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What is the friendliest animal in the world? A wet dog.
There are plenty of touching quotes out there about friends. “A friend is one who can see the truth and pain in you even if you’re fooling everyone else.” “A friend is someone who reaches for your hand, but touches your heart.” “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still gently allows you to grow.” Me? I guess I’ve read too much Stephen King, because I like my friendship quotes to be a bit more edgy: “We are best friends. Always remember that. If you fall, I will pick you up… after I finish laughing.” “A friend will calm you down when you are angry, but a best friend will skip beside you with a baseball bat singing, ‘Someone’s going to get it.’” And my favorite: “Best friends are those who, when you show up at their door with a dead body, say nothing, grab a shovel, and follow you.” Everyone needs at least one friend like that, even so, I’m guessing that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he called his disciples “friends.”
They have been with him all this time: following him, learning from him, trying to do what he asks of them. Succeeding some of the time and failing at others. Yet, in the end, when he knew he would be leaving them soon, he said, “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.”
We often read the term “servant” or “slave” as being a negative; however, the word in Greek that Jesus uses is doulos and it was not a title of shame at the time Jesus spoke it. In fact, from a Biblical perspective, it was a title of the highest honor. Moses was the doulos of God (Deuteronomy 34: 5); so was Joshua (Joshua 24:29); as was David (Psalm 89:20). Doulos was a title which Paul counted it an honor to use (Titus 1: 1); and so did James (James 1:1). The greatest men and women of the past were proud to be called the douli, the slave of God.
And yet Jesus says: “I have something greater for you than this, you are no longer to be called my slaves; rather I call you my friends,” but what does it mean to be called a “Friend of Jesus”?
In the times of the Caesars, certain individuals held the title “Friends of Caesar.” These were generally soldiers who had proven themselves undeniably loyal by remaining steadfast throughout assaults, hardship, suffering. They hadn’t deserted or revolted or sought another leader or even complained when battle campaigns with Caesar had found them afflicted or in such pain that only the danger they were in could distract them. The “friends” of Caesar counted it such an honor to soldier with Caesar that no campaign was too arduous and no adversity too wearing.
At the time of the Emperors, in the courts, there was a very select group called the friends of the king, or the friends of the Emperor. At all times they had access to the king: they even had the right to come to his bed chamber at the beginning of the day. He talked to them before he talked to his generals, his rulers, and his statesmen. The friends of the king were those who had the closest and the most intimate connection with him.
Jesus called his disciples “friend,” but the friendship he is offering far exceeds that of Caesar, the Emperors and the kings. Jesus is offering an intimacy with God which not even the greatest and most worthy people knew before he came into the world.
This idea of being the friend of God has a background. Abraham was the friend of God and in The Book of Wisdom, Wisdom is said to make us the friends of God. Moses was also called a Friend of God and Jesus, by calling us “friends” has listed our names with theirs. He has chosen us for that role, that position, that intimacy. Not with some earthly king or Emperor, but with God.
That is a tremendous gift. It means that we do not need to gaze longingly at God from a distance. We are not like those outside of the king’s court who never have access to the one who rules over their lives and we are not like those in a crowd who only glimpse the king as he is passing by on some state occasion.
Rather, as the friends of Jesus, we—like the disciples—are gifted the privilege to enter into the very bed chamber of our God and to speak with him on the most intimate level. As St. Augustine writes, God becomes “more intimate with us than we are to ourselves.”
A writer tells the story of a slave woman living in the south prior to the civil rights: A lady in Charleston met this lady, who was a servant of a neighbour who had died. “I”m sorry to hear of your Aunt Lucy’s death,” she said. “you must miss her greatly. You were such friends.” “Yes’m,” said the servant, “I is sorry she died. But we wasn’t friends.” “Why,” said the lady, “I thought you were. I’ve seen you laughing and talking together lots of times.” “Yes’m. That’s so,” came the reply. “We’ve laughed together, and we’ve talked together, but we is just “quaintances. You see, Miss Ruth, we ain’t never shed no tears. Folks got to cry together before dey is friends.”
Our Lord, our friend is with us in the most joyful of times, but he has also cried with us and for us, just as he wept over Jerusalem and those who would not come to him for his healing touch and forgiving word. He cried at the tomb of Lazarus for Mary and for Martha and for all who were gathered there with him. And He weeps most surely for us and with us today, when we are hurt, lost, or afraid. He knows us so intimately and his every action and word speak of his love for us.
That is part of what makes the gospel such good news. Jesus has walked our walk—and he did it as a friend does it—not simply to show us how things should be done, but to accompany us on our way. To be our companion as well as our guide, our support as well as our teacher.
And he did all this without a word of judgment, except that judgment which a friend makes: the judgment of mercy, and of encouragement, and of gentle correction. Aristotle was onto something when he said, “Friendship seems to lie in the loving rather than in the being loved,” and that is how Jesus expresses his friendship to us, by loving us. As John writes and as we hear in the Eucharistic prayer, “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end”… even after they denied him, betrayed him, left him alone to die. He loved them to the end and his love for you is the same as it was for them.
And everyone says, “Yes, Fr. John. We know. God loves us. If you’ve told us once, you’ve told us a hundred times.” But hear what Brennan Manning says in The Furious Longing of God: “The wild, unrestricted love of God is not simply an inspiring idea. When it imposes itself on mind and heart with the stark reality of ontological truth [that is – truth that has the ability to change who we are], it determines why and at what time you get up in the morning, how you pass your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, and who you hang with; it affects what breaks your heart, what amazes you, and what makes your heart happy.”
I say, “God loves you,” and some respond, “Yes. Yes. I know.” But when you experience God’s love, you are changed—body, soul, and spirit. As St. Augustine said to God, “In loving me, you made me lovable.” In loving me, you changed me. Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Friends love us for who we are. Friends accept the rough edges and quite often look over our faults, but Jesus, when he calls us friend, when he loves us… Scripture says:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The scripture is not saying that the Rocky Mountains are going to be leveled. Instead, it is saying that our crooked ways will be corrected, the valleys and low places in our lives will be filled with the Spirit of God, the mountains and barriers that impede our relationship with God, will be torn down, and the roughness of our existence will be made holy. And all of this is made possible through the love of God if we will allow that life changing truth to enter into our souls.
You are the intimate friends of God. Allow him to fill you with love and his Spirit.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ you called us friends just as your Father called Abraham and Moses friends. Be with us we pray and lead us on the path of righteousness so that we might be made worthy of so great an honor. Help us to not only receive the love you give, but to also return it to you and to share it with others, which is our Christian duty. Blessed Mother, pray for us, so that we may abide in that most blessed Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.