In the last weekend of September, sixteen men from SBCC went on a backpacking trip. The ages of the hikers ranged from two sixteen-year-old high school students to a seventy-something senior, with every decade in between represented. The picture below shows all but two members of this band of brothers in the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountains.
Men tend to need an excuse to talk about the deeper issues of life and faith. A good eight mile hike to 10,000’, tents, communal cooking, and camp fires always provide a fertile environment to talk about things that matter. On our three-day backpacking trip there were conversations about financial struggles, the joys and challenges of marriage and family, hopes for the future, and the ongoing privilege of being a disciple of Jesus. We laughed a lot, gossiped a little, read and pondered Amos 4:13, prayed some, spoke words of encouragement and marveled at what kind of God would create such beauty as these high mountains.
Men are different than women, as my wife and two daughters are fond of reminding me. But whether we are a man or a woman all of us need the intimate company of friends to protect and grow our Christian lives. The Christian life, I was once again wonderfully reminded of on our backpacking trip, was never intended to be lived in isolation.
Unfortunately, sometimes when we read about the heroes of the church, there can be a tendency to think that these giants functioned alone and accomplished great things on their own. We can falsely surmise that these noteworthy characters had such inner strength and were so remarkably gifted that they did not need the company of friends for success in their spiritual journey. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This fall SBCC, along with many in the Christian world, has been thankfully observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation where the authority of the Bible and the great biblical themes of salvation by grace through faith alone were rediscovered. It is worth remembering that the Reformation leaders we look up to, led with a company of friends.
Certainly the most famous name of Reformation leaders is the German Martin Luther. But Luther, for all his genius, needed and had spiritual friends. Most prominent among them was Phillip Melanchthon. Despite a 14-year difference in age, these two theological professors and pastors formed a fast and unshakable bond. At one point Melanchthon demonstrated just how profound this friendship was: I would rather die than be separated from this man.
The two men, while committed to the same gospel, were very different in both temperament and giftedness. Luther could be emotional and impulsive, while Melanchthon stayed cool, calm, and collected, preferring reason to passion.
Luther introduced Melanchthon to reformed theology, and in return, Melanchthon taught Luther New Testament Greek. It was Melanchthon who motivated Luther to translate the Bible into a German understandable for the common people. As these two friends labored at the University of Wittenberg, they encouraged and complemented one another. Luther was the fiery prophet among the Reformers. He worked tirelessly on the theological themes of the Reformation. As is so often the case with prophets, though, he often lacked organization and a systemized approach. His friend Melanchthon, however, was more methodical and tranquil by nature. And it was Melanchthon who consequently wrote the first valid summary of reformed theology, the Augsburg Confession (1521). Luther and Melanchthon made the discovery that every Christian needs to learn. We need each other. We need the company of friends, to live the Christian life.
Luther was not singular in his bond with Melanchthon. He had many other friends that accompanied him on his spiritual journey. For years the Luther household was home to young seminary students studying at the University of Wittenberg. After all, Luther’s home was a converted monastery. His wife and companion in ministry, Katharina Von Bora, cooked the food and crafted the beer that made for lively theological discussions night after night. Many of these intriguing and often irreverent discussions have been preserved for us by one of Luther’s students in a book called, Table Talk. When you read Table Talk and try to envision what it must have been like to eat, drink, argue, debate, laugh, and listen to the great professor with a dozen or so other students, one thing becomes very clear: the Reformation was shaped in the company of friends.
Luther and Melanchthon and their Table Talk students were not an exception. The influential Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli laboring in Zürich had Heinrich Bullinger as a spiritual friend and when Zwingli died Bullinger became the lead pastor in Zürich. The French reformer John Calvin, who spent many years in Geneva, relished friendships with fellow reformers Theodore Beza and William Farel. The Scottish Presbyterian reformer John Knox was a young man when he met the reformation preacher George Wishart in 1545. After hearing one sermon, Knox proceeded to travel with him for five weeks straight soaking in every word from the great preacher. Wishart and Knox became spiritual companions until Knox witnessed Wishart being burned alive for his Reformation teachings.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament and church history makes it clear that spiritual companionship is essential for healthy discipleship. On our backpack trip, as I sat beneath magnificent Mount Banner (12,942’) and Mount Ritter (13,150’) sipping early morning coffee and conversing with my company of friends, I was at once reminded of how thankful I am for these brothers. My spiritual life would not be the same without them. I am a better disciple of Jesus because of them. To be in the company of friends who love, encourage, and when appropriate, challenge me, is a gift. God has designed our faith to be lived out in the company of friends, and I am so very grateful.