Here is a question for you. If you can be God’s, or Jesus’, friend, can he also be your friend? And if you are his friend, and maybe he is your friend, what kind of friendship would that be?
I ask the questions from a pastoral concern (I am a recovering pastor now, not having preached for a couple of weeks, so I am in some kind of withdrawal here). My sense is that too many Christians have conceived of a friendship with God/Jesus that looks like the relationship they have with their BFF, instead of the Almighty God – and this has damaged their Christian walk. Instead of being focussed on obedience and holiness, their concern more often looks like being comfortable and feeling good (which means that things like suffering and sacrifice all too often fly out the window).
Consider this passage from John 15, where Jesus is talking to his disciples during the time of his last supper with them. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”
This is not your normal definition of ‘friendship.’ If I had a ‘friend’ who insisted that we remain on speaking terms only as long as I did what he or she said, I would soon have one fewer friend. Yet for his friends Jesus commands obedience, and for my part I suffer Jesus saying that to me, and seek to remain his friend. I do this because I recognize that he is my Lord, and not (only) my friend.
That leads to my other question – if we can be Jesus’ friends, based on our obedience, can he also be our friend? My own feelings on this are ambivalent.
Think of the passages where Jesus is said to be the friend of sinners. Here is the whole quote: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
Jesus does not deny that he is a friend to sinners, but he does not deny that he is a glutton and a drunkard either. It is as though the accusations are so fantastically false they do not deserve to be answered. We know the latter charge is untrue, but what of the former?
Abraham was said to be the ‘friend of God’ (see 2 Chronicles 20.7), but God was never said to be his friend. Their relationship was what one scholar has called ‘asymmetrical’ – that is, it is uneven, unbalanced. God cannot be a friend to Abraham in the same way Abraham can be a friend to him. I would contend that our relationship with God/Jesus must be seen the same way.
Think of Jesus’ reply to those who said that his biological family was waiting for him: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12.48-50) Again, a proper relationship with Jesus is based on obedience to God’s commands.
Jesus is Lord, and my relationship with him cannot/should not look like my relationship with any of my other friends. So, while I may speak of Jesus as ‘my friend’ in at least one sense (e.g. he has helped me in times of trouble), I need to work to ensure I do not imagine that friendship is something it cannot be.
It is wonderful to feel close to God the Father through our relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I believe it is God’s desire and purpose that we be on intimate terms with him – all he has done through the ages has been to accomplish this end. But if we forget the basis upon which our relationship is built – our proper response to God’s action in Christ – then we are building on a foundation of sand and living a lie. Let us be better than that. Let us be good and true friends of Jesus.