“See how he loved him!”

Christians believe that Jesus is completely God and completely human. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes we forget his humanity and can be overly focused on his deity. But in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John, we see that Jesus had a friend named Lazarus.  

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are an adult trio of siblings who live in a village in Palestine called Bethany. And when Lazarus gets sick, the sisters send word to Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” No further specification. No name drop. Jesus knows who they’re talking about. Lazarus is the one whom Jesus loves. Does that mean that Jesus didn’t love everybody? Of course not! But Jesus has a special love for Lazarus because Lazarus is his friend.  

Shockingly, Jesus doesn’t go immediately to heal him, however. He waits two days to leave because he loves Lazarus and his sisters (see v6). Then he tells his disciples that “our friend” Lazarus has fallen asleep (meaning, he is dead). And Jesus and the disciples go back into the territory of Judea, where Bethany is, and the disciples think this is a suicide mission because the religious leaders are looking everywhere for Jesus, to arrest and/or kill him.  

Martha meets Jesus when they enter Bethany and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v21). Rather than correcting this, he starts to talk about the hope of the resurrection. Christianity, like the Jewish soil it grew out of, believes in the resurrection of the dead. The dead will not stay dead. Death does not have the final word. Everything sad will come untrue, as Tolkien has Samwise hope for in The Return of the King. And Jesus says not only is there a final day of the resurrection, but that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and that belief in him will produce life, even if death comes (v25-26).  

Then Mary joins them and says the same thing Martha did (which must’ve stung a little bit): “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You could’ve stopped your friend from dying, Jesus. You could’ve spared this family pain! Why didn’t you?  

Jesus is overwhelmed by all the sorrow and grief and v33 says that he was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” Jesus, the God-man, 100% divine, is on the verge of breaking down because his friend, whom he loved, is dead. And when he sees the tomb where Lazarus is buried, he loses it. 

Verse 33: “Jesus wept.”  

In just six verses, Jesus will resurrect Lazarus. He will undo death in a preview of his own resurrection and a picture of the hope of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life. So why did Jesus cry for Lazarus? Jesus knew what he was going to do. Jesus knew he was going to have his friend back. He knew he was about to give Mary and Martha their brother back. So why weep over something that is going to be fixed in a few moments? 

He cried because his friend had died. Lazarus was not one of his disciples. Jesus didn’t have any obligation to teach him or care for him as a traveling rabbi with his student. But he had committed himself to Lazarus in love. He had glued his soul to his friend like David and Jonathan, like Ruth and Naomi. And when Lazarus died, a little bit of Christ’s humanity died with him. Emotionally, Jesus was wrecked by this and it’s entirely right that he was. That’s what a loving friendship does.  

Even in sight of the coming hope, Jesus wept. The Resurrection and the Life wept over the death of his friend. Jesus had entrusted his heart to Lazarus. He had made himself vulnerable when he chose to love his friend. And this opened him up to pain. 

C.S. Lewis talks about this sort of process: 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

To love is to be vulnerable. And Christ become more vulnerable than anyone could when he went to the cross for his friends. “Greater love has no one that this- that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s what Jesus says in John 15:13. And that’s what Christ has done for us. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the proverb says, and no other wounds are more sure to be trusted in than those inflicted on Christ for our sake.  

Christ’s wounds displayed his love for us. If he had not died for us, we would’ve come to absolute ruin in hell. But he makes us his friends when we place our faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And we imitate Jesus’ model of friendship by making ourselves vulnerable, even to pain, when we love our friends (even unto death). 

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Stealing Into Another’s Soul

What Do We Do With This?

In the Old Testament, David and Jonathan had a type of relationship that we moderns don’t quite know what to do with. A passionate friendship that surpasses the love of women? Surely there must be some sort of suppressed romance between the lines. But such an interpretation tells us more about ourselves than it does the characters in the narrative. What would it mean for our culture (in which men are so starved for touch and embrace) to come to grips with the possibility of male friendship that was deeply and chastely satisfying?

I’m not sure we would know what to do with it. We certainly don’t know what to do with it when we see it on the page or the screen. It’s exhausting watching Hollywood fumble around with something as deep and necessary as male friendship, dressing it up as eros beyond recognition. Both David and Jonathan married women. They burned for the opposite sex and their love for one another was of a stronger stuff than what they had in bed with their wives. And the amazing thing is that it was completely devoid of romance with one another.

