You Are My Friends
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.
The home phone rang the other evening. Perhaps, like me, you are hesitant to answer thinking it just one more sales call. I didn’t recognize the number immediately but am glad I answered because it was a call from a minister friend of mine whose friendship I treasure deeply. He had called just to check in on how things were going and I so enjoyed getting caught up with him.
After I had hung up the phone I got thinking about how much his friendship means to me and his generous contribution to my life and ministry. I noted that the last two conversations I had with him were because he had reached out to me for a phone conversation. I chastised myself—“Jim, if you want a friend you have to be a friend.” And I purposed that I would initiate the next conversation. I know that he is not keeping score over who called who—good friends don’t do that. But initiating a conversation does give the message that you treasure the friend you call.
Is it your experience that telling someone how much you treasure their friendship doesn’t come easily; the words don’t roll readily off the tongue nor is the sentence easily crafted spilling smoothly from the keyboard for text or email. It may be that some people find this comes more readily that I do. What I do know is that it is good to hear and important to say. Such expressions, genuinely offered, cement relationships.
1. It was on that last evening Jesus had with his disciples before his death when as they were on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said to them (and by extension said for us as well), “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus says this as he on his way to the garden where he knows he will be arrested; the arrest that will set in motion the events leading to his death. Alexander Maclaren, a great British preacher of the 19th century, in a sermon on this text of scripture wrote: “A wonderful word has just dropped from the Master’s lips, when he spoke of laying down his life for his friends. He lingers on it as if the idea conveyed was too great and sweet to be taken in at once, and with soothing reiteration he assures the little group that they, even they, are his friends.”
In this description of the greatest love, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” we hear an expression of what Christ’s friends are to him. In other words, in this word from Jesus he is telling his followers—whom he regards as friends—what their friendship means to him. Jesus is telling them and us how much he treasures our friendship.
We often hear this sentence of scripture read on Remembrance Day; and it is a fitting word for that day. But let’s take moment to be imagine ourselves walking along with Jesus on our way to Gethsemane where this word was first spoken. It is just before Jesus will lay down his life for us. Those walking with him have no idea about the events that are about to unfold for Jesus. They have no idea that what Jesus is about to do at the cross is remedy for their sins; a cure for a disease they can neither diagnose let alone cure. Later, following the resurrection, when John will recall what Jesus said here, the magnitude of Jesus’ love for his disciples will become clear and overwhelming. How much Jesus treasures them will resonate in his heart as he writes his account. Jesus will pause and linger on this idea of our friendship with him. He will drill down and probe this treasure—“you are my friends.”
As he lingers on this idea of friendship he wants his followers to know his regard for us. Consider the gospel claim that God has come among us in Jesus Christ and wants to be our friend. Think about the people walking with him. A group of Galilean nobodies, as far as the movers and shakers in the world are concerned. “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” It would be honour enough, as far as the disciples were concerned, to simply be an employee in the office of the Messiah. Jesus calls us friends sharing his mission with us.
It is a wonderful thing to note that in this act Jesus sanctifies human friendships. Human friendships are fit vehicle for expressing the love of God. It is true that Jesus consecrates human friendship in his friendship with us—the prince makes a friend of the beggar. At the same time we see that friendship is God’s idea. “As the Father has love me, so I have loved you,” said our Lord. The fellowship of one human with another is born of the fellowship of the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.
It is astonishing to also consider that this friendship with Jesus lasts today. It is a friendship of real love and intimacy that, according to the gospel, can be experienced now by faith. The Apostle Peter spoke of this in his first letter—“although you have not seen him, you love him.” (1 Peter 1:8) We experience now the throbbing heart of our friend, who lives for ever, and for ever is near us. We here today, some two thousand years after the words fell on the nightly air on the road to Gethsemane, have them coming direct to our hearts. The same Jesus who said to them says also to us, “you are my friends.”
And there are no limits to this friendship because the love of the one who extends it is boundless. There are no misconstructions in his heart, no alienation possible, and no change to be feared. There is rest and security for us here with him. It is a deeply motivating thing to consider that as perfect as his friendship is towards us and as fickle as ours can be towards him here in this text Jesus tells us how much our friendship means to him—“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
2. We could pause here a long time considering the wonder that Jesus treasures my friendship. This text also guides us to think about engaging in this friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” said our Lord. We must ever keep in mind that, as Jesus also said, “we love him because he first loved us.” This friendship is at his initiative—he made the phone call, so to speak. Or as Jesus put it, “you did not choose me but I chose you.” Our engagement with him is response to his incursion into our lives.
