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By the Rev. Dr. John Lewis
Friendship is a central theme throughout the gospel of John, whether it is friendship with God, Jesus, or one another. And, for John, what lies at the heart of friendship is “laying out one’s life” for others to see, so they fully know how and why we do the things we do. In essence, friendship involves the willingness to risk being transparent in our interactions with others, modeling an openness and vulnerability the world seldom values.
We encounter this theme early in the gospel when Jesus tells his disciples:“Very truly, I tell you, the Son is not able to do anything on his own, except what he sees the Father doing. For, whatever things the Father is doing, the Son likewise is doing. The Father befriends [Greek: philei] (note 1) the Son and demonstrates to him all that he himself is doing; and he will demonstrate to him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished” (John 5:19-21).
Thus, the foundation for friendship is the act of God, who demonstrates to Jesus Christ what God is doing in the world through Christ. As Jesus recognizes the power of God at work through him, he, in turn, explains to his own followers what, and why, he is doing the things he does. He invites them also to become his “friends,” appointing them to go and bear abiding fruit in the world (John 15:14-16).
In the Gospel of John, two different Greek verbs (phileō and agapaō) are usually translated the same way: “to love.” By doing this, most translators fail to differentiate the important distinction between “befriending” and “loving” someone. Keeping this distinction clearly in mind is especially important in today’s culture, given our tendency to understand (wrongly) “love” as an emotion rather than a way of acting in the world.
The key passage for understanding the friendship theme in John’s gospel is 15:12-17, where Jesus says to his disciples:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay out [Greek: tithēmi] (note 2) one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do the things I command you to do. I no longer call you servants, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you. These things I command you so that you might love one another.”
Thus, transparency – laying out one’s life for others – lies at the heart of friendship. It is grounded in the action of God, who demonstrates to Jesus all that God is doing.
Jesus reminds us of his complete transparency when, after his arrest, he responds to a question of the high priest about his teaching:
“I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20).
This is the kind of transparency that Jesus invites from us. And it comes with a promise: those who “befriend” Jesus by following his commandments and loving one another, are in turn “befriended” by God (John 16:27).
The Rev. Dr. John Lewis is co-director, with the Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson, of The Work+Shop in San Antonio. Lewis and Patterson are also both assisting priests at St. Mark’s, San Antonio. Reach John Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(note 1) Whenever scripture is quoted, I am using my own English translations of the original Greek text.
(note 2) The Greek verb translated here as “laying out” one’s life is almost always translated as “laying down” one’s life. That translation is shaded by Jesus’ death on the cross. Using this translation that emphasizes death in every place the verb is used is unwarranted. The Greek verb tithēmi simply means “to put” or “to place.” This can include, for instance, setting something in front of others (“laying out” one’s life) or setting an item down on a table (“laying down” one’s life).
This article is fromn the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
For your personal reflection:
- What does friendship with God, Christ, and one another mean for our own daily lives and for life in our congregations?
- How might we better “lay out” our own lives for our friends as a model of faithful Christian living?
- Can you name a recent time when you saw someone else “lay out” his or her life as a model and you recognized the action as something that Jesus does?
- How might a new understanding of the friendship motif in John’s gospel alter your view of your own ministry in daily life, whether at home or work?
- How might you best embody Jesus’ teaching on friendship and transparency as a spiritual leader of the congregation?
- Can you imagine a situation in which transparency would be unwise? What do you think Jesus calls you to do in such a case?