Thursday, April 12, 2007

I have called you friends

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Maundy Thursday (April 5, 2007).

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
“No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends…”

Friendship seems a strange word for Jesus to be using in this context. He and his disciples had gathered for the first seder of Passover and the last meal they would enjoy together in this world. It was a time for profound statements, a time for Jesus to remind them of their solemn responsibility to proclaim his good news, and time to inspire and a time to warn, and in the midst of this solemn time, Jesus told his disciples that they were now friends rather than servants.

To speak of “friendship” at such a profound moment seems a little out of place. It’s a word which lacks weight and solemnity. I associate the word “friendship” with childhood, a time when we thought in terms of “best friends.” In the world of children they think of who is in and who is out. “Will you be my friend?” “I don’t want to be friends with you any more” and so on. But on the most solemn and fearful night of his earthly life, Jesus spoke of his relationship with his disciples in terms of friendship.

Why did Jesus call his disciples friends?

First, friendship clarified the death he was about to endure. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Imagine this, Jesus seems to be saying. What would motivate a person to give up her life? We would not give up our life for a stranger. The only thing that would give us sufficient motivation to give up our lives would be the love we have for our friends.

Second, Jesus defined friendship. The first part of the definition is odd but significant. A friend is one who does what Jesus commands. In the normal course of things, obeying orders is not a characteristic of friendship but we shall see that Jesus is using friendship in way that redefines it.

A friend is also one who (we would say today) is “in the loop.” She knows what her friends are up to. “…I have called you friends,” Jesus said, “for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Finally, a friend is one whom we choose. “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” This is the part of Jesus’ definition of friendship that makes the most sense. We do not choose our families but we do choose our friends and they choose us. Indeed, friendship requires reciprocal choosing; it is never one-sided.

So back to the question with which I started. Why did Jesus call his disciples (and by extension all of us) friends on the last night of his earthly life?

I think the key is in the kind of love that characterizes friendship.

For Aristotle friendship was a higher form of love than either romantic love or parental love. There is an element of the irrational in both. “Greater love,” Jesus said, “has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Parents will almost automatically put themselves between their children and harm’s way. And people in the grip of intense romantic love will do almost anything for their beloved, even to the point of giving up their lives. But to give up one’s life for a friend requires one to choose the other’s well-being over one’s own.

I believe that Jesus wanted to make it perfectly clear that the death he was about to endure was completely voluntary. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” If Jesus had called them his sons and daughters or even his brothers and sisters, it might have implied that his death was in some sense required or compelled.

But second and more important, friendship implies a high degree of vulnerability. To love another person is to become vulnerable to that person. No one can hurt us as badly as someone whom we love.

Jesus gave up his life only once but in declaring us his friends he made himself vulnerable to us forever. “I have called you friends,” Jesus said, and he has never withdrawn that promise. Forever his heart is open to our betrayals, unfaithfulness, and love, and yet he continues to be our friend.

The 4th c. theologian Gregory of Nyssa said, “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile.” “I have called you friends,” Jesus said, and on the cross he demonstrated exactly what he meant by friendship. Real friendships require work. They require that we spend time with our friends. And if we do, we will find greater and greater depths in that friendship as time passes. “A friendship will be young after the lapse of half a century; a passion is old at the end of three months.” (Arthur Crawshay Hall)

Imagine an eternal friendship, a friendship that goes on forever and ever, a friend whose depths and complexity you can never comprehend, a friend who is always challenging you to do your best and helping you bring out of your heart and life qualities that you did not even know you possessed. That is what Jesus meant when he called us “friends.”Here might I stay and sing,No story so divine;Never was love, dear King!Never was grief like Thine.This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praiseI all my days could gladly spend.