I want to think about a friend, maybe even your best friend. In the busyness of adulthood, sometimes we don’t have a ‘best friend’ in same way that we might have has children or teens. Maybe you want to think of a time in your life when you had a really good close friend. I know that I immediately think of my friend Margaret, who lived across the back alley from me and who I met when she was four and I was five when it was still safe for kids to wander all over their neighborhoods. We were best friends until I turned 13 and moved away. We told each other everything. We bonded the trouble with smaller siblings, we laughed at silly jokes, we bonded over changing bodies, we talked about God and church and what we believed – she was Catholic. We were completely unfiltered around each other. Sometimes we fought. We always made up.
Thanks to Facebook we are back in touch. How many of you have a Facebook account? And how many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook? How does your relationship with those ‘friends’ compare to the friendship that I invited you to think about? Margaret and I may be Facebook friends, but we are no longer friends. There is no intimacy, there is no shared experience. I can pick and choose both how I present myself and what I experience of others. It’s a forum for comparing our lives with others, which can sometimes leave us a little depressed; often we only put the best version of ourselves out there and that leave none of the real vulnerability and accountability of true friendship.
I actually preached on this text six years ago…I don’t suppose any of you remember. I didn’t until I found the sermon in my ‘John’ file. I didn’t talk about friendship at all, but it seems to be important to Jesus. Important enough for him to emphasize to his disciples that starting now, they can consider themselves his friends. Not servants, not students, but friends.
Friendship, as a subject for religious and philosophical debate was not new to Jesus. Anyone who was anyone had thought about and discussed what good and true friendship meant. The Greco-Roman world and its teachers and philosophers wrote and expounded on friendship, as far back as Aristotle, who said that perfect friendship only exists with perfect mutual knowledge and only between the good. It’s not possible to have many real friends. But a friend was someone of ‘one soul’ with you, on behalf of whom one would die. Friends were considered prizes, jewels, precious. Cicero, several hundred years after Aristotle and about a half century before Jesus, in his treatise On Friendship said, “Put friendship before all other things human, for nothing is so conformable to nature, and nothing so adaptable to our fortunes, whether they are favorable or adverse.”
It’s hard to know to what extend Jesus would have been immersed in these philosophical debates and conversations, but he and his disciples and John’s readers would certainly have been aware of the tradition and value placed on friendship in the Hebrew Bible. The wisdom literature extols true friendship as a virtue and entreats us to form friendships, for “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” (Eccl. 4:9) Specific friendships such as that between David and Jonathan (1 Sam 18:1-4, 20, 23:15-18) are looked upon as to be desired and emulated. In the books of the law, Moses is described as a friend to God: “they spoke face to face as one speaks to a friend.” (Ex. 33:11) [i]
In those friendships, as in my friendship with Margaret, as with your friendship with your best friends, there are the common themes of best friendships: mutuality, fullness of knowledge of the other, intentionality, accountability, love. These are all present in what Jesus proposes to his disciples. Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of ‘abide in my love’ is ‘make yourself at home in my love.’ Isn’t that the best kind of friendship – the kind in which you can make yourself at home, the kind in which you know and are known?
As with his biblical forbear, in the Johanine context, friendship, love and law are inextricably linked. One author even went so far as to say that at “the heart of the OT, understanding of the law is connected with a relationship of friendship.” (emphasis mine)[ii] In John 15, this loving friendship is a commandment. Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” He says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But he also say, “I have chosen you.” Verse 16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” ‘I friended you and it’s on you to click “accept”.’ But there’s a whole lot more at stake than there is with an online friend. Just as with the OT law, this commandment is an invitation into life, not necessarily an easy one.
The commandment to love is the only commandment that we see in this Gospel. There is no first and second commandment as there is in the synoptics: Love God, love your neighbor. There is only this. Love is so broad and so loosely used now (eg – I love cake and Buffy and Vampire Slayer and my new computer) that it can lose its meaning. It can also seem un-concrete and airy-fairy and un-demanding when we hear ‘love each other’. But there is a concreteness to love – especially to ‘love as I loved you.’ When you really try to do it that way, it comes home pretty quickly. Gail O’Day says, “To find the ethical demand of this commandment too easy and somehow inferior, however, is to be deceived by the simplicity of its wording and the sharpness of its focus.’[iii]
Today, of course, is Mother’s Day. . I think most mothers (and probably most dads) would say that they would do anything for their child. That they would die for their child or children. There is a powerful protective and loving instinct that accompanies being a parent. The love of family is like that – almost beyond our control. Romantic love, too, especially the beginning stages of romance are like instinct – reactive and hormonal and passionate. Not at all bad, but not necessarily intentional. The later stages of marriage and partnership might better suit the idea of loving friendship.
