“This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. 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.” – John 15:12-13
I heard this passage of scripture a few weekends ago, when a good friend of mine professed his first vows to the Society of Jesus in St. Paul, MN. I was sitting in the pews of St. Thomas More Church next to some of my other friends who were present at the profession ceremony. The words from this gospel of John made me realize how blessed the bond of friendship is! However, I wonder how often we recognize how the love shared between friends reflects the love that God shares between each individual person. Additionally, I wonder if each of us realizes how difficult friendship can be.
It’s interesting to see that the gospels do not always paint a flattering picture of the friendship between Christ and his apostles. The Gospel of Mark consistently depicts Jesus struggling with the apostles, who fail to comprehend his message. In chapter 6 of Mark Jesus calls these twelve men together to follow in his example of teaching God’s reign in the surrounding villages and gives them power over unclean spirits (6:6-7). However, Mark also writes that the apostles were unable to understand Jesus’ great power demonstrated in the miracle of feeding of the five thousand because “their hearts were hardened” (6:52). Additionally, the gospels of Matthew and Luke also depict the rocky and challenging moments in Jesus’ friendship with the apostles. Jesus chides Peter for trying to prevent Him from traveling to Jerusalem to enter into his Passion, saying, “get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block for me…” (Matthew 16:23). Finally, Luke shows that Jesus is exasperated with the disciples even after his Resurrection, when he calls Cleopas and the other disciple walking on the road to Emmaus “foolish” and “slow of heart” for failing to understand the meaning of His suffering and death, predicted first by the prophets (Luke 24:25).
How often do we find ourselves angry or frustrated at our friends because we want them to understand us in our words and actions? These brief scripture passages illustrate that sense of frustration. The Son of God enters into a world that struggles to recognize God at all, let alone when God is immanently present in the person of Jesus. Yet God loves this world so much that God freely gives God’s self to us in friendship through Jesus, despite the risk of being misunderstood, mistreated, and maligned. That is the blessing, and the risk, of friendship. We give ourselves in vulnerability to one another without knowing whether or not we will be loved and accepted as who we are.
However, friendship highlights our own vulnerabilities within ourselves and reveals our inherent desire for one another. My best friends and I are not always laughing and partying; we meet each other in our brokenness and reach out for each other in our tears. They challenge me to consider new perspectives that de-center me from my own perspectives. We get frustrated and do not understand each other. But our friendships exude love for one another because we recognize how incredible it is to simply find someone else. When we discover one another in truth and love through friendship, we choose to give of ourselves to that person.
Which leads me back to the quote from John above. I believe what Christ is trying to tell us is that friendship is the unspoken commitment of two people who recognize each other’s vulnerable, imperfect humanity and choose to love anyway. Jesus commands us to love each other as he loved us because he continued loving the world amidst rejection, sin, and death. He laid down his life to show us that the bond of friendship is at its strongest when we pour ourselves out to another. When we give of ourselves to each other, we glimpse into the eternal love that Christ promises us through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
This understanding of friendship creates friends who, like Jesus and the apostles, are unafraid to continue loving and challenging us. These friends will always reach out to us in our happiness and our sadness. These types of friends will always be there to take us down from our cross and lay us to rest, and wait for us to rise to new life, even if they don’t always believe it’s going to happen. And these friends will continue to believe in us, long after we have moved on from this world.