David and Jonathan. Could any two people be less alike? David is the youngest of the 7 sons of Jesse, a shepherd boy who grew up far from the palace. His skin is dark from spending every day in the fields: tending sheep, getting roughed up by his older brothers, and killing the occasional lion. David grew up with a shepherd’s crook in one hand and his harp in the other.
Then there’s Jonathan, who grew up in the royal city, in the lap of luxury. He is the prince of Israel, used to having the very best of everything: the son of privilege, natural wielder of power, and heir to the throne of the kingdom. Jonathan grew up with a golden goblet in one hand and a crown in the other. His skin is pale and his hands are soft. Power and wealth were second nature for him, and he assumed that when the time came he would have it all.
David and Jonathan form an unlikely bond of friendship in a tense political moment. Let me try to give you a quick refresher on the back-story. God has just appointed King Saul as Israel’s first king. But things aren’t going so well. Saul is impatient and strong-willed, blood-thirsty and power-hungry, and at some point God cries “enough!” and rejects Saul as his king. Logically, it is Jonathan, Saul’s oldest Son, who will be the next to take the throne. But God has made other plans: he has anointed David, the “man after God’s own heart”, to sit on the throne and rule the people.
King Saul? Not happy. He tries – repeatedly and with ever-mounting fury – to kill David and secure his own power, any way he can. And Jonathan, the heir apparent who has been overlooked by God? Is he murderously jealous? Lord knows I would be! But no. Jonathan loves David as his own soul. That is stated twice in our text this morning, just in case you didn’t believe it the fist time. Jonathan loves David as his own soul, swears to him friendship and loyalty unto death, and repeatedly defies his father to save David, even though David is taking Jonathan’s throne.
I find that strange. Actually, as I see it, David and Jonathan had no business being friends in the first place. They come from different worlds. One has power; the other has none. One has had the best education imaginable; the other maybe couldn’t even read? One sleeps in the palace; the other sleeps in the fields. One comes from the “right” kind of family; the other does not. One is the son of the king; the other the upstart who will usurp the king and replace him on the throne. They should be enemies. What are they doing being friends?!
I chose a modern drama about David and Jonathan for the all age story this morning because I thought that if we heard this story in a modern context, it might startle us into seeing some truths in this story that we might otherwise overlook.
Or we could try a contemporary comparison. Imagine this scenario with me: Prince William forms a pact of friendship with an absolute no one in British society … let’s say… an auto mechanic who works in a greasy garage in a bad part of London. And the prince freely hands over all of his royal regalia and insignia and robes and garb and scepters and whatever (sorry, I don’t actually know much about this royal stuff – I’m actually American and the British monarchy was never really our thing J). Prince William goes so far as to offer this mechanic the throne of England, and then he repeatedly defies Prince Charles’s murderous rages to save the mechanic’s life. Can you imagine that?!? …nooo, me neither. For one thing neither the Queen nor Kate Middleton would stand for it, and anyway it is just not possible. It’s not even thinkable.
But with God, all things are possible. And in 1 Samuel 18, “the unthinkable” is precisely what happens, and it happens because one of the strangest, most unbelievable, most radical friendships of all time develops between David the shepherd and Jonathan the prince.
What is so strange about a friendship, you ask? For one thing, this friendship crosses all kinds of boundaries. In fact it is not just boundary-crossing, but boundary smashing. This is a friendship that flatly ignores the normal divisions that so carefully separate people from each other in society. You don’t need me to tell you that the world cruelly divides people, cuts them up along lines of social status, income levels, race, gender, nationality, politics. And people are expected to stay in their places. As a trivial little example: the CEO of my company is a perfectly nice man. But I would bet €100 that he does not know the name of the cleaning lady who vacuums his office every night. He’s not going to ask her out to lunch any time soon, or look her in the eye and call her his friend. That’s just not how the world works, right?
Ohh, but it IS how God’s world works. Look at Jonathan and David, at their radical and boundary crossing friendship. It doesn’t matter to Jonathan or to David that they come from different worlds. Jonathan doesn’t care that David is not a prince, has dirt under his fingernails, is twelve shades of brown from a lifetime in the fields, speaks with a country twang, and doesn’t know which goblet to drink from at royal dinners. And David, for his part, doesn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be friends with a prince. Each sees only a friend in the other and loves him as his own soul.