So what are we to make of the Bible’s unblushing appreciation of a man’s love for his friend? It is not the Bible that is backwards and regressive. Rather, it seems that it is we that need to update our view of friendship. Compared to the honest and unflinching approach to human relationships, we have categorized everyone as a potential resource. A male friend is a “bro” or a wingman, a means to an end. When guys can transcend this template of machismo and find a kindred spirit in another mind, that is when the possibility of covenant friendship becomes real.

Men’s Men

It’s refreshing to me that the biblical archtypes of male friendship (David and Jonathan) are also quintessentially men. They are kingly warriors and hunters with the shared heart of a poet. Aristotle famously defined friendship as one soul inhabiting two bodies. Living centuries before the philosopher, we see these two great men embodying that ideal. What does that mean for us today? What, if anything, can we learn from the friendship of this prince and this future king?

Masculinity is compassionate. When Jonathan dies, David laments in 2 Samuel 1 that his love for Jonathan was “extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” That is a depth of feeling to which few males can attest, and yet the Bible includes it at the very beginning of a book. It is held up as exemplary manhood. Perhaps we’ve only recently lost this ease of familiarity, but there’s hope we can find it again.

Masculinity is loyal. Their friendship was a brotherhood. It exceeded the family ties of clan and kin. It was such a powerful bond that Jonathan kept David alive, even in the face of the wrath of his own father, King Saul.

Masculinity is brave. To be loyal in their capacities and in their context, with death as a very real danger, required a steeled resolve to hold onto that friendship regardless of consequences. Friendship in the face of death is friendship with the weight of truth behind it. Fair-weather friends do not usually risk their own blood for one another.

A Monk’s Evaluation

Aelred of Rievaulx was a 12th century English monk who literally wrote the book on spiritual friendship. In the last of Aeldred’s dialogues on friendship, he discusses the outline of its progression. Friendship (like that of Jonathan and David) rests upon the foundation of God’s love. It begins, he says, with “he whom reason urges should be loved because of the excellence of his virtue steals into the soul of another by the mildness of his character and the charm of a praiseworthy life.”

Storing aside the lovely phrase “charm of a praiseworthy life”, let’s move on. Aelred then says that spiritual friendship passes through four stages:

  1. Choice (“electio”)
  2. Testing (“probatio”)
  3. Admission (“admissio”)
  4. The greatest agreement in things divine and human, with a certain love and goodwill.

But, the monk cautions, not all are likely to become “the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing.”

This has to be possible for more than just two Bronze Age warriors and a Celtic monk. Men charmed by the praiseworthy lives of other men, from whom they have nothing to hide or fear? I think it can be recaptured. And perhaps it begins with a bit of courage on our part. The courage to be charmed by a praiseworthy life is a good starting point.

Ruth and Naomi

Only the Lonely

Loneliness is an American epidemic. Just a couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times wrote about this. According to his research, a fourth of Americans live alone. That means that almost 82,000,000 people are lonely. That staggers me. Loneliness can be a factor in failing health and early death. Several countries are trying to fix the problem. Britain even has a minister for loneliness to offer societal alternatives to feeling alone.

Anecdotally, I know this is a problem in the American evangelical church as well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended or given away Vaughan Roberts’ little book. And, I’m happy to say, the Bible actually has some wonderful examples of deep and abiding friendships. Perhaps, if these stories were imitated, the Church could begin to model something helpful to the culture. The picture of friendship in Scripture shows me that it is at least possible.

I want to spend some time on this blog talking about friendship, both in the Bible and in the careful meditations of Christians over the last 2,000 years. Christianity has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to resources that can combat loneliness. I’d like to explore a fraction of them and see if this can be of help.

A Tale of Woe

The book of Ruth might be one of the greatest love stories ever told, but it’s not a romantic love story. Or, at least, it’s not mainly a romantic love story. It begins with and is sustained by the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. 

A man from Bethlehem leaves his homeland of Judah because there’s a famine. He takes his wife, Naomi, and his two sons and they seek refugee status within the land of Moab. The narrator tells us that Ruth was written “in the days when the judges ruled,” referring to the book of Judges. At that point in Israel’s history, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. And in those days, Moab was a constant threat to Israel.  

