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home : bishop : columns

7/9/2015 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Real friends
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


Everything we do affects others in some way. If you think about it, there is no such thing as a "private" sin. Our every thought, word, deed -- even every click on a web browser or social media site -- is like a stone cast into a lake, creating ripples as far as the eye can see.

But a stone thrown may have unintended results, startling a duck or dispersing a school of fish below the surface. What I might think of as a practical joke, a seemingly harmless moment of fun, can ruin another's day -- and maybe life, as well. We are all interconnected, and nowhere is that more obvious than in our relationships with our closest friends.

If we are Christians and we accept being disciples of Jesus, who calls us friends, we begin to understand how our entire life bears witness to who we are. If I am a friend of Jesus, then it is a contradiction -- or, to be candid, a betrayal -- of His unconditional love if I do to another anything that diminishes, uses or abuses God's love for me and others.

Everyone wants to love and be loved in some way. Not all that appears to be love, however, turns out to be. Most people would agree that to use another person for pleasure or self-advancement is to treat that person not as an equal, but more like a stepping-stone.

This is true even if the other person is said to consent. If I "consent" to something self-destructive -- like abusing food, drugs, sex, money or power -- does that make it okay? Is that what it means to be free and in control of my life?

In any friendship, there will be moments in which we are tempted to move away from loving that friend as someone made in the image and likeness of God. We might be tempted instead to treat a friend like something less: a path to a career, a moneylender, a drinking buddy or a sex partner. These things might make one or both parties feel better for a period of time, but do they enhance the friendship itself? The short answer is no.

So often, people who feel strongly drawn to each other, but who are not yet ready for or even open to marriage, imagine their friendship will be improved by taking "the next step." By that I mean the stuff of Hollywood movies: People "fall in love" and then they have sex, which is supposed to prove they are "really" in love.

But what if we looked at this from a different perspective, a Gospel-focused perspective? What if "the next step" meant a promise never to do anything to lead my friend away from God, our eternal destiny?

Not all friendships are open to marriage, so how do we choose to act on that reality? What if my friend is already married, or is not a suitable partner for marriage because he or she will not or cannot commit permanently to a faithful union, or having and raising children? Can we settle for sex in lieu of sacramental love? Would sex enhance the goodness, the depth or breadth of that friendship? And if I do not have sex with that friend, does it mean the love is any less? No. It may well mean it is even greater.

When Jesus is at the heart of friendship, the "next step" is about something much more intimate than a sexual relationship. It is about a love so deep that we refuse to lead our friend into a downward spiral of physical and emotional dependency.

Real friends free each other from temptations that cloud judgment and encourage each other to focus on the work, study, vocation or spouse that allows them to be who they are and all they can become. That is the gift of real friendship!

Love means more than self-gratification, often masked as "self-fulfillment." It involves sacrifice. Though marriage and the sexual embrace natural to it certainly is one of the most beautiful public signs of friendship -- a sacrament, for Christians -- it is not the only way to love and be loved.

Jesus Himself experienced neither of these physically, yet it did not diminish His freedom or His full humanity. If anything, His celibacy and self-sacrifice emptied out and revealed the fullness of His humanity by showing us the depth and breadth of love, which is most real when it is most self-giving.

In that sense, then - when love is a total self-sacrifice -- to love another person is to see the face of God, who is love. Or as Scripture says (John 15:13), "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for [a] friend."

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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