Brothers and sisters, the church of the holy people of God is no respecter of social boundaries. In fact, the church might be one of the very few places in society… scratch that, I think the church might even be the only place in society!… where the cleaning lady, the manager, the student, the asylum seeker, lawyer, taxi driver, kindergarten teacher, housewife, doctor, the unemployed, those without permission to work – where these are ALL declared ONE in God’s love. In God’s house, there are no more divisions, no more lines, no more strange looks, no more snobbery, no more forms of segregation, no more in and out, and no more back of the bus for anyone.
Here’s another weird thing: David and Jonathan’s friendship flattens power structures. Jonathan, as the prince of the kingdom, could have held his power over David. He could have demanded service and loyalty from David. But he didn’t. In fact, he does exactly the opposite. Jonathan strips himself of his robe, his armor, his sword, and his bow and belt: the signs of his power, the signs that Jonathan is the king’s successor. Jonathan freely gives David his power. Jonathan gives David his throne. What is originally a relationship of power – royalty set above subject – is made a relationship of equality, love, friendship, and loyalty.
God’s friendship flattens power structures. It turns the normal balance of power on its head. The powerful become vulnerable, and the weak and vulnerable are made strong. Those with power are moved by the spirit of God to give to those without power their strength. Jonathan says, in effect, “He must increase; I must decrease.”
One more thing: the friendship between David and Jonathan is radical and risk-taking. In fact it is literally revolutionary: an act of treason against the crown. Jonathan defies the orders of his father, the king, to save David’s skin. Later in 1 Samuel, when King Saul makes plans to kill David, Jonathan runs to warn David so that David can escape. When King Saul confronts Jonathan about his loyalty to David, Jonathan defends David to the king’s face; the king raves and rants, disowns Jonathan, and tries to kill his own son with his spear. Treason! Off with his head!
This is radical, risk-taking, and death-defying friendship. The Song of Songs says, “love is as strong as death.” Love is as strong as death. For Jonathan and David, their love is literally as strong as death, and no amount of personal danger, no number of attempts on their lives, can dissolve or loosen their bond.
Friendship can be risky. It is risky to step across that invisible boundary that separates us from each other; risky to befriend a stranger or embrace a neighbor. It is risky to open your own home in hospitality and welcome a stranger in your own living room. It is risky to enter into community with people who don’t look like you and who come from other cultures. It is risky to socialize with those whom society calls outcasts. It is risky to get involved in politics on behalf of the vulnerable. It is risky to be generous; risky to offer a brother or sister the bread off your table or the shirt off your back.
But risky friendship is God’s kind of love, and it is love that knows no fear. Love is as strong as death.
David and Jonathan have an extraordinary friendship. In fact, I can only think of one friendship that goes deeper and further in expressing its radical, risk-taking, strong-as-death love. And that is the friendship offered to us by Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of John Jesus is quoted as saying, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . . and I have called you friends.”
I cannot read those words without the hint of tears stinging my eyes: “I have called you, Emily, friend.” And God has called you … Galma, Graham, Mojisola, Moses, Phil and Katie, Fikile, Ramatu, Jenny, Alistair, John Bull, Tracy, Grace, Rotundo, Frederick, Nadia, Cynthia, Valentine… called you Friends.
To me these five words (“I have called you friends”) embody everything that is contained in the gospel of the love of Jesus Christ. His is the ministry of reconciliation: the greatest act of friendship between the Holy, Living God and the people he has called his own.
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples at the last supper, on the evening of his arrest. Jesus spoke these words at his darkest hour, when all of his friendships were about to go sour, when his disciples would betray him, deny him, denounce him and flee. This is not theory. These are the words of a man who is ready to go to the cross to die for his friends.
“I have called you friends.” God’s love to us in Jesus Christ is the greatest love there ever was, and the greatest friend you will ever have.
But this love doesn’t stop there. God’s friendship is contagious like a wildfire. And this love is ours to give and to share with one another, that we may be bound together by the friendship of God and the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
My brothers and sisters — no, my friends — friends, let us pray to be made like Christ, ministers of His reconciliation: friends of God and one another. And by and through and in Christ’s perfect love we turn to one another and say, with all the love in our hearts, “I have called you friend.”
Let us pray.
Thank you, God, for David and Jonathan, and for their friendship: a model of all that is courageous, death-defying, radical, and revolutionary.
Thank you, God, for the greatest of all loves, that of Jesus Christ, who has laid down his life for us and called us friends.
Thank you, God, for the power of your Holy Spirit, who enables us to follow the call of friendship in Christ, and who empowers us to pour out our lives and our love for one another.
To go along with this sermon I wrote a “reader’s theatre” drama about David & Jonathan in a contemporary setting: David & Jonathan Drama
You can also download the sermon as a Word doc: Sermon – “Friends of God and One Another”