15 May I Have Called You Friends
Thomas rung Victor after a lengthy absence. He wanted to invite Victor and his wife, Eva, to dinner. Victor and Eva had given Thomas board and mentorship when he was younger, and they thought of him as a friend and even as a foster-child. Thomas joked that the couple were his parents. Thomas had been a child prodigy, a Wunderkind, who had managed to sustain excellence into maturity, securing auspicious employment without ever graduating university. Victor was Professor of Romance Languages at a local university, and he had contributed to Thomas’s education where and how he could. He picked up the headset to receive Thomas’s phone-call.
“How are things at the factory?” Victor asked.
“Very good!” Thomas answered. “Yesterday we had a great day. There were a few insolent communists in the Okrilla [club], so we launched a punitive expedition [Strafexpedition].”
“What did you launch?”
“Oh you know, we had them run the gauntlet through rubber truncheons and a bit of castor-oil—no bloodshed [mind you]—but very effective in any case. A real punitive expedition [Strafexpedition].”
Victor hung up the receiver. He didn’t bother to respond to Thomas’s offer of dinner (Klemperer, 58-61).
Years later, after the Second World War, Victor Klemperer reflected on the slow disappearance of behaviour and sympathies characteristic of Nazism, and he reflected on that which he believed licensed them—“the language of the Third Reich”. “How many concepts and feelings had Nazism abased and poisoned!”, Klemperer exclaimed (10). Klemperer believed that the peculiar language of Nazism had both underpinned and reflected the regime’s excesses. “Strafexpedition” was the first instance of abased language that caught Klemperer’s attention, and it cost Klemperer and his “foster-child” their friendship. Klemperer would not abase his understanding of friendship by entertaining dinner with a convinced Nazi. In this, Klemperer did not evade the responsibilities that he believed came with the name “friend”.
What is it to call someone “friend”? This question pivots off John 15:15 where Christ names his disciples “friends”. I want to spend a little time dwelling on this verse and its context. I assume that, like Klemperer and John 15:15, for one to name another “friend” is not only to breathe a word but it is to commit to the friend by promising a shared future to the friend (cf. O’Donovan; Jenson). It is to take responsibility and to live and be and act in certain ways, and not other ways, towards the one named friend. Not to do and be so is to render the word “friend” meaningless, and it is to puncture one’s integrity, for to call somebody “friend” and act in bad faith is to do violence to the inherent trust we have in language to track reality truly. This is a form of the incongruity between words and deeds we often call hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is one danger to friendship. Other and associated dangers to friendship include everyday pressures, especially those exerted by constraints of time and space, as well as ignorance of what we’re promising when we call someone “friend”. I want to address the danger of ignorance and its close relative—misaligned expectations. Misaligned expectations can issue in the sort of recrimination that can, if chronic, lead to cynicism about a person’s capacity for friendship, or worse, cynicism about friendship in general: isn’t friendship simply the continuation of self-interest through other means? Hence it is important to have clarity about what is it to call another person “friend” and to be a friend.
Before we begin, I take it as read that we are relational creatures. The strongbox of the modern self is a cultural fiction, for human beings are eminently permeable to the world. We are available to each other and are even constituted by our relationships. Friendship lies among the closest of relationships, for it bears a mutual desire for intimacy—to get so close to the other that one can not only hear the other’s heartbeat, but hear what makes her heat beat. Where such intimacy obtains, there we are. Our identities are in this way distributed, stretched over, our friends. This is profound, and so I register both reserve and daring as we set out: I shy away from the theme because I have my own inadequacies and failures squarely in view; I’m emboldened because I attempt to point away from myself in prayerful hope that I’ll follow the lead of my forefinger, which extends towards the substantive ‘reality indications’ Scripture offers us in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit (Webster; Holmes). Let’s turn, then, to John 15.
III. John 15:1-17
John’s gospel challenges its readers. Even, or perhaps especially, the short passage before us defies mastery, and as I read I find myself overwhelmed by the text, or better, mastered by the one who speaks in and through it. The following traces aspects of our passage, and I pray it does so justly, for the passage represents both the literary and thematic centre of the so-called “Last Supper Discourse”, which Jesus delivered to his disciples in the upper room on the eve of his arrest and trial (Maloney).
Friendship is at issue in John 15:1-17. Friendship is a way of describing the relationship of the disciples to Jesus, and by extension, the mutual relationships of the disciples. Because the gospel especially operates on a second level as well, the passage describes the relation of its readers (us!) to Jesus and to other believers. The Evangelist considers this relation akin to the organic bond of a vine and its branches. In particular, Jesus speaks of how the disciples are bound to him like branches to a vine, while the bond depends on the relationship of the Father, the viticulturist, to Jesus, the whole vine. The vine is identified with its branches, and so the branches share in the relationship of the vine to the viticulturist. As Jesus goes on, he speaks of how the “abiding” (μένω/menó) of the branches in the vine bears fruit, which gives the Father, and viticulturist, the glory. The image of the vine and its branches offers us a picture of discipleship, where answered prayer is the fruit of the union between the vine and its branches. Love characterises this union and it is intimately intertwined with obedience. Joy results from answered prayer, and the love and obedience abounding between the Father and Jesus, and Jesus and the disciples.
