It was my great privilege to recently preach at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Accrington. Before I began my sermon I brought them hearty greetings from St Anne’s Church in Totttington, Bury in Lancashire. The assembled throng picked up on my humorous remark and were very pleased indeed to know that Bury is still in Lancashire!! Anyway I had been invited to preach at a memorial service for the “Accrington Pals.” These were the me of the 11th (Service) Battalion The East Lancashire Regiment who incurred massive casualties in proportion to their strength in the opening salvo during the First Battle of the Somme. On the north side of the Church is a most beautiful Chapel dedicated to the memory of the Pals and it was in its shadow that I delivered my thoughts.
What I tried to do was move away from the fact that so many had died and focus on what had held them together – their friendship. None of us knows what it was like for them because none of us was actually there; but we all know something of what friendship is about. I used the example of the Accrington Pals as perhaps a mechanism to evaluate our own friendships; what we give and what we receive. I also laid down a challenge to those who are “social media mad” and who make outlandish claims of having quite literally hundreds of “friends” on Face Book. This seemed to strike a chord with both young and old alike in the congregation.
What is friendship and what are its obligations? How far do we go, or would we go for friendship sake? These are important questions and really worth asking of ourselves. Jesus refers to his disciples as his friends; he spoke about that greater love that gives up its own life for its friends. Of course in Jesus’ case he gave up his life even for those who hated and despised him; those who brought him to Calvary so that they too might know the love and peace of God in their lives. That is an extraordinary love.
As we move through Lent it ought to be our joyful task to understand more clearly what a friend we have in Jesus; who accepts us just as we are but who also challenges us in our Christian discipleship. A true friend it not afraid to point out our foibles and advise us where we might need to amend our lives aright. Jesus does this when we read the Gospel imperatives concerning how our proclaimed and attested faith requires an outworking in our lives.
The Christian Gospel speaks of Jesus as our Friend. That great Weslyan hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, is one of my favourites. I never cease to be amazed by the very idea that God wishes to be my friend is one of my friend. The final lines of the last verse sum up the sincerity on one who knows that friendship at the very core of their being. “This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.” May that become true for all of us and that what we sing on our lips we will believe in our hearts and what we believe in our hearts we shew forth in our lives.