She said that she was a friend of a U.S. school in another city in Greece and wanted to sell me tickets to a country-western barbecue fundraiser for scholarships.
In a traffic jam of instant mental images, synaptic connections collided in my brain: I told her that I was from Texas, had been to a few rodeos and had even served as a judge at a few barbecue cook-offs.
I wondered privately why she was peddling 30 Euro tickets to a barbecue at a feeding program for homeless people in Greece, but decided that the friendliest thing to do was not to bring it up.
I asked, “Are you the Facebook kind of friend or the Quaker kind of friend?” She said she was neither, but I would be her very best friend if I bought some of her tickets.
I said, “No thanks, friend” and shuffled on.
Walking away, in as friendly a manner as possible, I did some rapid ruminating on that easily abused word, “friend.”
I recalled a church where I was once an interim pastor, on the heels of a forcibly terminated pastor.
In his autocratic style, when he wanted to put the people in their place, he always began his imperial and self-serving exhortations by saying, “Now, friends.”
They soon learned to turn off the preacher when he referred to them as friends because they knew he was using the word as a put-down.
I remembered what several Albanians have told me. In the aftermath of a Communist rule, which kept them isolated, poor and lacking in opportunity for nearly 50 years, some came to resent one Albanian word for friend because it was so often used as code for a loyal and feared member of the Communist party.
Those in America who worked to elect Bill Clinton to the presidency were often derisively referred to as “FOBs – friends of Bill.”
I thought of my friends among the Friends – those Quakers whose piety and devotion to peace and the quiet presence of Christ have helped me to a more positive association with the word “friend.”
I recalled pastor Eugene Peterson’s supremely crafted paraphrase of Proverbs 18:24: “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.”
Almost immediately, my homiletically oriented mind moved to the fantastic statement of Jesus to his closest followers, “I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (John 15:15).
And then, because I am never totally removed from the reality that I live in Athens, Greece, Aristotle’s famous assertion on the subject of friends jumped into my mind.
Since true friendship can only occur between equals, reasoned the great Greek thinker, it is impossible to be on friendly terms with God (“Nicomachean Ethics” Book VIII).
But, with utmost respect for Aristotle, on this side of the incarnation of God’s love in Jesus, we know something wonderful about the friendship available to the followers of Christ.
Since God, who is by nature divine, chose to become a human being, he made it possible for humans, by his grace, to become like him.
Friendship in Christ is, therefore, different from any other kind of friendship because it issues from friendship with Christ, a most certainly unequal relationship.
Being friends with and because of Jesus elevates the potential for friendship with others far beyond what even the learned Aristotle might have imagined.
The miracle is that, by God’s grace, the followers of Christ can become what Jesus is by his very nature.
Leaving my sidewalk reflection on Christian friendship, I walked up the hill to PORTA – the Albania House in Athens, for a meeting with some of my Albanian friends. Friends, indeed!
Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. He blogs at ItsGreek2U. A version of this column first appeared in the May 2013 edition of The Newell Post, Bob and Janice Newell’s monthly e-newsletter.