“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” — Jesus, John 15.13-19.
Friendship, true friendship, is as unique of a relationship as it is surprising that God desires to enter into that relationship with us. Since the beginning of time, when God would come down to the Garden in the cool of the evening, apparently to commune with the man he had constructed with his own hands, out of the red dirt of the ground, and ever since, this desire of His for friendship has not changed. He was friends with Enoch, and they walked together — walking together is the metaphorical activity of friendship; whereas lovers face each other, friends stand shoulder to shoulder facing and pursuing the same objectives. They walk together (not towards each other, but together) towards a common goal. He was friends with Moses; they spoke face to face, with Moses going so far as to advise God on how he should handle the rebellion of the Isrealites. Friends level with each other, se dicen sus verdades, as they say in Spanish. He was friends with David, a man after His own heart, as all true friends always are. They shared common interests and common desires. Friends don’t so much support each other, rather they spur each other on. A friend doesn’t empathize with your longings, they long for the same thing. It is the shared heart that defines friendship. Friendship isn’t about what one can do for the other, but rather what both can do together. He was friends with Abraham. Scripture even says as much. “He was called a friend of God.” Astounding. In the midst of a culture that saw the gods as so inaccessible that they couldn’t even dare to conceive of themselves as ‘children’ of God, Abraham leaps past that and is declared to be a Friend of God. Even beyond the degree that God had sculpted Adam so he could be physically capable of friendship, and spoken with Moses so he could be intellectually capable of friendship, and communed with David so he could be passionately capable of friendship; beyond all that, He had imputed righteousness to Abraham so he could be spiritually capable of friendship with such a wholly righteous God. God elevated Abraham to the highest level of being: God’s righteousness. And not for Abraham’s sake. For God’s own sake. So that Abraham could be God’s own friend.
Friendship is an egalitarian relationship. Two cannot be friends unless they are equals along some dimension. They must share equally in some interest or objective, otherwise the relationship takes on a whole other form, not friendship at all. We find this clearly stated by Jesus. At the close of his earthly ministry he shocks us by declaring that our relationship with him was to be fundamentally changed, from that of servants to that of friends. Shocking, because he was preparing to be glorified by the Father, and rather than tighten his grip on his servants, as any world leader would do on the eve of his apotheosis, Jesus emancipates his followers and elevates them to equality. No doubt some will signal their virtuous humility and argue that it was limited equality at best; however, any equality at all is astounding. But if we read through the succeeding conversation, we discover Jesus proposing an equality that is mind boggling — terrifying, really — and as far as my poor eyesight allows, practically unlimited. Jesus decrees in prayer with the Father: “and the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.” How can this even be? I am not sure I know, or understand. Who could? But there it is, the perfect friendship: Complete and total oneness.
Traditional thought would likely prefer to think of this ‘oneness’ as analogous to the erotic love of marriage. There are certainly plenty of indicators that would seem to make the marriage metaphor more fitting. But that makes it all the more stunning that Jesus does not frame it in that way, rather he describes it as a friendship. Which should cause all of us to pause in our assumptions and reevaluate the type of relationship that we assume God wants to kindle with us. There are several common candidates; for instance Creator – creature, or Father – son, or Lord – servant, or, as we have already pointed out, Husband – bride. All are appropriate and serve no small utility in helping us understand our connection to God. However, quite possibly the last relationship we would ever imagine ourselves to have with God is that of friends. Who would be so bold as to presume such an equality. In all other relationships, God occupies the role that gives far more than it ever receives. But friendship is such a… democratic relationship. It doesn’t even seem proper to fancy ourselves worthy or even capable of such a thing. Nevertheless, according to Jesus, friends it is. He didn’t give his life for his bride (in the context of John 15) but for his friends. He didn’t reveal his will to his children (again, in the context of John 15) but to his friends. And he didn’t share his ministry with his faithful servants (once again, in the context of John 15) but with his friends. Once again, God sought friendship. And he sought that friendship with us.
