Summary: A neglected friendship teaches that faith and works must be the "best of friends."
On a pleasant leisurely day this past summer, I drove my car up the steep hill on Urf Road in the little town of Cowlesville, and stopped by the childhood home of my best friend from middle school, Bret. Bret and I spent a lot of time together during the summers and did the kinds of things that most young boys do on vacation. We rode our bikes and camped out in the woods and even had a secret fort in an attic over a garage known as the "5 Candle Chandelier." Recently I came across some old photos of Bret and me, and one other friend, on a trip the three of us took into Buffalo for my 13th birthday. Just the three of us acting like big shots in the big city.
Something broke down in our friendship along the way, and I now recognize that something as religion. Bret and I were going in different directions in our understanding of faith, and both of us were stubborn in our beliefs. For me, a Christian coffeehouse had come to town and I was becoming somewhat of a "Jesus freak." Bret went in the opposite direction, and was, in my view, drifting into a dangerous territory with a religious group that I and my other Christian friends considered a cult.
I have this picture in my mind of the two of us standing in his driveway on Urf Road after having been friends for a few years and one of us saying, "You’re never going to change me and I’m never going to change you." What each of us was really saying - in translation - was, "My faith is too big and important to maintain this friendship."
Now, as I look back these decades later, I can’t believe that I let that happen. Especially as I ponder that day this past summer when I pulled into the driveway of Bret’s old house. His dad was there alone, sitting outside and as I always remember him, smoking a cigarette. I identified myself as I approached the porch area and sat down. Then, of course, I finally asked, "Well, how’s Bret doing?" What I heard next stunned me like nothing else has in recent memory. His father said, "Bret was killed in an auto accident about 10 years ago. I was just getting over my wife’s death when that happened." Ten years ago! Ten years of living my faith without making much effort to check in with my old friend. And now he was dead.
In the New Testament book of James, Chapter 2, there is an argument going on. It is an ongoing concern about the importance of faith, and whether that faith can withstand the absence of works. We are provided with a story in which a person of faith says to someone in need, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about the physical needs of the person. As I drove away from Bret’s old home, I thought about how my faith was not big enough, or caring enough, to feed our friendship. My faith became too important to be watered down by a friendship that challenged that faith. What kind of faith is that?
What is it about faith, our personal faith, that sometimes makes us aloof from the needs around us? Isn’t that an irony? That I would think, "My faith is too important, and I have to keep it alive, so I need to cross over to the other side of this relationship, because there is the danger that my strong faith will be jeopardized by hanging out with my old friend." Wasn’t this the problem of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day? They had a faith that was too strong to be distracted by simple works. They were more concerned with keeping the Sabbath than with breaking their rest to help a person in need on the Sabbath. Their faith was too big for works.
I think of that classic narrative of faith and works that is found in the Gospels: the story that Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. You know how the story goes. A man was in desperate need of help and a priest saw the man yes, Jesus gives the emphasis that the priest saw the man, but the priest had a faith that was just too big for works, and he crossed the street to avoid the dying man. I wonder if he justified himself and later, as he worshipped, prayed, "Lord, thank you for saving me from that distraction." Then there came a Levite down the road. You might know that a Levite was someone special. A Levite felt gifted and consecrated and pure. Now, what is a Levite supposed to do with a man on the side of the road who looks anything but gifted, consecrated and pure? Of course he knew what he had to do, since he was a man of faith. He passed over to the other side, just like the priest. His faith was too big for works.