When you were a child, did you have an imaginary friend? If you did what was her/his name? Was she/he a good friend or not so good? When did she/he eventually disappear from your life? Apparently, many children do have an imaginary friend, especially if they are an ‘only child’. Imaginary friends (also known as ‘pretend friends’ or ‘invisible friends’) are seemingly the product of genuine psychological/social phenomenon where a friendship takes place in our imagination rather than as an external physical reality. Although they may seem very real to their creators, children usually understand that their imaginary friends are not real. Although an only child myself, I never had an imaginary friend when I was young (although I was pretty certain that something horrible did lurk in the cupboard in the corner of my bedroom) but I did have a real-life friend called Duncan Edgington who lived up the road from me. We were both around four years of age at the time and we would visit each other and play together.
A lot of people, I guess, would say that our claim as Christians to have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ, to know him as our ‘personal friend and Saviour’, is simply a figment of our imagination, and a pretty vivid imagination at that! ‘If Jesus ever really existed’ they say, ‘he died 2,000 years ago, so how can you have an ongoing friendship with a dead person?’ Well for a start Jesus isn’t dead but very much alive! We are still in the ‘Easter Season’ in the Church Year and we rejoice in the fact that the Easter Story did not end with Jesus’ crucifixion but with his resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead and is very much alive today, someone we can all come to know and love in personal experience. As the angel said to the women who came to his (empty) tomb early that first Easter Sunday: ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ (Luke 24:5) – a single phrase that astounded the women and changed history!
The Bible speaks of ‘a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24) and Jesus is indeed such a friend. During his earthly life Jesus made this clear to his followers when he told them ‘I don’t see you as my servants any longer … you are now my friends!’ (John 15:15), and the word used here for ‘friend’ denotes a ‘dear valued friend’ not just a casual acquaintance. And this friendship does not end with the fact that Jesus himself is now in Heaven rather than literally on earth. Writing some 60 years or so after Jesus’ ascension John describes his ongoing relationship with Jesus (an ongoing relationship he wants us all to enjoy) in these words: ‘ From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in – we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too.’ (1 John 1:1-3 The Message).
I first came to know Jesus in this way in 1960. I was 16 years old at the time and I still clearly remember that October evening, sitting in a Youth Meeting in Greenford Baptist Church, when Jesus suddenly came into my life to be my personal Friend and Saviour … and he’s been with me ever since. What I didn’t know until some years later was that Greenford Baptist Church was the church that my childhood friend Duncan, and his family, regularly attended when we all lived in Greenford all those years before. Despite the fact that the Edgington family moved away when Duncan and I were around five years of age, I suspect that they had been praying for me from the moment Duncan and I first met – praying that I too might find Jesus as my friend, not an imaginary friend but, a real friend … as real as Duncan was to me in those early days of childhood. Perhaps one of the plusses of this enforced period of isolation due to the corona virus pandemic is that we now have the opportunity – the time and the space – to get to know him even better!
A friend of Jesus! Oh, what bliss
That one so weak as I
Should ever have a Friend like this
To lead me to the sky!
Friendship with Jesus!
Oh, what blessed, sweet communion!
Jesus is a Friend of mine.
A Friend when other friendships cease,
A Friend when others fail,
A Friend who gives me joy and peace,
A Friend when foes assail!
A Friend when sickness lays me low,
A Friend when death draws near,
A Friend as through the vale I go,
A Friend to help and cheer!
A Friend when life’s short race is o’er
A Friend when earth is past,
A Friend to meet on Heaven’s shore,
A Friend when home at last!
~ Joseph C Ludgate (1864-1947)