Jesus’s description of friendship at John 15:13ff depends on and elaborates this context of abiding, prayer, love, obedience, and joy. These concepts constitute the hinterland to, as well as landmarks of, friendship with Jesus. The following are Jesus’s words to his disciples:
“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. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (Jn 15:12-17)
From this passage, we see that friendship begins with Jesus, proceeds with Jesus, and finds its term in Jesus. Friendship with Jesus begins when Jesus names the disciples, and us, his friends. Jesus initiates friendship: in pronouncing friendship, Jesus creates us as his friends. He creates us as his friends! He does not simply create us to be his friends, he creates us as his friends. Just so, the gift of friendship is nested within the prior gift of life and it conveys new life. In other words, when Jesus names us and creates as his friends, we acknowledge, sometimes painfully, not only the source of our biological life but the joyful, abundant life of zoé (ζωή; cf. Jn 14:6) that is now a new reality. We first acknowledge that we were bereft and remain bereft independent of Jesus (cf. Jn 15:5). But with the gift of friendship comes the gift of prayer and answered prayer, which the Evangelist holds together! This is a grace upon a grace—amazing!
But the gift of Jesus’s friendship comes with a determination. That is, Jesus not only initiates friendship, he initiates us into something determinate. This is how friendship proceeds with Jesus. It proceeds with Jesus according to a certain pattern, a ‘form of life’. When Jesus names us “friends”, we are initiated into his form of life. Jesus’s commitment to us, when he names us, is in fact inextricable from the life he leads, indeed the Life he is (ζωή/zoé). Jesus is who he is, and he is not who we would have him. Love is both the shape of Jesus’s life, the life of a friend, and it is the obligation, the “commandment”, that accompanies the commitment of a friend. And this commitment, Jesus’s love commandment, entails obedience without subservience, for Jesus says: “I do not call you slaves any longer… I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15). Just as Jesus is obedient to the Father without subservience, our obedience to Jesus resides within the greater freedom of friendship, which consists in a “shared heart” (concordia), according to Thomas Aquinas. Another commentator speaks of the friend “consciously enrolled in Jesus’s service” (Hoskyns, 478). In this way the bond with Jesus in friendship is a union of wills, where Jesus’s friends come to will what he wills (cf. Matt 6:10b; 26:42), which is ultimately love of a particular kind.
Love then is the common purpose of Jesus and his friends: it is a mutual commitment to each other, to what they share and what they enact. Love is neither an abstract concept alien from the run and rain of everyday life nor a private, anodyne feeling; it is a concrete way of life that tracks and embraces Jesus’s own life, abiding in him, and it involves practical variations on the paradigm of foot-washing (Jn 13:1ff) and even death: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). The Evangelist describes how love runs unto death, and yet as we read on and see from the perspective of Easter Sunday, God’s love runs beyond death, outlasting and overpowering death through the peace wrought by the violence of the cross, as Jesus’s resurrection exhibits (εἰρήνη/eiréné: Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:19, 21, 26). And he describes how this love conveys joy—the disciples received the peace of the risen Christ with ‘rejoicing’ (ἐχάρησαν/echarēsan, Jn 20:20)—and how the quiet confidence of their joy overcame fear (cf. Jn 20:19, 26). The obedient love of Jesus makes sure that peace and joy issue from beyond the grave.
The story of Lazarus anticipates friendship’s death-surpassing love. Jesus calls Lazarus “friend” (φίλος/philos: 11:11; cf. ὃν φιλεῖς ἀσθενεῖ/hon phileis asthenei: “[he] whom you love is sick”, Jn 11:3), as he declares to the disciples that they all will progress to Bethany, where Jesus will wake the friend who has fallen asleep (Jn 11:11). Lazarus’s slumber is in fact death, and finally, at his word, Jesus raises Lazarus to life (Jn 11:43-4). And at his word Jesus sets his own death in train (Jn 11:4, 50ff). Therefore, just as Jesus the friend will die for his friends, and will rise again, so his friends will taste resurrection at Jesus’s word, and some of these will have died for the sake of friendship in conformity with Christ. Peter is the case in point. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter thrice-over: “Do you love me?” Peter asserts his love thrice-over. Though the meaning of two Greek verbs for love, agapaó (ἀγαπάω) and phileó (φιλέω), largely overlap in John’s gospel, Jesus’s third and final question features a derivative of phileó (φιλεῖς/phileis, Jn 21:17), which commonly denotes the love shared by friends, and thus some commentators have ventured that Jesus’s threefold query confronts Peter with the following force: Are you truly my friend? (e.g., O’Donovan). Or, perhaps: will you commit to me as I’ve committed to you, even to the point of death? The answer is “yes”, according to the Evangelist:
“‘…when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ ([Jesus] said this to indicate the kind of death by which [Peter] would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.'” (Jn 21:18b-19)
We can hear Jesus’s words to Peter, “Follow me”, linked to his last words to Lazarus: “Come out!” (Jn 11:43). The obedience Jesus requires of his friends may lead to death but it always issues in life. Just as death does not have the final word on Jesus our friend, it does not have the final word on Jesus’s friends, for this word resounds from the friend who stands before the tomb and cries, “Come out!”
