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You are my friends

Friendship. What a wonderful thing it is! In my bedroom when I was a child there was a text, framed and hung over the round table made by my great great grandfather where I later did my homework. It was quite a few years before I was able to read its ornate colored script. I used to lie in bed trying to puzzle it out:

What a world of woe lifts from our hearts
when we really know that somebody,
really and truly
And I want you to know and I feel that you do
that somebody, always, is caring for

You know what I thought? I thought it was a message from God! I suppose the old lettering made it look like holy scripture, of which there were one or two other texts hanging on the walls in our house, and more in my grandparents home. It was only much later, probably when I returned home after being away that I took another look at it and understood it to be message between lovers or close personal friends. That is strange because from an early age I knew the wonder of friendship and pain of rejection, as I am sure we all do one way or another, though some of us are more blessed than others in the gift of good friends. Yet the belief that God really and truly cares for you is a comfort whether you are old and full of memories or a sensitive and sometimes lonely child.

Years later when I was a student and active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship in the big youth rallies it was then possible to organize to fill places like the Melbourne Town Hall, we used to sing as a kind of theme song the hymn that is now 153 in the Australian Hymn Book (and 220 in the new hymn book Together in Song):

This, this is the God we adore,
a faithful unchangeable friend,
whose love is as great as his power,
and neither knows measure nor end.

I sometimes hear secularist anti-Christians today speak ignorantly of the nineteen-fifties as if they were a time of religious repression of human freedom with an austere and punishing image of God. It was not so. They only say that to justify their libertarian perversions of the freedom God gives us, and with which, ironically, they make a kind of prison for themselves. We really believed in human freedom and in God as a friend, whom we could know in our freedom. It is time to re-assert belief in God as a friend and the freedom of the gospel in which that friendship can flourish.

Friendship cannot flourish without freedom in a relationship. It contrasts with slavery and dependency. In present day human terms we speak of equality in peer groups. Peers are equals by definition, but they are not necessarily equal in all things. There are leaders amongst them and some are much better than others at some things that are important to the members of the group, yet as adolescents tend to feel most strongly, the status of being a member of the group is more important than any differentiation within it. The demands of the group can even be tyrannical, but in good mature friendships there is a mutuality of respect in which no one is enslaved or overly dependent upon the other. Whether friends are equal in status, or in age or whatever, is not the main point: their relationship is governed by mutual confidence in the care they have for each other.

It was that mature kind of friendship that Jesus offered his disciples:

These words were part of his "farewell discourses" in which he prepared his disciples for his death and which were followed by his "high priestly prayer" [John 17] for them and those who would believe in him through their words. He is describing the continuing relationship that believers will have with their Lord. He can be both their Lord (or shepherd) and their friend because he cares for them and allows them freedom in their relationship.

The great extent of his caring is shown in his willingness to lay down his life for his friends: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. Yet his willingness to serve them did not contradict his leadership, as he demonstrated when he took the part of a slave and washed their feet, when they gathered for the Last Supper. His words on that occasion are interesting in that he re-affirmed his leadership even as he gave them the example of being servants of one another:

He could retain his authority as a servant leader. Their friendship then was a relationship of mutual regard for, and service of, one another, rather than a relationship between equals. Indeed, concern with equality would disrupt such a relationship because it would bring in questions of status which Jesus most strongly discouraged amongst them.

That the status question can be set aside is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the way that the ancient leaders of the nation of Israel were called friends of God. Moses the law giver and disciplined leader an unruly mob of former slavers during the exodus, would have been horrified at the blasphemy of assuming equality with God, yet he was called a friend of God because he talked with God face to face:

Or take the example of Abraham, the founding father, whom the later chronicler and the prophet Isaiah recalled as a friend of God:

These ancient leaders, Abraham and Moses, were friends of God who were blessed in their relationship with him for the good of the whole people of God. God was their friend because he chose to be a friend to them and they responded to him in faith, trusting him and obeying his commands.

So it is not surprising that when Jesus called the disciples his friends, and was even prepared to die for them, and at the same time he said: You are my friends if you do what I command you. Their doing what he commanded would show their respect and affection for him. He expected them to exercise their freedom in that way. After all, even in our ordinary human friendships where there is no such authority we do not offend our friends by going against their wishes if we can help it.

Jesus made a point of saying that he did not expect their loyalty simply because they were his servants who must obey him, but more because they understood what he was about: in that sense they were more in the role of partners. 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]. That is like the difference between being slaves and being children of God which Paul wrote about [eg Romans 8]. We are free to share in the work and the benefits of the Kingdom. Our friendship with God can be the same as Jesus offered to his disciples. It is developed in a relationship of freedom to share in the responsibilities and the rewards of co-operation.

There is a serious discipline of co-operation in friendship with God as there was between Jesus and his disciples, but that did not prevent Jesus and his friends from sharing a feeling of camaraderie as friends normally do at times of celebration. He enjoyed company and was known for it. His willingness to be friends and share his meals with all sort was one thing that marked him out as different. He picked up the way he had been criticized for this in his reply to the critics:

Jesus used the image of celebrating with friends in his parables of the Kingdom of God, that new relationship with God which he had come to announce. For example when the shepherd found the lost sheep:

The woman who found the lost coin also called her friends and neighbours together [Luke 15:9] and the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son wished that he could also [Luke 15:29]. It is clearly a model of what we should expect in the celebration of our own redemption. We share in celebrating the Kingdom of God, not as people bound in duty to obey, though we are and we should, but as liberated companions who share as partners or adopted members of the family. As we come to the Lord's table we share in the means he has given us to anticipate the Kingdom, in which we celebrate the friendship of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. The wine we share signifies the new relationship with God which he established, and modeled with his friends. This cup is the new covenant (or relationship) in my blood.


Endnote 1. "FRIEND": 5384. philos, fee'-los; prop. dear, i.e. a friend; act. fond, i.e. friendly (still as a noun, an associate, neighbor, etc.):--friend

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