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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

Who Is My Friend?

Updated: May 7

The Rev. Sara Warfield

Scripture: John 15:9-17

In today’s gospel, I am drawn to the way Jesus connects joy to love. Now “joy” and “love” are words we tend to bandy about without really having a firm understanding of what they mean. Love tends to be a “you know it when you feel it” kind of thing. When you fall in love, there’s that fluttering excitement in your chest. When you have a child, which I have not but I’ve heard that some sort of new depth of feeling and commitment opens up in the parents. So is love fluttering? depth? commitment? Yes. But we’ll get back to that.

With joy, we tend to conflate it with happiness, though I don’t think they’re the same thing. If you love chocolate, it might make you happy when you eat it, but does it really give you joy the same way your child’s laughter gives you joy, the way a beautiful sunset gives you joy, the way your dog snuggling up to you gives you joy?

Sidebar: Does one really love chocolate if the meaning of love is fluttering? depth? commitment? As one of the biblical commentaries says, “theologians are people who watch their language in the presence of God.” And I think all faithful Christians are theologians to one extent or another.

Which is to say, Jesus is telling us in today’s gospel that love and joy are not exactly what we think they are. Actually, Jesus defines love quite specifically: “No one has greater love than this,” he says. “To lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I would venture to say that we’ve all experienced this kind of love in some way. Perhaps we wouldn’t think twice about jumping in front of a bus to push our child out of the way. If our partner’s life was threatened, we’d figure out a way to change places with them, to put ourselves at risk and bring them back to safety. Or perhaps we’ve been that child or partner who knows we are loved in such a deep and powerful way. Hopefully we’ve known both sides.

But Jesus here is talking to his disciples, not his child, not his partner. “You are my friends,” he says. When you get down to it, friendship is above all a habit of love. There is no formal tie of DNA or legal adoption or vows of commitment between friends. Which is not to say that your children or partner aren’t also your friends, but you only have to choose them once. Your children are legally connected to and dependent on you. And most committed partnerships are formalized through either a very serious and intentional conversation or formal wedding vows. The “I choose you” becomes assumed, implicit.

Friends are people you choose to choose over and over and over again. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for not only the people you are formally committed to, but for those people for whom the connection must be chosen day after day.”

Which means love is not always easy. For two reasons: one, love is the commitment to lay down one’s life. That’s going to be hard for any of us. Two, to determine what love means, we must determine what “friend” means.

The Greek word for “friend” in this scripture is philos, with philia meaning friendship. Some scholars argue that the words philia and agape are essentially interchangeable. Agape means the kind of love in contrast to eros, which is romantic love. Agape is a deeper love—more selfless, less dependent on emotion. So, these scholars argue, when Jesus says philos, or friend, he means someone who is close, beloved in a deep and selfless sense.

Others, though, argue for a more casual interpretation of philos. My Oxford Annotated Bible tells me philos, or friend, “expresses the polite relationship of clients and patron. Pilate is a ‘friend’ of Caesar, his patron, not an intimate.”

Taken in this sense, we can hear Jesus telling us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for your boss, your employees, your coworkers, the plumber, the people who change the oil in your car.”

But what if these two interpretations aren’t in competition with one another? What if by friend, Jesus means that, yes, the relationship is defined by selflessness and depth, but not only for those we consider close, but for all who come into our lives, in whatever kind of way?

What if you’re on the phone with a man from India who’s on the other end of that customer service call you made for an issue you’re having with your cell phone bill, and what if you spoke to him like you had the kind of love for him that would make you willing to lay down your life?

I know, it’s a stretch. But that just might be what Jesus is asking us to do.

Do you know what’s even worse than waiting on hold for 25 minutes only to be transferred to a staticky connection with someone on the other side of the world? Being betrayed by someone you’re actually close to, someone who claims to love you, mere hours after promising they would never do such a thing.

Betrayal might be one of the worst feelings we can experience, especially when someone we adore betrays us. Suddenly, that trust we always took for granted evaporates. Suddenly, the world feels less safe.

Jesus was betrayed many times. By Judas, by Peter—his own disciples, the people he spent the most time with, the people who knew him better than anyone.

And yet, he lays down his life for them. “You did not choose me but I chose you.” What if we choose to treat others with care and dignity even when they choose not to do the same for us?

That, Jesus teaches us through both his words and actions, is what love means.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Joy, he says, is found in the active practice of love.

We know that love isn’t always easy. Maybe when we really start practicing love the way Jesus taught us, it’s often not easy. But, Jesus tells us, practicing love is where joy comes from.

Have you ever had that experience where something shifts because of an unexpected expression of care or vulnerability? Perhaps you’re talking to that man in India. You’re frustrated, on the edge of anger, because you don’t understand a charge for data on your bill. You raise your voice. The man gets quieter as he responds with the scripts his company has given him. Finally, you yell into the phone, “can you give me any information at all?” You hear him sigh. Then he says quietly, almost sadly, but very sincerely, “I wish I could. I really want to help you, truly, but they don’t give me much information. I’m doing the best I can.”

Something in you thaws. You feel embarrassed that you were yelling at him. Suddenly, you want to reach out to this man. “I’m sorry,” you say. “I’m just frustrated.”

You can hear the exhaustion in the man’s voice. “So am I. I’m sorry, and I’m frustrated.”

Suddenly you’re in a conversation with him. You learn that it’s 1 in the morning where he is, and it’s his daughter’s birthday tomorrow. He hopes he won’t be too tired for the party.

When you hang up, your data issue has not been solved because this man can’t solve it. His company doesn’t give him what he needs to help you. But you feel a sense of connection, of joy. You’ve never met an Indian before, and this man seemed really nice.

Maybe you don’t lay down your life for this man, but you lay down needing answers, needing a resolution, in order to show him love. And it changes something in you. In fact, it brings you joy. And it probably brings him joy, too.

You treated him like a friend.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are a lot of ways to lay down your life that do not require physically dying, thank God. And there are a lot more people out there than you know who are waiting for your friendship. Which means there’s a lot of joy to be had in this world.


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