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter than at any other time of the year. Many of them are looking to go to a church, but they don't know where to go. They don't know if they should go to a church listed in the phonebook, to one that is nearby, or to the one they went to last year. People may just be waiting for an invitation.
Spiritual friends know how to trust God
Finally, spiritual friends know when to get out of the way and leave matters to God. At a certain point, Philip recognizes that he is never going to convince his friend to believe in Jesus. Nathanael is going to have to meet Jesus for himself. And so the two of them go off to find Jesus, and when they do, an interesting thing happens. Verse 47:
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false." "How do you know me?" Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you." Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."
Philip kind of fades into the background. When they get to Jesus, they discover that Jesus already knows Nathanael. He'd had his eye on Nathanael for a while; by his Spirit, he had been whispering into Nathanael's heart as he sat in the shade of a fig tree, pondering the big questions of life. And Philip recognizes what's going on, that God is already there, and that Jesus and Nathanael are having this conversation. Philip wisely shuts up and gets out of the way. And it hardly takes any time at all for Nathanael to become a believer. He didn't know much. There was a lot he didn't understand still. But he knew enough to know that Jesus was the one he'd been looking for.
Sooner or later every person has to come to their own decision about God, and that decision cannot be forced. Friends don't pressure each other. They simply get the conversation started, bringing their friend as close to Jesus as possible, and then get out of the way and trust God to do his work.
Jerry Root is a well-known leader and thinker in this whole area of spiritual formation and sharing faith, and he's written a book on evangelism. He says, "We don't take God to anybody. He's already there and already more interested in that person than we are. We're just there to listen, to ask questions, and watch for God to show up." There's something liberating about that. We don't have to make things happen. In fact, we can't make things happen. That's God's responsibility. All we can do is be there when it does happen. Be attentive to what God is doing. Be his hands and feet in the life of another person. Be his eyes and ears. Be his voice in the life of another person. We don't have to save people. We can't save people. All we have to do, all we get to do, is befriend people, care for their souls, share good news when we have it, be honest about our differences, invite them to take a closer look, and then get out of the way and leave them in God's hands. And when we do that, remarkable things happen in their lives and in our lives, because spiritual friendships with people of other faith and no faith are not only possible, they are powerful.
I have one more e-mail to share with you, but it's so personal that I've invited the person who wrote it, Lisa, to actually come and share it with you.
Lisa: Hal was one of my spiritual friends, and I met him at an interfaith dialogue we did here at Grace Chapel with Temple Isaiah a few years ago. It was a six-week discussion, and we gathered together around a variety of spiritual topics. I had lots of fun, and I learned a lot during our times together, and I got to meet Hal. Hal was an amazing guy. When he walked into a room, he brought joy and laughter with him. Hal was 74, and I really enjoyed hearing about his Jewish heritage and their traditions. I became fast friends with Hal and his wife Mary Danna. We got together often over good food and wine and talked for hours about food and wine and travel and spiritual topics. Hal was honest; he didn't believe in Jesus, but he loved to study the Bible. And he knew what I believed, and he respected my views.
One day I got a call from Hal. He told me that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Though he didn't believe in God, he asked if we could pray for him, and I said, Of course. When I visited, Hal was the same mischievous, joyful, short, funny guy, and he seemed resigned to his fate. I met Hal and Mary Danna here one Sunday, and along with a group of Grace Chapel friends, we worshiped together. He looked and seemed strong to me. I thought he had many more days ahead for me to pray.
A few months later I was in Chicago on business, and I got a call from Hal at six in the morning. He said, "I miss you. I want to visit as soon as possible." So we arranged a visit when I got home. And when I saw Hal that day, he looked frail, but he was still joyful. He was housebound. We spent most of the day talking about spiritual things, and Hal had come to believe in God. He said he had experienced God's love through me, through many in his family, and through many of the friends he met here at Grace Chapel. We talked about death, and we talked about Jesus. He was oddly excited to tell me all the plans for his funeral. He talked about all the special friends whom he had asked to share at the funeral. And he talked passionately about the causes he believed in. One of them was actually the Salvation Army. So he said he wanted people's money to go to those causes; he didn't want people to buy flowers.
I left that day, and I never saw Hal again. He died two days later. I miss Hal terribly, even today. He was my adventurous, fun-loving, short friend, and he made everyone he met feel special and loved. Hal made me a better person through our friendship, and the Lord helped me go deeper. He gave me a greater love and respect for those who come from different cultures and different backgrounds and even those who believe differently than I do. Knowing Hal changed the way I followed Christ.
Bryan Wilkerson: Think about the friends God has placed in your life, maybe friends who still are far from God. Be attentive to what he might be doing in their lives right now, to which ones might need to hear some good news or to get an invitation to come and see.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.