Responding to Our Friends

John 11:17-37

February 17, 2013 

One of this past week’s biggest news stories may have shocked you as much as it did me. On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. It was the first time in 600 years that a sitting Pope has resigned from being the head of the Catholic Church which is an office that one generally holds for life once elected.

As most of you know, the reason for the Pope’s decision was related to his health. At age 85 and with his physical well-being in decline, Benedict felt that he could simply no longer do all of the required tasks to the level expected or needed. As a result, he becomes the charter and only member of the Pope’s Retirement Club.

What was striking to me is the way that this decision illustrates what most of us are not often eager to admit—we all have our limitations. All of us as human beings are finite creatures—we only know so much and we can only do so much. We are all human and with that reality comes distinct parameters.

Admitting our limitations also means admitting the need for other people in our lives to help us carry the load and to do what we cannot do alone. This, in my opinion as a minister, is one of the critical realities for all of us to affirm and to live by. We desperately need God and we desperately need each other.

As a result, in a self-made world where we are taught to look out for ourselves, the word friend should be one of the most important words in our faith vocabulary. We need God’s friendship and we need the friendship of each other if life is ever going to have the possibility of being all that we want it to be. And, since it is not easy for any of us to admit our humanity or our limitations, this is a theme that we must come back to over and over again.

Time and again, we need to be reminded that we need others in our lives and time and again, we need to explore what the critical idea of friendship looks like and means.

Thankfully, the Bible is full of stories and lessons about friendship. What is also significant is these examples not only relate to biblical figures like David, Daniel, Ruth and Paul but they also relate to Jesus as well. Without question, if you read the gospels closely, you come away with the realization that Jesus had close friends too. In terms of the disciples there was both the twelve holistically and there was also the even more intimate group of Peter, James and John who spent time with Jesus in special settings away from the other nine.

There were also other friends of Jesus beyond the twelve as well and perhaps none of them were closer to Jesus than two sisters and their brother who lived in Bethany by the names of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Bethany was a hillside village only two miles from Jerusalem. According to the gospels, Jesus seems to have visited his friends there on a regular basis when he was in the area. Further, according to Mark 11, Jesus apparently went back and forth between Jerusalem and Bethany during the last week of his life. Overnighting several times in Bethany during that spiritually and physically draining week, may have afforded Jesus the chance to renew his energies and his spirits by having time in the evening there with his friends.

All of this is significant, I think, if we are to understand the context that surrounds what happens in John 11 when Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. I say this because this wasn’t Jesus simply healing or responding to a stranger. Rather, this was Jesus hearing about the life threatening illness of a very, very close friend and being asked to come and care for him.

This knowledge makes even more remarkable the way that Jesus chooses to initially respond. What I mean is that Jesus doesn’t immediately drop everything and go to Bethany when he hears about his friend. Said another way, when word comes from Mary and Martha for Jesus to come right away, he doesn’t do what they ask. This is clear not only in the fact that John records specifically that Jesus initially waited for a couple of days before heading to Bethany, but, also in the fact that verse 21 of the text shows Martha’s frustration when he actually does arrive. By the time Jesus shows up, his good friend Lazarus has died and Martha wants to make it clear that in her humble opinion if Jesus had gotten there earlier, this would not have happened!

Obviously, Jesus saw this as a moment to show his friends in Bethany and the twelve a deeper sense of who he was as he exhibited his ability to overcome even death itself. This profound teaching occasion was only possible by delaying his arrival at Lazarus’ side until after death had come and it was also only possible as Jesus’ ignored the timetable that Mary and Martha had set for him.

Now, it goes without saying that this text is primarily about resurrection and about the profound good news that Jesus has the ability to overcome even death itself. But, a subplot to that primary teaching relates to how Jesus chooses to respond to his friends. In this story, Jesus does the loving thing by ignoring what his friends want him to do.

As a result, the profound word here for us to hear is that when it comes to tending to our own friendships, the truly loving thing is not always and automatically to do exactly what others want, request or demand of us. Instead, sometimes the truly loving way to respond to our friends is by NOT doing what they want us to do.

One of the great pioneers of American industry was Henry Ford. Ford’s Model T is largely credited with opening automobile travel to the average person and thus helping to revolutionize the American way of life. As is the case with many inventors and their inventions, Ford’s love affair with the Model T was not only his greatest success but almost became his greatest failure as well. When the rest of the automotive industry began to catch up with and to surpass Ford in sales it was largely due to the fact that Henry Ford refused to consider making any changes to the Model T which was the only car that the company offered at the time. From Henry Ford’s perspective the Model T worked just fine. But, in a day where people wanted new features and more choices in their cars this wasn’t enough.

One of Henry’s biggest adversaries was actually his only child Edsel. Edsel Ford insisted that Ford Motor Company must enter the modern age with new features, more choices and if nothing else cars in colors other than black. Though Henry disagreed, Edsel never completely backed down.

Edsel remained true to his beliefs and at odds with his father. He acted this way not because he disliked his father but rather because he loved both Ford and his dad. In turn, in large part due to Edsel, Henry Ford finally relented by offering the world the Model A and by beginning to produce luxury automobiles such as the Lincoln Continental. Both of which are moves that historians say not only help Ford not to survive but to thrive again as well. And, again, at least in part, it all happened because of Edsel Ford, Henry Ford’s only son, who loved his father enough to disagree with him and to call the company to do something different than his father wanted done.

If we are to grow in our understanding of the nature of true friendships with each other and with God we must affirm and live by this same belief. As hard as it may be, we must resist the common idea of our modern day that suggests that when we love each other, we always do what the other person wants.

When our friends demand that if we love them we will do certain things or act in certain ways, we must remember that sometimes the only truely loving response is to say no. Conversely, when our friends fail to do what we want or ask of them, we must find a way to respect them enough to trust that perhaps their response is more a sign of their care than a sign of their disinterest.

In the same vein, when God, fails to act according to our requests, we must also have the faith to understand that perhaps God’s response too is a response of love and care rather than an attempt to ignore us or as a result of a lack of care.

The Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho once said, “Telling the truth and making someone cry is better than telling a lie and making someone smile.” This is certainly the way that God shows love to us. And, when it comes to our friendships, as hard as it may be, God invites us to sometimes see this as the truly loving way to respond in those relationships as well. Amen.