We have moved from Good Shepherd Sunday to Valid Vine Sunday and now on to Faithful Friend Sunday in our Easter meditation. I imagine that lectionary-compliant preachers will, at least in some places, wax rhapsodic about the joys and virtues of friendship – with Jesus and with one another.
Many of us will sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” with a small tear in the eye and twinge in the memories. As we do so, by the way, I think we ought to remember how many times this hymn is sung at Christian funerals. So, we should expect that some people will be taken back to the pain and promise of those moments and the re-visiting of griefs, some still quite fresh perhaps. This is always the price we pay for using beloved hymns in our regular services – for some worshippers, they are always bittersweet at best.
Can we find a friend so faithful
Who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness
Take it to the Lord in prayer
The hymn captures a bit of the spirit of our paragraph in John 15. It focuses almost exclusively, however, on the benefits of friendship with Jesus. Our text focuses much more, in fact, on the responsibilities that accrue to that friendship. Those responsibilities are about “bearing fruit,” which takes us back to the previous paragraph describing Jesus as the Valid Vine and disciples as the productive branches.
As we meditate on Jesus’ friendship with his disciples, we may also catch ourselves humming “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” from the Toy Story film franchise. I have been a Randy Newman devotee since 1980, when I first heard “He Gives Us All His Love.” I’m more a fan now of things like “Putin puttin’ his pants on/ One leg at a time…” But with the Toy Story theme, Newman grabbed a whole new generation of fans.
You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles
From your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me
If you head down this path, you might want to read the Rodriguez article listed in the “References and Resources.” It’s a helpful and insightful review of the Toy Story movies from the friendship angle (as well as from other vantage points). The author sees illustrations in the films that might be helpful for interpreting our text and doing so in ways that will connect with people at an emotional and visceral level. Understanding friendship as the willingness to sacrifice life for the sake of another is indeed a theme in those films.
That being said, the temptation is to take what we think we know about friendship and to make Jesus the best example of that relationship. If we do that, we will have lovely homilies that attract several smiles and copious compliments. We can easily work in the required pious platitudes about mothers, since we will also (at least in some places) be observing one of the High Holy Days of white supremacist civil religion – Mother’s Day (more about the racism connection to the day later, perhaps).
If we do all that, we will go home reassured and relaxed. And we won’t have preached the text.
Jesus’ relationship with disciples as friends is not an example of the human phenomenon of friendship. Nor is it the prime or supreme or perfect example of that human experience. Friendship doesn’t define Jesus. Jesus defines friendship – for his disciples, including us. “For Jesus [at least in John’s Gospel],” Gail O’Day writes, “friendship is the ultimate relationship with God and one another” (2008, page 20).
The first challenge we face as interpreters is that our contemporary understanding of friendship is not the same as the understanding of friendship in the first-century Mediterranean world. In the ancient world, Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Friendship is a reciprocal affair, with friends mutually seeking the well-being of one another” (page 236). So far, so good. But for us, friendship is usually a relationship between relative social equals. That is not the case in the ancient Greco-Roman world. More on that in the next post.
“For modern readers,” O’Day writes, “Jesus’ definition of love and friendship in John 15:13 – to lay down one’s life for one’s friend – is completely unprecedented…In the ancient world, however,” she continues, “Jesus’ words articulated a well-known ideal for friendship, not a brand new idea” (2008, 21). The notion that a friend would lay down one’s life on behalf of another goes back at least to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Therefore, O’Day argues, Jesus is portrayed in John first as the “model” of friendship. She might have noted Jesus’ words in John 13 when he tells the disciples he has given them an “example” in washing their feet (O’Day will discuss this act of friendship later in the article). The word there would probably be better translated as “model” or “pattern” or (best of all, I think) “template.” Jesus doesn’t merely describe this template for friendship, but rather embodies that template in his whole life.
“What distinguished Jesus’ words from this ideal [as described in Aristotle, for example], was not their content,” O’Day suggests, “but the fact that Jesus did not merely talk about laying down his life for his friends. Jesus enacted the ancient ideal of friendship,” she asserts, “he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus’ whole life,” she concludes, “is an incarnation of the ideal of friendship” (page 22). I would substitute “the” for “an” in the previous sentence. That’s what makes it Gospel.
O’Day notes that Jesus illustrates this ideal in the figures of speech concerning the Gate of the Sheep and the Good Shepherd in John 10. He enacts this template, as noted above, in the “sacrament of friendship” (O’Day’s term, page 25) we know as The Footwashing in chapter 13. He presses Peter to think through what friendship with Jesus means as they walk together on the beach in John 21. And in his passion and death, he embodies and enacts God’s love for the cosmos, described in John 3:16.
In this template, Jesus calls and invites his disciples to live as friends with Jesus, friends with one another, and friends with those whom they serve. “Jesus is our model for friendship – because he loved without limits,” O’Day writes, “and he makes it possible for us to live a life of friendship – because we have been transformed by everything he shared with us. Through friendship,” she continues, “we come to know God and through friendship we enact the love of God. We can risk,” she suggests, “being friends because Jesus has been a friend to us” (2008, page 27).
Our reading declares that Jesus calls his disciples “friends.” It does not focus, however, on the benefits of friendship with Jesus. Our text focuses much more, in fact, on the responsibilities that accrue to that friendship. “Jesus does not merely talk the language of friendship,” O’Day writes, “he lives out his life and death as a friend and he commands his followers to do the same” in verses 12 through 14 (2008, page 23).
We who are the branches draw our life from the Valid Vine. We have that promise in the foreground of today’s reading, and we dare not forget the source of our life. Without that life “we can do nothing,” as we read last week. With that life, we can love one another as Jesus loves us. “The commandment to love as Jesus has loved may be the most radical words of the Gospel,” O’Day argues, “because it claims that the love that enabled Jesus to lay down his life for his friends is not unique to him.”
O’Day is not arguing that Jesus’ friendship is one example of human friendship in general. In that regard, it is indeed unique. What she means is that Jesus’ friendship as a capacity to be a friend is something he shares with disciples. “This love can be replicated and embodies over and over again by his followers,” she notes. “To keep Jesus’ commandment is to enact his love in our own lives” (2008, 23).
Loving one another as friends of Jesus, therefore, is not a “work” in a Lutheran sort of sense. It is rather the fruit of that friendship. It is not an accomplishment but rather evidence. It is not so much obedience as it is productivity.
Next time, we will expand and build further upon O’Day’s insights and those of several other commentators.
References and Resources.
deSilva, David A. “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.” https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf.
Eng, D. K. (2021). ‘I Call You Friends’: Jesus as Patron in John 15, Themelios 46.1 (2021), 55-69. Themelios, 46(1), 55–69. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/i-call-you-friends-jesus-as-patron-in-john-15/.
O’Day, Gail R. “I Have Called You Friends.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/61118.pdf.
Rodriguez, William. “Love and Friendship in Toy Story 3.” Journal of Religion and Film 14:1 (April 2010). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1480&context=jrf.