Our Lord’s commandment is that we love one another as we have been loved by Jesus. This sentence, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” expresses an idea similar to our Lord’s saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:35) Jesus isn’t putting limits on his friendship towards us—as if to say “I will be your friend if you do…”. Rather our friendship with Jesus is evident by our response of obedience to him.
I note with you a number of concepts in this text that go together. Abiding in his love, keeping his commandments, loving one another, friendship with Jesus, and our joy being complete. These things belong together because they are held together by the central figure Jesus Christ. Jesus gives us all of this by giving us himself. He sets us free from sin in order that we would know the joy of abiding in him and the wonders that can only be known in obedience to his command to love one another. We also know that what Jesus calls from us he enables in us.
We read today from the first letter of John that states—“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” You can hear echoes of Jesus’ teaching offered us on his way to Gethsemane. The word translated “burdensome” here is a word that means weight or heaviness. Loving one another builds life, makes possible amazing things, expands hearts and lives. To say that God’s commands are not burdensome is, I think, an echo of what Jesus meant when he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
What I do find burdensome, for example, are the demands of wealth. Every device I have that promises ease of life needs maintenance and upgrading and replacement. Such things require ever increasing demands on my financial resources—the promised thrill of streaming any programme any time comes with pricier internet speed. The costs of cell phone connection never seems to decrease. The app that promises so much also requires more of my time in upgrades and learning new procedure. These things seem to be ever demanding a bigger piece of me.
But the wonder of the gospel is that Jesus pours out himself for me and his commands are not burdensome. Yes, his command to love one another isn’t always easy but it is life affirming.
3. We have been thinking about the wonder that Jesus treasures friendship with us, a little about the nature of engaging in that friendship with him, and now to think for a few moments on what this friendship with Jesus calls us to do for one another. As Jesus probes this idea of his friendship with us—a friendship for which he will pour out his life—he tells us that one of its purposes is so that we will love one another. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” In fact, in Jesus’ teaching love for him is inextricably linked to love for one another.
Do you not find, generally speaking, that the friend of a friend is easier to befriend? Usually, if a friend introduces us to a friend of theirs the fact that we have a friend in common opens a door for friendship. The friend that all believers have in common is Jesus. And he gave his life for friendship with each of us. To refuse to love my brother or sister in Christ is to call into question my Lord’s decision to give his life for them.
We have touched on the point before but it is significant to note the “one another” aspect of this injunction. Jesus is talking about people mutually committed to himself acting in love for one another with the love he has shown us. Love for the enemy is a different matter. Love of the person who despitefully uses you has to be understood in that context. Here he is talking with his disciples who have journeyed with him in ministry now on their way to Gethsemane and he underlines the point—this love you have experienced with me you must show to one another.
The criticism has sometimes been levelled that this love for one another is too much all about us within the walls of the church. While we may not understand all the mystery of our Saviour’s love in which he insists we, as believers, love one another, I can understand that such love has to begin somewhere. I can see that the church ought to be an incubator for such love that spills over into all our other relationships of life. Another point I would make is that we need fellow believers to accompany us in the way of faith. Christian faith isn’t merely “me and Jesus” but always includes those we are joined together with by Jesus.
I also believe that this love for one another is something we have to offer the world. I was reading a recent First Things article that spoke about the graying of western societies and what experts are referring to as an epidemic of loneliness. In a 2013 interview Pope Francis called the “loneliness of the old” one of the worst “evils” in today’s world. The article cited a New Your Times story about the phenomenon of “lonely deaths” in Japan—deaths that occur without anyone else knowing—apparently at a rate of 4000 per week. The article also noted the statistic that over twenty percent of Germans over the age of 70 are in regular contact with only one person—or nobody. Of course, we don’t have to travel to these countries to see the loneliness of the elderly.
As Christians our Lord calls us to love one another which effort should include a practise of staying connected with those who by frailty of age can no longer come to church as they once did. Our lay pastoral care visiting is to live out our Lord’s command to love one another. This love our Lord enjoins is a blessing in a world of increasing loneliness.
According to a newsletter from the health benefits company Green Shield Canada, Canada ranks among the highest consumers of antidepressants in the world. Green Shield data shows they pay more money in claims for antidepressants than any other medication. Now I am not saying that having a good friend cures all depression—but having a good friend care about us in the midst of depression’s debilitations is a great help, often much more than we know. Love for one another behooves us not to forget our brothers and sisters sidelined by such things. It is part of being a friend of Jesus.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.