One of the topics that has come up, related to our Rule of Life, is the idea of cultivating friendship with Jesus through spiritual practice. Our seminarian, Megan Allen, took a deep dive into what the Gospel of John says about friendship and wrote this piece to share with the Incarnation community. Thank you, Megan, for your thoughtful reflection and scholarship. – Brin
A couple of weeks ago some of my classmates put together a contemplative evening prayer service that focused on the foot washing story found in John 13:1-17. They led us through an Ignatian style meditation that helps you to imagine that you are right in the middle of what is happening – paying close attention to the kinds of things you hear, smell, and see as the story unfolds around you. As I sat in the stillness of the space between readers, imagining myself in the story, I found myself absorbed by the words “love” and “friendship,” which we had just studied while exploring the Gospel of John in our Bible course at the seminary. I thought to myself, “I love Jesus, but would I call myself a friend of Jesus?” Before I had a chance to probe the dark crevasses of my mind, the next reader began, and the service continued. But this question has yet to leave me, what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?
New Testament scholar Gail O’Day reminds us that “[f]riendship is a socially embedded phenomenon, and as the social fabric of a culture shifts, so does the understanding of the role and place of friendship in society.” Today, the term friendship tends to be used arbitrarily, to denote affection. But for people living in the first century, friendship was serious business. The “language of friendship provided language for talking about the construction of a [particular] community of like-minded people informed by a particular set of teachings.” For the community that John’s gospel was written for, known as the Johannine community, friendship was understood through Hellenistic moral philosophy that was informed and actualized in the life and death of Jesus.
John’s Gospel gives love of friendship a central place in 15:12-14: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (vv.12-14). These three verses pack a pretty big punch when it comes to understanding friendship for the Johannine community. When Jesus speaks “to lay down one’s life,” it is typically associated with his death. A closer look at the Greek shows us that the phrase “to lay down” can also be read as, “to be open” or “to open one’s self” – like an open book on a table. And the Greek word psuchē, often translated as life, shows something a little different too. Psuchē can also be translated as inner life or soul. But what does it mean “to open one’s soul” for their friends?
Throughout the gospel, Jesus shows his disciples that “opening one’s soul” is the ultimate embodiment of friendship. Jesus essentially is telling his disciples that the greatest love, the kind of love he embodied, brings its whole self to relationships, both with others and God. When I think about this kind of Johannine love and our community, I think about the sharing of our spiritual autobiographies. When we each intentionally, despite the risk, “open our souls” to each other. A simple way to think about who is a friend in the Gospel of John is to think of the statement, “I value what you value.” This reminds me so much of Incarnation’s commitment to our shared values of God’s goodness, deep connection, sacramental community, spiritual growth, and creativity. When Jesus calls his disciples friends, he is inviting them into an intimate relationship with the Divine through the embodiment of shared values – “if you value what I value” you will do what I command you” (v.14).
Throughout the gospel Jesus embodies his own teachings in a way that goes beyond philosophical moral possibility to an actual incarnated reality through his life and death. He lives boldly and speaks frankly both in public and in private, to his disciples and to those who challenge him, regardless of the risk. To be a friend of Jesus is to value what he values and to bring our full selves to our relationships and to God. I see this embodied love of friendship in our community at the Church of the Incarnation. And, with God’s help and faithful friends, we will all continue to grow in our friendship with Jesus.