We started today with the opening credits and theme song to the very popular American television series, ‘Friends’:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A. It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour) I’ll be there for you (Like I’ve been there before) I’ll be there for you (‘Cause you’re there for me too)
What does it mean to be a ‘friend’? The immensely popular American television series, Friends, which ran from 1994 to 2004, and its very catchy theme tune give us a few ideas. In particular, perhaps, that friendship is about being there for others in good times and bad – when “your love life’s DOA” – and that it involves a level of reciprocity – “I’ll be there for you (‘Cause you’re there for me too)”. Given that the series finale of Friends was one of the most watched television programmes in global history, perhaps we should treat its views as authoritative!
Friendship may be a subject, though, upon which we simply do not often reflect in our everyday lives. It may be that we consider it something more relevant to the playground. One of the questions we will often ask young children at a new school is, “Have you made any nice friends yet?”. However, we are arguably living through a time when the very concept of friendship is changing. The internet and social media have arguably helped transform what it means to be a friend. As many of you know, Facebook has given us a new transitive verb: “to friend” someone. That is, to ask someone via the application to become your ‘friend’, allowing you to view one another’s personal details and exchange information. Importantly, one person makes the request to be a ‘friend’ and the other person has to accept it. This in turn has led to a complicated new field of ethics and etiquette. When is it acceptable not to accept someone’s friend request? Should you accept such requests from colleagues, old classmates, or even ex-boyfriends? This, in turn, has given us another new verb – to ‘un-friend’ someone; the ultimate mark of social rejection and the end of a relationship.
This development has in turn shaped, and been shaped by, other developments in the phenomenon of friendship, as detailed by a number of social scientists. Some of these have argued that friendships are becoming ‘thinner’ in the internet era, with less substance to them (Digby Anderson, Losing Friends, 2001). Many people would indeed make a clear distinction between friends in real life and friends on Facebook. Others have argued that friendship, in the West at least, has come to replace more traditional ties of kinship, family, tribe, guild, even nationality (Ray Pahl, On Friendship, 2000), to become the cement that holds society together. One danger of such a change is, of course, the implication that we divide the world effectively into ‘friends’, whom we are willing to trust, believe and help, and ‘non-friends’, or even ‘enemies’, whom we are not.
In the light of all this, what do those intriguing words of Jesus from our lesson mean to us today? “You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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” (John 15:14-15). We get a little clue of the significance of what Jesus is saying a few chapters later in John. Here the authorities in Jerusalem are using every means possible to make Pontius Pilate submit to their will and crucify Jesus, and threaten him with the ominous words: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (John 19:12). Friendship in the ancient world, in this context, meant someone who held a particular status with a ruler. They were his closest confidants, his most trusted advisers. In the Roman emperors’ case, they were described as his amici, and people – including client kings like Herod – would expend a great deal of time and effort to secure that status. It was the ultimate access to wealth and power. No wonder that Pilate was so afraid of the high priest’s threat: he was risking being ‘un-friended’ by the emperor, they were effectively saying, if he refused to execute this trouble-maker, with all sorts of terrible consequences for himself and his career.
In the context of our passage today, there is something of that sense of meaning in Jesus’ words. His disciples were indeed his amici – his closest confidants and advisers; the people with whom he spent most time and whom he trusted thoroughly. There is more to it than that, though, and there are things we need to learn about what it means to be a friend of Jesus.
First, true friends know what is really going on in a person’s life. Many people nowadays, as I have said, make the distinction between ‘Facebook friends’ and real friends, and one of the key differences is the information one shares with these two categories. I know myself that there is a temptation to put a positive spin on your life on Facebook, only recording happy incidents, or things that cast you and your life in a positive light. It’s often an air-brushed version of reality that in turn can actually make others feel worse about their own life. (“Why’s everyone else out partying, and I’m sat at home doing the ironing?”, etc., etc.) Of course, you don’t need to be on Facebook for this to happen. There have always been people to whom we feel it necessary to put on a front and say “everything’s fine”, when it is very clearly not.
