If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
It might not be immediately obvious to you but these few verses, taken from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, are couched in the language of friendship in the Greco-Roman world. When we use the word ‘friend’ we might think of someone who we like, or who likes us, or who we go for coffee with, but in the Greco-Roman world, friendship was something talked about in some very specific ways among the philosophers.
“For friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection, and I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to man by the immortal gods. Some prefer riches, some good health, some power, some public honours, and many even prefer sensual pleasures. This last is the highest aim of brutes; the others are fleeting and unstable things and dependent less upon human foresight than upon the fickleness of fortune.”
“For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too.”
The famous philosopher Aristotle spoke about three kinds of friendship: friendships of utility e.g. people you work with; friendships of pleasure e.g. people you have fun with; and true friendship, which was friendship of the good. Friendship of “the good” was between two equals who would share everything with one another, and ultimately must help each other to be more virtuous people.
We see this kind of way of talking about friendship present in the early church – e.g. in the writings of Luke in Acts 2:4
“Now the company of those who believed were in one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.”
This is in many respects a description of true friendship in the Greco-Roman world. And what we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is an approach to friendship that is familiar to the Greco-Roman world in certain kinds of ways, but that also subverts it.
So true friendship according to the philosophers should be between powerful, good, equal men, but in the case of Paul, he encourages them - not into a relationship of power, but one of humility that is grounded in the attitude demonstrated by Jesus. The ultimately display of love and friendship was Jesus becoming like a servant or a slave on our behalf, which is shocking language in the 1st century. And this community that Paul wrote to was encouraged to emulate that kind of friendship; grounded in humility rather than in status.
And so what they had in common was not shared power and status, but a community of the same Spirit, which includes men, women, slaves and free. Their unity comes from the same Spirit, rather than from some political pursuit or common worldview.
So this brings us to the question, what does it mean for us to have or to be friends? Is there anything we can learn from this ancient conversation?
Even though there are some quite awkward ways of thinking about friendship in the ancient world, there are also some really beautiful ways of taking friendship seriously. True friends were committed to share their lives with one another, to cultivate a deep sense of being committed to each other, to support one another, to be there for one another. And this even meant sharing material resources - what I have is yours and what you have is mine. Which is beautiful, and quite challenging when in the modern Western world we have individualised and privatised ourselves away from one another.
And Paul’s vision of friendship isn’t grounded in two powerful men of amazing virtue. Instead, we find ourselves invited into true friendship because of our inherent connectedness to one another. So here we have a challenge and encouragement into friendship, as Paul puts it, to become “deep-spirited friends” with all kinds of people.
And so perhaps we can return to Jesus at this point.
In John 15 Jesus says to his disciples…
“This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.”
The language of friendship.
If God is present in Jesus, then God is the source and origin of friendship. We could say, that God is friend-ness itself, or friendship itself. However you want to say it. But it means that friendship isn’t something we have to create, as much as it is something to enter into and participate in. Which can all sound a bit mystical and magical, but I like that. I don’t have to create friendship out of thin air, I just have to foster an openness to it. And like all magical and mystical things, it only makes sense when it’s worked out in the real and ordinary grounded ways of life. Over food, and drink and awkward conversation and bumbling through connections and relationships. This is not about some idealised ‘friend’ out there who completes us, as much as it is being open to the possibility of friendship and meaning in the world.