While Naomi and her husband are in Moab, the husband dies. Naomi’s two sons take Moabite wives and then, a decade later, both of her two sons die. This family is acquainted with grief. One of the wives, Orpah, goes back to her people, but Ruth, the wife of Naomi’s other son, decides to stays with Naomi. She goes back to Bethlehem with her and commits to love her mother-in-law unconditionally.  

The rest of the story is a beautiful story about Boaz, the man who redeems (buys) their land and marries Ruth to keep both Ruth and Naomi from coming to utter ruin. But take some time to read Ruth 1:6-18

Stuck on You

In verse 14, notice that Ruth “clung” to Naomi. It’s the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe a man “clinging” to his wife or in Prov.18:24, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend that clings or sticks closer than a brother.” It’s to be voluntarily glued together in love. This is super glue friendship.  

By gluing herself to Naomi, Ruth also glued herself to God. “Your God shall be my God.” This almost looks like wedding vows! One writer called this a “wedded friendship.” But it’s committed, God-honoring friendship. And it’s deeper than most relationships we come across today that parade as “friendship.” 

Ruth was voluntarily committing to Naomi across ethnic lines, cultural boundaries, religious differences, and clan ties. There’s no real reason for Ruth to stay with Naomi. There’s nothing in it for her. There’s no obligation. We can’t really blame Orpah for heading back home to what’s familiar. It  was reasonable for her to go back to your biological mother and your home culture. But Ruth commits in love and friendship to her vulnerable mother-in-law and stays with her.  

A Christmas Friendship

Before we leave this amazing commitment between Ruth and Naomi, look at the last chapter of Ruth. In 4:18-22, we read about Ruth’s son, Obed. Obed was King David’s granddad. Ruth was David’s great-grandmom. And 27 generations after David, who was born? Jesus Christ, lying in a manger. 

Ruth was a foreigner, someone who had nothing to do with the God of Israel, and now she’s forever enshrined in the genealogy and ancestry of Jesus Christ. Why? She glued herself to Naomi. As one scholar said, “Here, friendship is seen as the means by which the Davidic line is established.”  

At the risk of overstating what is admittedly not the main point of the text,  you never know how God is going to use the friendships that you have. The Messiah of the world obviously isn’t going to be the byproduct of your friendships because that already happened, but God has shown over and over through the course of history that he delights in using friendships to change the world, sometimes centuries downstream.  

One last note: what was Ruth doing when she was clinging to Naomi in 1:14? She was weeping with her. Orpah kissed her, showing respect and affection. But Ruth clung to her and they wept. Friend-love is a call to weep with those who weep, to enter into the suffering of another person, to bear another’s burdens. When they hurt, you hurt. That is the natural, emotional reaction of true friendship. Friendship, on the Christian understanding, is all about giving up yourself for the sake of others, dying to yourself so that you might put the interests of others ahead of your own.  

That’s what Christ did for us, after all.

Church as Suicide Prevention

Every suicide is a tragedy. Particularly and uniquely, they are tragic as individual ends to individually beautiful images. Outside the death of an infant or child, I cannot think of a more tangled web of sorrows and regret. But that’s one of the reasons I’m thankful that God gave us the Church. The Church has a tremendous opportunity to function as suicide prevention at a time when “deaths of despair” are reaching epidemic rates in my generation alone. 

The Philippian Jailer in America

In my state, the average suicide rate is one person every eight hours. Three people a day is a horrific prospect. That said, 77% of adults in Missouri profess to be Christians. I’m approaching this as a confessional Protestant. In my state, 77% of the population claims to be Christian and yet three people a day commit suicide. I wonder if one could help the other.

I know that not everyone who says they are a Christian know what Christians believe or attend a church with any regularity. But what if churches could function as suicide prevention? Christians are prone to depression and dark thoughts (myself among them), but what if the communities of faith were vigilant in the detection and the prevention of suicide in their own spheres of influence?

In the book of Acts, chapter 16, the apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in jail in the Roman colony of Philippi because they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around midnight, the other prisoners are listening as Paul and Silas are singing hymns when a massive earthquake hits. But there’s a miraculous element to the quake in that the doors are opened and everyone’s bonds are loosed. The jailer wakes up (because who can sleep through an earthquake?) and sees that the prison doors are open. And what does he do? He prepares to commit suicide. 