To even begin to understand this frightening truth, we should begin by understanding that friendship is a form of love. A very specific and unique kind of love, but a love all the same. In our modern culture, this characterization isn’t always obvious or even acknowledged. For most of us, “friendship” is a catchall term for all sorts of non-adversarial relationships. And while many of us might love our friends, at least some of them, we probably don’t think of the friendship itself as love. But the word Jesus uses for “friends” is philous, of the same root word from which we derive “Philadelphia” (city of brotherly love) and “Philosophy” (love of wisdom). Jesus was drawing us into something much deeper than being his buddies, his acquaintances, his teammates, or his co-workers. That much is clear, not just by his word choice, but how he contextualizes those words. He draws us into friendship by baring himself to us; by opening up and revealing his most intimate thoughts and allowing us to share in his most intimate moments. After years of going off by himself to commune with the father, leaving us to only speculate what that kind of prayer might sound like, he befriends us in John 15 and then in John 17 brings us into his inner sanctum and allows us to listen to his communion with the father. In a time when many of us pray boldly, out loud, in public (often far more easily and passionately than we ever pray privately, out of sight, in our ‘closet’) this might not strike us as being particularly impactful. But for Jesus, prayer was one of the very few things that he did not share with the world. It was his Holy of Holies. But now he is rending the curtain, and introducing us into his most sacred and private place. That is “friendship” in Jesus’ vocabulary. Anything less than that level of intimacy and openness is less than friendship. In fact, Jesus states unabashedly that either you have that intimate access to him or you are his enemy. Friendship is love, and Not-friendship is hatred. Notice that the friendship Jesus offers his disciples is juxtaposed with the hatred that the world harbors towards him and anyone who will be his friend. And he reciprocates, laying down the gauntlet proclaiming that anyone who will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
It seems obvious that what we should seek is to be loved by God; as a Father loves his children, or as a Husband loves his wife. And while there is certainly a significant component of those metaphors in the gospel, we must look beyond the intuitiveness of that longing, and acknowledge the pagan influence in that over-simplified, self-centered desire. The gospel presents a relationship that is incredibly more complex than simply ‘being loved’. No doubt this will be offensive to many, however, God is interested in much more of you than simply something pitiful and pathetic to shower with undeserved love so it can feel accepted and affirmed. Jesus could have done that with his disciples on day one. But he communed with them for years, taught them, cultivated them to the point that they could become his friends. The gospel is the message that God wants you to be His friend. This is offensive to many because they don’t want to be God’s friend. That implies too much responsibility, and for the sincere that is terrifying, and for the insincere it is exactly the opposite of what they were angling to get from God. They want what God can give, they are not interested in what God demands. Being loved by God is to receive. Being a friend of God is to give. A friend who only ever takes is no friend at all. And they prefer to not be a friend of God at all… because they do not love God. Whatever love they have for God is much more like erotic love than friendship love. Erotic love is inherently self-love. It only gives as a means and method of receiving. It is transactional and extremely shortsighted. Friendship love invests in a relationship from which it hopes to never require a favor. Those that eschew friendship with God, see God as someone who can bail them out when they are in trouble. The friends of God see trouble as a wonderful opportunity to bond with God. Those that despise friendship with God are like the naive tourists, caught on the side of a mountain, crying out to the mountaineers for assistance. Those that embrace God’s friendship are his climbing companions. They are not there for the help, they are there for the camaraderie.
The danger of this is that it sounds like a hybrid form of humanism: Man reaching for his unrealized dignity and achieving equality with God by his own desire and discipline. It is not. Man is arrayed in enmity against God and there is nothing he can do to disabuse himself of that antagonism. He does not love what God loves, and therefore has no capacity to be God’s friend. A sinner trying to make himself a friend of God is like a glutton embracing a starving child for a photo op. We haven’t the power to be the friends of God, nor do we even understand what such a relationship even is. It is like the painting of a worm being friends with a live fish. We are not only diametrically opposed, but we exist on totally incompatible dimensions. Friendship with God is impossible. And yet! God desires to be your friend and for you to be his. And so he rewrote and redefined reality and eternity itself to make it possible. He actually moved heaven and earth to pave a Way between your three-dimensional existence and his infinite being. And now he stands at the threshold of your selfishness and beckons you out. “Come walk with me!”, he calls. “Come talk with me!”, he bids. “Come be with me!”, he coaxes. “There is no room for me in your life. Your life is too small for friends. Mine is vast and deep. Leave your life. Enter into mine. Let’s be friends.”