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Men and Friendship

I’ve been thinking about my friendships with other guys. How can I sustain years-old friendships with men who live far away? What can I do to find and stay friends with men in the community and here at North Decatur?

Let’s note here that stereotypes have some basis in reality: men, and feelings, and, um, yeah.

So, hello, a few weeks ago, Zeena Regis comes to the pulpit and preaches a sermon about caring relationships, prompted by the post-Pentecost story of John 21:15-19 (It’s a really good sermon. I really recommend it. Don’t we have a seriously deep bench of preachers at NDPC? Amazing.) Zeena talks about the tenuous and mediated connections of social media, the competitive and often false friendships in reality TV, the wearing effect of distance and time on once-strong bonds, the instant open-hearted friendships of young children. All this frames her central discussion of the relationship between the risen Jesus and Simon Peter.

Jesus asks Peter a question three times. (Peter seems to get three questions a lot.) Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says, “Of course I do.” Three times Jesus gives Peter his mission, to tend and shepherd Jesus’s sheep.

Wait though — there’s subtlety here. The first and second times, Jesus’s word for love is the Greek word for unconditional divine love, agape. The third time though, Jesus actually asks a different question. This time, Jesus uses a different word for love: phileo, the Greek for brotherly love, the love in friendship.

That’s deep.

Many scholars interpret this change, Zeena says, as a “downshift” in kinds of love “because that’s all that Peter can handle.” Zeena disagrees with this dismissal of the importance of friendship. There’s much more to it, she says: “Jesus and Peter had history.”

Hearing that, my thoughts took their own turn. Jesus and Peter had been through so much together. With their other close friends they’d walked miles and miles and miles. They worked long and hard, with signs and miracles among huge crowds and small families and lonely, sick individuals. They’d defied political and religious authority all over the place, and had been hunted by the occupying military government. That is indeed some serious history. In trials like these, friendship can ask an awful lot, and sometimes friends just can’t deliver. Peter had really let Jesus down, denying Jesus three times before his arrest and execution. Now, Jesus is back with Peter. Back from the dead. With questions. Talk about a power differential in a relationship.

With this extraordinary story in my mind, this third exchange of question and answer is just profound. One man asks another man an intimate question: “I know you say you love me. But hey, after everything, are we friends?” Jesus’s phileo demonstrates the importance of men having and being friends with each other.

In that spirit, men of North Decatur, let’s continue to find ways to be friends. It’s okay to ask!

Tim Merritt

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