by Michael UseyJohn 15:9-17 (MSG)
Gumba. Amigo. Chum. Mate. Droog. Buddy. Dawg. Homeslice. Chingu. Bestie. Comrade. Bruh. Pal. Jesus did not say lightly to his disciples at the Last Supper, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.” Scholars think they were celebrating a Jewish friendship meal in John; in other gospels it’s the Passover meal, which is actually being celebrated today. A 1st century friendship meal is one in which people pledged their love and fidelity to one another regardless of what might befall them. In view of what was about to happen, Jesus’ words were super-charged with meaning and emotion.
I considered including the word kemosabe in my list of synonyms for friend, what Jay Sliverheels who portrayed Tonto in the TV series called The Lone Ranger. So I googled its meaning, and whether or not kemosabe was racist. (In Spanish-language versions of The Lone Ranger, Tonto is called Toro, Spanish for bull.) Noting that tonto in Spanish means “stupid” or “crazy,” some think that kemosabe sounds like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn’t understand.” This suggests a whole different dynamic between the two characters. Is the Lone Ranger a racist who calls his partner an idiot? Is Tonto in turn being subversive when he addresses his white companion as an ignoramus? Native American writer Sherman Alexie, who is of Coeur D’Alene [core d’lane] descent, has said that kemosabe means “idiot” in Apache. “They were calling each other ‘idiot’ all those years,” he said after the publication of his story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. “It’s always going to be an antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people,” he added. However if in fact each called the other bonehead, this might mean they were actually friends. Who knows?
So maybe Jesus doesn’t call us kemosabe. Friendship isn’t talked about much in theology, since friendship is normally relegated to the secular realm, as one can see friends as the pivot of plots on TV and movies. Yet as this morning’s reading shows, nothing could be farther from the truth. For Jesus, friendship is the ultimate relationship with God and one another. This is Passion Sunday, and the final sermon in our “one another” worship series.
One of the most common verbs for “love” in Greek is phileō; the Greek word for friend, philos, comes from this verb. In the NT a “friend” is immediately understood as “one who loves.” This fundamental connection between love and friendship is an essential starting point for reclaiming friendship as a resource for faith and ethics for Christians.
John 15:12-15 is a key passage for a theology of friendship. Jesus enacts friendship throughout the Gospel, but these verses provide the words to describe and name who and what Jesus is as friend. In John, Jesus is both the model and the source of friendship. As the model of friendship, he calls the disciples to love as he has loved. As the source of friendship, he makes possible their own friendship through what he has given them.
For us, Jesus’ definition of love and friendship in John 15.13—to lay down one’s life for one’s friend—is completely unprecedented. Most of our language about friendship doesn’t speak in terms of life and death. We celebrate our friends, we eat and drink with friends, we take vacations with friends (or we did before covid), we are there when a friend is in need; but our post-modern ideal of friendship is not someone who lays down their life on behalf of another. In the ancient world, however, Jesus’ words echoed a well-known ideal for friendship, not a brand new idea. This does not mean that any more people laid down their lives for their friends in the ancient world than we are inclined to do today—but it does show that the ideal of doing so belonged to the ancient perspective on friendship.
Jesus’ words would have sounded familiar to his followers and to the Gospel’s first readers. John 15:13 affirmed a common cultural ideal—to look to the interests of the other for the sake of the common good. What distinguished Jesus’ words from this ideal was not their content, but the fact that Jesus did not merely talk about laying down his life for his friends. Jesus enacted the ancient ideal of friendship—he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus’ whole life is an incarnation of the ideal of friendship. What Jesus teaches he is already living. The pattern of Jesus’ own life and death moves the teaching of John 15.13 from philosophical ideal to an embodied gift.
For Jesus, his own act of life-giving friendship is not the end of the story. Jesus does not merely talk the language of friendship; he lives out his life and death as a friend and he commands that his followers do the same. The commandment to love as Jesus has loved may be the most radical words of the Gospel because it claims that the love that enabled Jesus to lay down his life for his friends is NOT unique to him. This love can be replicated and embodied over and over again by us, his followers. To keep Jesus’ commandment is to enact his love in our own lives.
Jesus affirms this commandment by saying that his followers become his friends to the extent that they keep his commandment. Jesus’ words here invite us to reexamine the sometimes casual way we refer to Jesus as our friend. The mark of friendship with Jesus is not what Jesus does for us—listen to our sorrows, walk beside us, hear our prayers— but what we do for Jesus.
One weird form of piety from 30 years ago was the WWJD bracelet. This question, “What would Jesus do?” was intended as a reminder to Christians that their ethical and moral decision making, about small and large things, should be guided by the model of Jesus. (Of course, the problem was that often what Jesus did and said was shocking and surprising to his friends, so it’s not easy to predict WWJD now.)
Now it is our turn to be Jesus’ friend, which means that we love one another as he has loved us. Such an understanding of friendship and the life of faith means that the way Christians account for their piety and make decisions about what is ethical or moral behavior must be reassessed. If we take Jesus’ commandment to love seriously, and if we long to be called “friend” by Jesus, then our Christian vocation is to give love freely and generously without counting the cost, and without wondering and worrying about who is on the receiving end of our limitless love. Because this, too, is how Jesus loved.
Jesus loved Judas, even though Jesus was well aware that Judas would betray him (John 6:64,70-71). Jesus did not exclude Judas from the circle of his love, but loved him in the same ways that he loved all of his other followers. What counts most is the embodiment of God’s love in the world, not the character of those who receive this love.