All this indicates how friendship with Jesus finds its term in Jesus. Friendship does not end with Jesus, at least in our lives here and now, but it is ordered to him. By this I mean that beyond Jesus there is no recourse; there is no ‘after’ Jesus. Friendship with Jesus abides, to use John’s language. Or in Paul’s idiom: “love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8a). And yet the love of friendship takes in and encompasses others. It does not statically rest upon Jesus. Jesus’s exchange with his friend Peter brings this point into focus: Jesus responds to Peter’s protestations of love for him by commanding him to “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-17). The love initiated by Jesus, and into which we are initiated, like Peter, seeks further objects of love. Such fruit only issues from branches attached to the vine. And so we have the marvellous paradox of God’s love: love for Jesus rests in and with him, and yet it simultaneously expands to encompass others. Such friendship is both centrifugal and centripetal: the love of God funds a movement from the centre to the margins, though another impetus runs from the margins to the centre. Only where both movements operate does the love of friendship retain integrity. In sum, friendship with Christ overflows into love for others—the possibility and adventure of further friendships, even though our finitude limits the number of friendships we can meaningfully sustain. One pre-modern thinker, Aelred of Rievaulx, considered friendship under the aspect of a pilgrimage unto eternity, and so for him, our finite friendships could in the fullness of time endure and expand indefinitely.
We have seen how friendship begins with Jesus, proceeds with Jesus, and finds its term in Jesus. But there is another important constituent of friendship we have not mentioned so far—presence. Friendship requires the presence of friends to each other. How is Jesus present to us as our friend? Jesus’s teaching on friendship is strategically situated between two blocks of instruction on the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:15ff; 16:7ff; cf. 15:26). The Spirit is the “paraclete”, the advocate or comforter, whose mission accompanies Jesus’s own mission and extends it after Jesus’s ascension according to his distinctive procession from the Father and Jesus. As such, just as Jesus conveys the Father, so the Spirit is the truthful witness who conveys and glorifies Jesus by making him present. This is a curious form of presence that is often unavailable to our vision—the unavailability is nonetheless intrinsic to divine freedom (cf. Jn 3:8) even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable!—though our comfort nonetheless rests in the ever-available love of the Spirit that binds friends (we might say) to each other as well as to Christ. Only this pneumatic labour can sustain the centrifugal and centripetal movements of Christian friendship. One theologian puts the Spirit’s mission in other terms:
“The personalising incorporative activity of the Spirit creates, not only reciprocity between Christ and ourselves, but a community of reciprocity among ourselves, which through the Spirit is rooted in and reflects the trinitarian relations in God himself”. (Torrance, 250)
This reflection helps us think about how Jesus is not only present to us, but active among us. This is a trinitarian reality that we experience in the practice of prayer, for instance. Prayer represents a mode of Christ’s presence to us by the Spirit, where we traditionally pray to the Father with the Son in the power of the Spirit. Our prayer advances the love of God that is God’s inner trinitarian life, and we glimpse something of prayer’s efficacy at Jn 15:7 and 15:16. Prayer proceeds in the context of branches abiding in the vine, and fruit results. The fruit is answered prayer! And this is love shed abroad: the act that is communion and conversation with the Godhead (Fr., la communication!) underwrites all loving acts. Joy, joy, joy can only ensue from prayer and answered prayer and love shed abroad (Jn 15:7-11; 16:24). As we have already noted, the Evangelist holds together prayer and answered prayer. Thus: prayer leads to joy. One of our alumni describes the relations among prayer and love and joy, as this nexus features in our everyday lives, better than I can. The following he wrote me recently:
“God has given me many wonderful gifts through regular prayer over the last three months. One of the gifts has been the way intercession has increased my affections for my friends… I have been encouraged by reflecting on how we join together with Christ and each other as we pray, making our love present to each other through the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of those we pray for and with.”