A true mark of friendship as Christ described it, though, was someone with whom we have no secrets. It is a relationship where we can know someone fully and in turn be fully known. Just as Jesus and the Father knew each intimately. We know what they have been through in life, positive and negative; we know their joys and their sorrows; we have been present at some of the most important events in their life. In the gospels, we are repeatedly told that Jesus made the effort to share everything he could with his disciples. When they failed to understand the parables, he would patiently sit down and try to help them understand (e.g. Mark 4:33-34). When they had questions, he would answer them. In this final discourse in John’s gospel, we hear him trying to tell them everything they needed to know about himself, in order to face the future without him. And this offer of friendship is open to us, if we choose to accept it. In prayer, we are given the opportunity to share all that we are with Christ Jesus: not to put on a brave face and deceive ourselves and him, but to come to him, as the hymn says, “Just as I am”. In scripture, Christ offers us the same in return. The ability to know him truly, to understand who he is and what his mission on earth was. If we choose to read and study our scriptures, then that knowledge, that privileged relationship, can be ours as well.
The second point is that friendship, in Jesus’ terms involves choice, and choice on both sides. Many commentators note the difference between how Jesus’ disciples behaved and how those of other contemporary rabbis did. In the latter case, disciples would usually shop around and find the rabbi whom they most liked and admired. Not so with Jesus. Instead, as we read in the opening chapters of the gospels, Jesus actively goes out and chooses his disciples. As he reminds them in today’s passage: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (15:16). There is a stunning painting by Caravaggio of The Calling of St Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13), with Jesus, bathed in a shaft of sunlight, standing at the doorway of a tavern pointing directly at the unsuspecting tax collector, and clearly saying “It’s you I want.”. There is a direct contrast here with that terrible experience in school playgrounds, where teams are picked based on how good you are at football, or how tall and strong you are, or indeed where relationships are formed based solely on looks and appearance. Here the offer of friendship goes to the most unusual people, to the unloved and unlovely as well as to the popular and handsome.
In the scriptures, we read how Christ invites all sorts of people – men and women, Jew and gentile, kind and unkind – into a relationship of friendship with him. And they in turn are invited to respond: to accept the obligations and responsibilities of friendship. Responsibilities that we all understand well, especially if sadly we have ever been let down by someone we thought a friend. The invitation to friendship with Christ, and ultimately with God our creator himself, is one that is offered to us all, just as to Peter and John, and one we are invited to accept. It is not a relationship that we deserve or have earned, it is one that is freely given by a God who seeks out his people in every corner of the world – like a shepherd with a lost sheep. But we cannot say that we are a friend of Christ, if we ignore his teachings, neglect his words and reject those who have been made in his image. True friendship with Christ is both an inestimable blessing and a solemn commitment.
Finally, we should note that our reading today makes clear that being a friend of Jesus also involves being a servant for Jesus. Many of us may worry about the language of friendship in relation to Jesus. We find it in many of our hymns. We may worry that all this talk of friendship makes us too ‘chummy’ with Christ, and fails to acknowledge his holiness and power. Yet, as with so much of our scriptures, context is crucial here. We need to ask ourselves what has gone on before? We turn back a few pages and find Jesus, the Lord and Saviour of all the World, on the floor, washing the feet of his disciples. We skip a few pages ahead and find Christ on his cross, bearing the sins of humanity upon his broad shoulders. As we read in Stainer’s Crucifixion:
Then on to the end my god and my friend
to suffer, endure and die.
Being a true friend to someone will always involve a level of servanthood. It will involve listening to the same stories and jokes again and again. It will involve helping to look after them when they’re sick or ill one day. It will involve helping them to put together a garden shed, a wedding or even a broken life. True friendship involves cost and sacrifice, and that is why we value – or should value – real friends so highly.
The friendship that Christ offer us in these verses is not a ‘thin’ one: a Facebook friend, a nodding acquaintanceship. It is the most perfect and life-giving of relationships; the genuine desire to know another person wholly, and in turn to be fully known by them. It is a relationship that is freely offered by one who has done everything he can to seek us out, wherever we are. It is a friendship built not on the desire for gain or control, but on the loving sacrifice of one who calls us to follow his example of selfless love. It is ultimately the offer to us all that, “my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11) Amen.