In our culture we use the word “friend” loosely. I have considered many people I work with friends, but the strange thing is that when they move on there was nothing besides work to keep us connected. I actually joke about this with my golf friends, some I see several times a month. With a few exceptions we know very little about each other besides golf. When the golf part goes away, the “friend” goes away. Adding to the confusion is the proliferation of Facebook “friends.”

It is actually quite key that we get our terms straight – we are told that God referred to Abraham as “my friend” (Exodus 41:8) and that God spoke to Moses as “as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11). Now Jesus, in the last hours of his life, tells his disciples in today’s gospel “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” Today’s liturgy asks us to ponder the mystery of friendship with God, and, as a result, a posture of friendship toward the world.

Friendship According to Jesus

We are indebted to the biblical theologian Sandra Schneider for helping us see what Jesus means by friendship. Just prior to this statement about being friends is the foot washing scene. Sandra explains the issue at the foot washing was “friendship” vs “status,” and perhaps it took a women’s perspective to see how radical Jesus’ symbol really was.

In the dangerous and unpredictable world of the gospels, strict rules about honor and status brought some order to things. Some people, like Jesus, where superior by design and were entitled to receive service in the natural order of things. Others, like women and slaves, were obligated to provide service in the natural order of things. Some people washed feet and some people got theirs washed. Nobody made a fuss. This was just the way things were.
By washing feet as a symbol of His ministry Jesus is acting out what he had been saying all along. He is dismantling the “status” system. In Jesus’ society nobody is owed anything. Nobody’s status entitles them to anything. Service is a free gift among equals. Service is given without creating an obligation the way real friends serve each other. Jesus was not promoting humility when he started washing feet that day – he was creating a community of friends.

Ron Rolheiser tells a cute story that illustrates friendship like this: there is a six year old boy who has a ritual every night to say prayers with his mother before bed. Every night they would pray for mommy and daddy, grandparents and friends. One night the boy hopped into bed without the ritual and his mother asked what was going on. The boy replied, “my teacher said I should I should be with God the way I am with a friend, and I do not have anything to say right now.” There is a freedom in friendship.

Reimagining God?

So what does this insight about friendship say about God. “God, can I really be your friend?” If the answer really is yes, we may have to reimagine the metaphors we use for God. Most of us carry with us metaphors about God that are not about mutual love. A friend does not coerce. You will not befriend someone you fear. A friend does not say “believe in me or else.” A friend does not want to control my life. A friend understands me.
Even more startling, true friendship changes us. I suggest to you that it is impossible to be in a mutual, loving friendship and not be changed. Nothing changes our biases on race like a mutual friend of another race. Many attribute the evolution in their thinking on sexual orientation to a friendship with a real person who was gay or lesbian. Is it taking it too far to suggest that our friendship changes God? How can it not be so, when God is Love?

One of my favorite authors, Sr. Joan Chittister, tells us about an evolving God in her famous article “A God Who Beckons.” (NCR, 8/2009). It is an article worth rereading on a regular basis because of the clear picture it provides that Love must evolve. What is exciting about friendship with God is that under this metaphor our lives really matter! Our intentions, our prayers, our dreams, our actions affect a vulnerable God and shape a creation that is ongoing. Joan claims “an evolving God is big enough to believe in.”

At the end of the day metaphors only change us if they come true in our experience. There is a famous hymn called “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” based on a poem written around 1850 by Joseph Scriven. He was engaged to be married twice, once in England and once later in Canada, and both times his fiancé died tragically shortly before the wedding. He spent his life in generous ministry as a single man. One verse goes like this:

“Have we troubles and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged – take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Friendship in action is “sharing sorrows.” I ask you to imagine a time when, in the midst of your sorrows, a friend was there that shared your sorrows. We are asked to believe tonight, and we turn to a God in prayer tonight, that shares our sorrows like a friend.

“God, can I be your friend?” Let’s be a community of friends and help each other open our minds and hearts to a God that says “Yes.”

George von Stamwitz

Sts. Clare & Francis Ecumenical Catholic Community
Liturgy for the 6th Sunday of Easter
Saturday evening, May 9, 2015
Focus text – John 15:9-17 (“I call you friends.”)

Photo by Trina Alexander on flickr.com