When we consider prayer under the aspects of friendship with Jesus that we outlined above, we can understand it in the following way: prayer is the response to Jesus’s initiative that sets friendship in train; prayer is a mode of abiding with Jesus, which sustains friendship, aligning our heart with Jesus’s own; and lastly, prayer is directed toward God, for it comes to term or rest in Jesus, as we pray ‘in’ him to the Father with the Spirit, though the miracle of trinitarian prayer consists in that it turns us toward others. Prayer is a practice that begins with Jesus, journeys with him, and rests in him. Prayer is the loving way to befriend: it does not remain within the strongbox of the self, as a form of “mindfulness”, say, but it breaks the box open and makes us permeable to the relational action of God in our lives and the world.
John’s gospel in general, and 15:1-17 in particular, offers us profound and dense material, and it is a pressing invitation for us to enter into the fullness of the Christian life. Abiding, prayer, love, obedience, joy—these are all spacious notions that are difficult to grasp, and for many of us, often more difficult to experience first-hand. We have a tendency to move quickly past them, feigning understanding as we chop them down to size, or at an extreme, disbelieving they pick out anything other than self-interest. But they are the form and content of the Christian life, including the form and content of Christian friendship—first with Christ, then with others—and their very breadth repeats non-identically two Hebrew words for salvation, yeshu’ah and teshu’ah, whose meaning derives from a verbal root that denotes “to be capacious” or “to make spacious” (Davis, 6). The “wide-open” of these terms and realities, and what they require of us, should not induce agoraphobia in us—a “distress” (tsar[ah]) that has us scurry back into our own little, hackneyed, and often shabby certainties—but it should draw us towards others because they draw us to the root and vine of our salvation, Jesus our friend, in prayer that “…is [itself] adventure, an expedition on the high seas without the safety of a mooring back to shore, for the mooring tempts us with self-sufficiency that warns against vulnerability as it lames our arms and renders us incapable of hoisting sail” (Ulrich, 37). This is the life Christ promises us when he names us “friend”, and it is the life he invites us into.
This life plays out beyond the strongbox in the permeability of the church, and so I close with a fisherman’s net. Madeleine Delbrêl—who was an energetic social worker among the working class of Ivry, and who was “dazzled by God” at 20 and remained so until her sudden death (cf. Pitaud et al.)—once described friendship in the church as the knots of a fisherman’s net. Christ anchors the net, which comprises discrete relationships bound to each other. That is, not only are friends tied to each other, but each friendship is tied to other friendships, and all these depend on Christ. Delbrêl was adamant, furthermore, that prayer is the source of all faithful action, as her own life attests, but above all, it funds the love that is friendship with Christ, which is the anchor and root of all friendships within the church. In her words:
“In the absence of prayer we will never love God truly. Perhaps we’ll be his servants, his activists, even his disciples, but not the loving children of our Father, [and] not the friends or the beloved of Christ.” (Delbrêl, 56)
Where friendship grows it blossoms from its vital root. To call another “friend” is to recall Christ’s prior naming, and to follow him prayerfully, taking after the form of Christ, sometimes unto death. Christ is the source of the “shared heart” (concordia) among friends in the church, as we promise to each other the continuation and repetition of Christ’s own friendship with us, albeit in a way appropriate to creatures and available to each of us and our communities, where we stand. We come after Christ’s own pattern of love, and we come to perceive friendship’s transmission, a burgeoning circle of friends (Schönborn, 142-3). Christian friendship abides in relationship with Christ at the behest of the Father; it is shot through with the dynamism of the Holy Spirit; it is founded in prayer, and it is ever available to peaceful, loving and joyful expansion—for this is the spaciousness of life abiding in the vine.
Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. M.E. Laker (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977)
T. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-21, trans. T. Weisheipl et al. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010)
R. Brown, The Gospel According to John (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966-70)
E.F. Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)
M. Delbrêl, Gebet in einem weltlichen Leben (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1974)
C.R.J. Holmes, Ethics in the Presence of Christ (London: T & T Clark, 2012)
E. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (London: Faber and Faber, 1947)
R.W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)
V. Klemperer, LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii. Notizbuch eines Philologen (Leipzig: Reclam, 2001)
F. Maloney, The Gospel of John (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998)
O. O’Donovan, Entering Into Rest. Ethics as Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2017)
B. Pitaud, G. François & M. Santier, Madeleine Delbrêl, Poète, Assistante Sociale et Mystique: Biographie (Cork : Primento, 2018).
C. Schönborn, Aimer l’Église: Retraite Prêchée à Jean-Paul II au Vatican, en Février 1996 (Saint-Maurice: Saint-Augustin, 1998).
T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988)
F. Ulrich, Gebet als geschöpflicher Grundakt (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1973)
J. Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology: Volume 2 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
(“La Ronde de l’Amitie,” by Pablo Picasso)