Knowing that shame, unemployment, and probably death would be waiting for him with the sunrise, the Philippian jailer draws his sword and is prepared to fall upon it. In a single moment, he is utterly devoid of hope. He has no chances of making it out of this situation on top. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was on his last strike. We’re not told. But his immediate response to a hopeless situation is to end himself. But then what happens?

Acts 16:28- ” But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer is converted and baptized. Now, I know that, in context, “we are all here” referred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. But it strikes me that this is the perfect word for the Church towards those who struggle with the darkness and contemplate snuffing out their own lights. 

What if the Church were to call out, with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we all here”? In my time as a youth pastor, I’ve seen teenagers wrestle with depression. Some have fought daily and triumphed. Some have rolled the stone away, only to be crushed under its weight in a weak moment. Some have cut themselves to feel something, even if it’s pain and shame. Many have starved themselves to feel valuable. I’ve seen death claim the image of God. And who knows how many countless others totter on the edge, doing the dark math of a cold cost-benefit analysis? 

Do not harm yourself, for we all are here. We are all here. The scared and scarred, the addicts and the recovering, the self-righteous and the prodigals. We are all here and we are here for you, to support you and hold you and shield you from the night. So do not harm yourself. If the Church is the Church, you are never alone. Never without hope. The dawn will always break upon you in the arms of Christ.

Do Not Harm Yourself

If you are considering ending your life, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and just start talking.And then find a church. There are multiple ways to find a local church that will love you and take the time to be there with you:

The Church can be priceless shelters of prevention and you need only reach out.

We Are All Here

Reach out. If you feel that someone is fighting against the darkness, reach out. Even if are utterly untrained, just say something. Trained professionals can always (and should) be contacted later. But the first step is to keep your eyes open and be the Church enough to see how someone’s really doing.Depression often wears a smile. Don’t be fooled by the masks. Make sure that your church is a safe place where people can admit that they are not doing well and that they sometimes consider removing themselves from the equation. We are all here- those who cry without knowing why and those with shoulders to cry on. Christ died for all.

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And we are all here for you.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Looking Differently

Our pastor encouraged us to regularly be in the New Testament book of Philippians. It’s a letter to the church in ancient Philippi from St. Paul, pleading with them to find their joy and unity with each other through the joy and unity they commonly have with Christ Jesus. I got snagged on verse four of chapter two this morning:

Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (KJV).

I took some time and cradled that word “look” in my arms for a good while. It’s the Greek word skopeîn (σκοπεῖν) and Paul uses it twice in Philippians. In 3:17, he commands the church to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (ESV). In other words, notice carefully what we do, he says, and imitate us. The other use is here in 2:4- “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV).

Yes, we get our English word “scope” from this word, but that doesn’t mean Paul was telling the church to scrutinize the needs of others as under a microscope or get the big picture as with a telescope. As Don Carson has told us, that’s just silly. It’s a root word fallacy. You can’t work backwards from how a word is used today to better understand how its ancestor word was used back then. The two don’t necessarily draw such a straight line.

But we can see in Philippians 2:4 is that the way Paul uses it is in the present tense, in an active voices, to more than one person, and in a participle form (those –ing words). A participle is a verb masquerading as an adjective. All that to say, Paul is encouraging this Christian church to look out for others as an active, ongoing way to live out the fellowship we have with Christ and each other (see Philippians 2:1-3). “For one another” is actually an adjective, suggesting that the way we look carefully should be in an “otherly”, others oriented manner.

How can we be concerned about others in an ongoing default way? Two ideas come to mind. And both of these ideas sting as I think about how I don’t and how I could implement them.

  1. Through love. By learning to take a genuine interest in the day to day living of other people, I become genuinely interested in the people in my day to day life. As Uncle Jack said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did, As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
  2. Through prayer. If the show Cheers taught me anything, it’s that it’s nice to be where everyone knows your name. It’s good to be a regular in some places. If you make someone a regular in your prayers, they soon become a regular in your heart. Prayers for others keep them in front of our eyes.

How can you look differently at those who look differently than you today?