Not many of us will find ourselves in a situation where we are asked to lay down our lives as an expression of friendship and an act of love. In some parts of the world, however, this is still the case. It’s also crucial to recognize the saints and martyrs, and to remember times and places where such an expression of love has been the case. They remind us that we can never know what will be asked of us and what we may be able to give in Jesus’ name. But that doesn’t mean that we are somehow exempt from Jesus’ commandment to love as he loved.
In the gift of his life in friendship, Jesus showed that true love is love that knows no limits. As the hour of Jesus’ death approaches, John says that Jesus loved his own “to the end” (13:1). “To the end” (eis to telos) can mean both “to the end of time” and “to the full extent of love.” To love to the full extent of love means that Jesus loves perfectly, that in Jesus’ act of love one sees love perfected. For Jesus, and for Peter, the full extent of love meant the laying down of one’s life. For John, the full extent of that love meant testifying with his whole life to the love of God in Jesus. John suggests that both ways of loving are acts of faithfulness, that both ways of loving make one Jesus’ friend.
In John 15.14, friendship with Jesus is still conditional: You are my friends if you do what I command you. But in the next verse, that condition seems to be removed, because Jesus says, I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends. What accounts for the change? Not something that the disciples have done, because their enactment of Jesus’ commandments is still in the future. No, it is something that Jesus has done: I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
One of the main distinguishing marks of a friend in the 1st-century was the use of “frank speech” (parrēsia). Greek philosophers counseled a person to be on the lookout for whether “friends” were speaking honestly and openly or whether they were engaging in flattery to further their own ends. One wrote: Frankness of speech, by common report and belief, is the language of friendship especially (as an animal has its peculiar cry), and on the other hand, that lack of frankness is unfriendly and ignoble.
According to the Hellenistic philosophers, to be someone’s friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back.
Jesus speaks plainly and honestly with his disciples and through this plain speaking, acknowledges them as his friends. The disciples are Jesus’ friends because he has spoken to them openly; he has made known to them everything that he has heard from the Father.
When I was at Baylor undergrad, I lived in Mark Twain apartments with two other guys, Larry and A.T. White. We often did things with an apt of girls–Terri, Marsha, and Beverly–cooked, went to games, swam, dined out–sort of a `70s Texas college version of Friends.. When I returned to Waco in 1984, Beverly was still there, working on a Masters in History. A beautiful athletic blonde from Richmond, Beverly continued our friendship, easy since we were again in the same apt complex. Spring Break 1985 Beverly went skiing with her church; she fell and shattered her left arm, broken badly in several places, including the growth plate. It was going to be a long and painful recovery. The surgeons told her the breaks were so bad they were lucky to save the arm.
When late that summer her cast and pins were removed, we saw the result, and it was not good. Beverly’s forearm had a large pink scar running its length, and the arm was now shorter, and bent at an odd angle at the wrist–a little like Benny the cab-driver’s arm in the movie Total Recall. Here was this beautiful tanned young woman with a white malformed left arm. She was crushed and cried inconsolably with Ann and me. She asked me, “Well, how bad is it? Be completely honest with me” We’d been friends for years. “Well, will you ever win a beauty contest? No. Is it noticeable that your arm is oddly bent? Yes. But will it matter to any man who truly loves you? Not at all. Truthfully it’s the flaw in something beautiful that magnifies it’s allure. GK Chesterson said it best in Pied Beauty. Besides, you love wearing posh sweaters.” Somehow it was the right thing to say. Beverly laughed. She got better mentally and physically; we quit noticing her odd arm. She returned to Richmond, married, had kids, and became an author. She surprised me seven years ago by saying, “You may not remember what you said when I asked you to be honest about my arm, but it was a turning point in the way I thought about myself. I was totally obsessed about my injury. You didn’t just blow sunshine but, by being honest about the negative, you put in it a larger perspective, and gave me my confidence back, and released me from my obsession. From that point on, I knew it wouldn’t rule my life.” I hadn’t really even remembered the conversation, but apparently kind honesty made the difference.
Plain and honest speaking may not seem to us as radical an act of friendship as the gift of one’s life, but it is an essential characteristic of Jesus’ friendship with us. Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved might feel unattainable were it not for the character of his friendship with us. Because Jesus, in his life and death, his words and deeds, showed and told us “everything” about God’s love, our relationship to the world and to one another is forever changed. Jesus’ openness is a model of how we are to treat one another, but it also makes our acts of friendship possible. Jesus’ plain and honest speaking, his full revelation of God’s love, has made human life more whole because he has treated his followers as full partners in his relationship with God. His friendship is more than the model for human love and friendship; Jesus’ friendship becomes the source of disciples’ capacity for friendship.
We have been changed by Jesus’ honest and plain speaking, and this transformation lies at the heart of Christian friendship. To speak as openly to others as Jesus did to his followers is a radical act because it is an act that assumes that everyone with whom we speak is our partner and companion. This kind of plain speaking is different from what we normally mean when we “tell people what they need to hear” or “speak one’s mind.” Those instances of plain speaking are the opposite of friendship because they are based on a master/servant or teacher/student model—the speaker positions himself or herself over against the listener.
Jesus has replaced such models with a friendship model. Both speaker and listener are transformed by the plain speaking of friendship because in holding nothing back, the speaker acts in the intimacy and trust of transformative love. The speaker risks herself in the speaking; the listener risks himself in the hearing.
Jesus gave everything to his friends—his knowledge of God and his own life. Jesus is our model for friendship—because he loved without limits— 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 we come to know God and through friendship we enact the love of God. We can risk being friends because Jesus has been a friend to us.