Jesus turns to the men sharing his table, who have shared his life and been washed by his hands, and calls them ‘friends’. But what kind of friendship is it?
“You are My friends if you do what I command you.”
That sounds like a remarkably conditional form of friendship. The phrase is jarring, almost embarrassing, as though Jesus at this intimate moment reveals an ultimate egocentricity. Does he not actually understand friendship: that it cannot be commanded or conditioned like this?
Of course there a many different ways in which a condition can function. If we heard these words on the lips of a human political manipulator, they would sound like a threat. But when spoken by Jesus they are transformed by his story and his prior action. His command is that they love each other, as I have loved you, i.e., wrapped in a rough towel and not afraid to touch another’s toes; not afraid to travel into the jaws of danger for Lazarus; and as the disciples are beginning to dimly understand, soon to be seen naked against the grain of the Cross. The content of this command is certainly not incompatible with the love that friends bear.
Our problem then, seems to revolve around the intrusion of this notion of ‘commanding’ upon our concept of friendship. We must quickly despatch the idea, however, that the disciples become Jesus’ friends through obedience to his command. The context makes perfectly clear that this conditionality relates to a friendship already initiated and named by him. Rank, calculated disobedience to Jesus is unquestionably incompatible with claiming his friendship, but just because obedience is a necessary condition doesn’t mean it’s sufficient. It seems more likely that we should regard this as an ‘evidential’ condition, a way for us to verify someone’s claim to friendship with Jesus, rather than a ‘generative’ condition: one that makes the claim true.
And this is so because Jesus is always Lord of his friends, even while washing their feet, or laying down his life. Perhaps to our increasing embarrassment, he goes on in verse 16 to say, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” Friendship with Jesus does not come through the satisfaction of a condition, but only through his own initiation: his ‘electing’.