Whose friend can I be? (Psalm 119:63)

Once again, in the monthly cycle, to Psalm 119:63: “I am a companion of all them that fear thee, and of them that keep thy precepts.”

This verse fascinates me for several reasons. One is that at the founding convention of the Swedish Covenant Church in North America, in Chicago in 1885, a young preacher named F. M. Johnson preached a sermon on this verse. That sermon exercised a formative effect on the denomination that became the Evangelical Covenant Church. “Companion” became a key word. Friendship—with each other, and with Jesus—became the predominant motif in the 135-year-long performance of the Covenant song.

That sermon was not transcribed, and today no one knows what he said, except that it was about unity in Christ. I’m afraid we are seeing the effect of this forgetfulness. We no longer remember what it means to be a “companion,” or we have forgotten that little word “all,” or we have our own specific and differing definitions of “fear.” We don’t agree on what “precepts” are meant. We don’t have a shared understanding of what it means to “keep” an old precept.

All of which means that we are in danger of losing, or perhaps have already lost, our shared relationship to “thee.” Who is this “thee,” anyway? What is the character, and what are the intentions, of this “thee”? And what do this character and these intentions tell me about whose friend I can be? Something essential seems to have been dropped on the road from Chicago to Omaha. (Let the reader understand.)

But enough inside baseball. Apologies to the non-insiders. Back to the general question—the more general reason for my fascination with Psalm 119:63. It is this question: Whose friend can I be?

One verse recalls another. I think of what Jesus says in John 15:14–15: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”

This is one of those cases where it matters quite a bit who is speaking. If I were to say to you, “You are my friend as long as you habitually do whatever I tell you to do,” you would rightly reply, “No thanks!” You would rightly size me up as a narcissist, or a sociopath. Or, if you are theologically astute, as a blasphemer—because there is precisely one person who can say that rightly, without being a narcissist or a sociopath, and it ain’t me, and it ain’t you. God alone can say that.

One of the reasons why Christians reverence Jesus as God is that Jesus says all kinds of things that only God can say, and when he says them, they ring true.

If I wish to be godly in my friendship, I cannot reserve my friendship exclusively for those who do as I say, and I cannot withhold my friendship from those who are also seeking to do as God says. Because I am not God. And neither are you. My understanding of God’s will is not infallible, and neither is yours. What, then, if you and I understand God’s commands differently? Can we be friends? Or shall we modify the psalm to say: “I am a companion of all them that fear thee, of them that agree with my interpretation of all thy precepts”?

This is not easy. Let me just make one more observation regarding Jesus’s saying. He said “You are my friends if you do whatever I command you.” So: all who keep his commands are acknowledged by him as his friends. Which is not the same thing, if you will recall your first lessons in logic, as saying that all who fail to keep all his commandments are his enemies. We jump to exclusion. But does Jesus?

Friendship with Jesus, and with each other in Jesus, is the room in which he discloses all that he has heard from the Father. Should we not want to be in the room where that happens, and to welcome into it with us all who can be in any way compelled to come in?

One thought on “Whose friend can I be? (Psalm 119:63)

  1. To my delight, we seem to be thinking along similar lines, but yet we may diverge. In a response to a friend’s review of “No Longer Strangers”, a book by a celibate, gay Christian about belonging, I shared my appreciation for my friend’s critique that the Christian call is not to make the “other” feel connected to a compassionate individual but to Jesus and his body. This is what he had written, “Only a functioning body with all its gifts of pastoring and healing and friendship and encouragement could meet Buck’s great need” and this is what I wrote back: “What jumped out at me was that unassuming, ‘weak’, even, little word: ‘friendship.’ It is a word that I think flies under the radar in our heady conversations about ecclesiology. This hit me when I read Charles Marsh’s compelling and eye-opening biography of Bonhoeffer, a same-sex attracted (who knew?) Evangelical hero. In describing his Seminary in Exile, formed to intentionally counter the terminally idolatrous Nationalism embraced by the German church, Dietrich set out to create a fellowship of “monastics” (who quarantined not from the “world” but the dangerously toxic, culturally entangled and terminally idolatrous Conservative Christianity of the day). It was a fellowship of brothers and sisters which Marsh described as a “circle of friends”. That unexpected descriptor reminded me of Jesus’s posse of intimates and His final reminder to them before His death: “No longer do I call you servants, but friends.” And I wonder (again) whether a church that does not regard itself as — and is not committed to do the hard work of becoming — a gathering of friends knows very much about Family and Body, much less the Redemption of the cosmos for which Jesus died..

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