The love of friendship is a choice. Once and then again and again. A million ‘yeses’ to the relationship. Jesus is also model of what making a choice to love us as friends looks like. A choice to be vulnerable and intimate and intentional. A choice to continue relationship even when friends abandon or don’t respond. A choice to love to the point of death. It’s tempting when friendships or relationship become difficult to begin to think of oneself as put-upon, as all-giving, as self-losing in a friendship where other takes all.
Here too, I found Gail O’Day helpful. She talks about the fullness of the love of Christ for us. And the fullness that it possible in our love for others. We don’t empty ourselves of live in self-denial to enable ourselves for relationship, but offer love out of the abundance of ourselves, our love for the other and God’s love for us, out of the fullness of who we are. A friend allows me to be my whole self. The ultimate sign of this love is giving of one’s life but out of fullness of self not in denial.[iv] Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself, but one never thinks about Jesus in his life and the journey that led to his death on a cross as being anything but truly and wholly his God-made self. We are our most full selves through our friendship with Jesus – his love and the Father’s. “For Jesus to call his disciples friends means, above all, that believers are drawn into a chain of love, into the intimacy and oneness that characterizes Jesus’ own relationship with his heavenly Father.”[v]
These were important words for the Gospel’s first readers. They needed the assurance of Jesus’ friendship and the love of God. More than the synoptic Gospels, John was written for the church. This teaching about friendship is an example of Jesus providing a teaching to his disciples that the church needed to hear: Shore up community, build and strengthen friendships, love each other based on the love that I modeled. The Johanine community had recently been evicted from the synagogue. They were struggling with being hated and scorned. John’s Jesus’ address this too, in the verses immediately following, when he says, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” and “I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (15:18-19)
Being chosen is a comforting idea for the early church…and perhaps also for us. Being odd and outside can then be attributed to one’s chosenness. (Flannery O’Conner said “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd). And what a friend we have in Jesus – who will bear all our woes and sorrow. But we have been chosen for a friendship that is more than a simple source of comfort in bad times. We are chosen for a friendship that is fruitful: “…I chose you. And I appointed you to go bear fruit. Fruit that will abide.” (John 15:16) With great power comes great responsibility. We have been given the power of this love, this friendship. How will we use it?
Second, just as Jesus leaves room in the sheep fold for sheep that are not in his flock, there is room here for growth and inclusion. The crucible of Christian friendship – friendship within our communities – is also a place to build the way of love in the world. Jesus’ newly appointed friends can ultimately only bear fruit by going. Our friendships within Christian community should not be insular but should enable us to be sent. Paul Waddell in Friendship and the Moral Life says calls loving friendship the ‘school’ in which Christian love is learned. Agape – Christian love for the other – requires friendship. “Agape is not a love that leaves friendship behind, but a love which describes the ever widening scope of a friendship whose members are trying to be like God. With agape we come, like God, to make friends with the world.”[vi] Friends who know God’s love through Jesus are called on to share it with their neighbors and communities.
Easier said than done, maybe. Well, I did say that the concreteness of love is hard. Think again about your friend. Think about how that friendship formed. Think about the ways that you keep it going and nurture it. How does that intentionality and care reflect itself and radiate into your reactions with others in the world?
Jesus who made us your friends and equals,
Make us friends also to each other,
So that in deepening our knowledge of you, of God and of each other,
We may be witnesses to the world,
Changing strangers too into loving companions.
In your name we pray,
[i] Thomas L. Brodie, The Gospel According to John : A Literary and Theological Commentary, Date: 1997
[iii] Gail O’Day, “John” in Women’s Bible Commentary, p 390
[v] Frances Taylor Grench, “John 15:12-17” in Interpretation, April 2004, pp181-184
[vi] Paul Waddell, in Friendship and the Moral Life. Quoted in Paul Wodja, “Dying for One’s Friends,” in Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, January 1, 1997.