I’ve been plugging away at a series on ‘Friendship’ for quite a while now. I apologise for the pause and for the fact that this is a rather larger chunk of thought than usual. In a previous post, The Lord of His Friends, we discussed the difficult connection between friendship and obedience drawn by Jesus in John 15:14. “You are my friends if you do what I command”.
Jesus conceives of a compatibility between friendship and obedience which challenges the mutuality and equality at the heart of our received conception. Wouldn’t you be unsettled in the face of two ‘friends’, one of whom demanded obedience from the other? My instinctive reaction would be to try and persuade these two that they’ve misunderstood something about how friendship flows.
Faced by this, we can react in a number of ways: first, we could conceivably claim that Jesus has radically departed from and distorted the true meaning of the word ‘friend’ – that obedience is genuinely incompatible with the essential freedom that must obtain between individuals in friendly relation. But this is an unfriendly reading of Jesus’ words, not an interpretation open to anyone who has been washed with his hands.
Secondly, we could accept Jesus’ words as a true statement about friendship, but only inasmuch as it relates to friendship with him. Just as he is always Lord as Servant, and Servant as Lord, he is also, utterly uniquely, Lord/Servant as friend. Just because he is who he is, unlike any other, he is a friend unlike any other. And so, his Lordly friendship, while unquestionably friendship, cannot be the model for thinking about the kind of friendliness which might flow between us. The concept is too far transformed through contact with his person. But then, claiming us as friends, would Jesus leave us to our own devices to figure out what this means? Is he that unfriendly?
There might be a third way. Recognising there’s more than a little truth to the point above, perhaps we can plot our way forward by recognising that, with reference to himself, Jesus does work a variation on our generic understanding of friendship, but not in a way that runs against the grain of the concept. By this I mean that, while Jesus’ is a unique instance of friendship, he is still working within the implications and latencies of the term. Actually, this doesn’t do justice to who Jesus really is. I’d like to go even farther: as the Creative Word, the person through whom the Father brought the world into existence with all its patterns, orders, particulars, and concepts; and as the Creative Word, the original speaker and framer of language, Jesus Christ is the transcendental foundation of friendship. ‘Transcendental’ is a term (given its philosophical meaning by Immanuel Kant) to describe the foundational conditions upon which our experience of something depends, but which are not themselves capable of being directly experienced. For the purposes of our discussion, to claim that Jesus Christ is the ‘transcendental foundation of friendship’ amounts to saying this: we can never be Jesus, or have his relation to the world or his people, but God’s action toward the world in Christ, creating, loving, sustaining, redeeming, is the basis and frame for all our experience, including the experience of friendship. So we can’t rule out Jesus’ words and actions as irrelevant for our discussion of friendship, we also can’t simply make them paradigmatic in a way that ignores his uniqueness. We need to employ an ‘analogical’ method and pay careful attention to the lines of similarity Jesus draws between friendship with him and friendship with each other. We need to let Jesus speak and teach us. And we must also be careful to pay attention to the fact that he speaks throughout the whole biblical canon. Our analogical method is disciplined (analogies have a tendency to become feral) by attending to Jesus’ own usage of the concept, both in his incarnate words and actions, and as the Spirit interprets these words and actions to us through the rest of the Bible.
Before we move on, just to reassure you that I’m not plucking this concept of analogy out of the air, look back at Jesus’ words again:
This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12–14 HCSB)
Do you notice the form of verse 13 (the middle sentence)? It’s very ‘general’ sounding, like a proverb or aphorism. In fact, as a proverbial-type saying, it doesn’t sound entirely unlike a passage in Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics we read, “To a noble man there applies the true saying that he does all things for the sake of his friends… and, if need be, he gives his life for them.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1169a).
Jesus’ little proverb links together his action and attitude toward the disciples with their behaviour toward each other. The proverb crystallises the meaning of the ‘love’ command in verse 12 (‘love like the best kind of friend’). But in doing this, the proverb also extends the meaning of ‘friend-love’ by connecting it with Jesus’ own actions, saying in effect: No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends, as I am doing for you. This is precisely the dramatic rhetorical effect of moving from the general proverb to the emphatic “You are my friends”. These three little verses are an analogical hinge, allowing us to connect Jesus’ friendship toward us with that which flows between us.
Jesus has more to say in this passage, and we must also look out at the wider biblical picture, but in principle, the path forward seems sound. We still need to puzzle out the relation between obedience and mutuality, but we can at least be confident that Jesus teaches us friendship.