May 10, 2015 – I Call You Friends
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One of the great joys of growing up, and one of the very greatest joys of watching our children grow up, is that our relationship grows and changes, from the relationship of parent and child, to the relationship of one friend with another. It’s never quite perfect – some parents have a harder time than others letting go of that feeling that they are still responsible for the vast majority of their children’s lives, even when those “children” have children of their own. Some parents never quite set their children free of the burdens of guilt or fear or unworthiness, so that their children are hindered from growing up fully into themselves as adults. And I don’t imagine that there many parents, if there are any at all, who ever grow up enough to stop worrying about their children, no matter how old they are.
But with all the human imperfection that certainly exists in every one of our families – because if there has ever been a family that is not dysfunctional in some way, I never heard about it – even so, it is a wonderful thing to reach that point in your own life as the child of your mother or father, or in the life of your own child, when you realize that now you are friends, now you able to see one another as equals. Physically, you have grown up to look at one another eye to eye, face to face – unless you are very short like me and have to look UP to all your kids. But the important thing is that you have grown up enough to speak to one another heart to heart, no longer having to hold back your hopes and fears, or your wild imaginings, but sharing them as equals, giving and receiving in confidence. And you have grown into the joy of working alongside one another, not as one person training or guiding another, but really side by side, working with a common purpose, each lending their strength to the other. On this Mother’s Day I am so thankful for the many hours I had with my Mom, even when we were just working together at normal daily stuff like preparing meals and washing dishes together – I think maybe especially those times.
With our human parents, that moment of maturity sometimes comes with the shocking revelation that your mother or your father is a plain old human being, neither as bad nor as perfect as perhaps you thought they were. I think ideally we learned to have compassion for the sorrows and weaknesses of our parents when we grew up, as we hope our children have learned to have compassion on us for all of our failures as parents and just our struggles as people trying to live our lives as best we can. For all of us, growing into our adult relationship with our parents calls for a willingness to forgive, and to be forgiven. Without forgiveness no friendship between any two people is ever possible, and all the more so in the intimate, 24/7 relationship of parent and child, where it is inevitable that we hurt and betray one another at some time – and probably many, many times.
Imagine, though, the infinitely greater joy of growing up into a mature friendship with a perfect parent: one in whom you have always been able to place complete trust, one who has never failed to be there for you, one whose love you have never had cause to doubt, one of whom you would be terrified because they are so strong and so powerful and so absolutely and entirely and perfectly good – except that they are yours, and you are their own beloved child whom they love more than their own life, so that you can’t be afraid, only in awe of their wonderfulness.
And now that you are a grown man, or a grown woman, you don’t only sit at his feet – though you still love to sit at his feet and you always will – but now, to your wonder and surprise and delight he invites you to stand before him eye to eye, toe to toe, person to person. You speak with him face to face, and he opens his heart to you. He shares his most intimate desires, his grand plans; but he listens to you, too, as you pour out your hopes and fears and ideas to him. And now he asks you to work with him – he invites you to help him, to work alongside him, even to be his representative, his ambassador in his most urgent matters.
Only you don’t have to imagine all that, because it is reality. You are the child of that perfect Father. You are the one standing face to face with the Almighty God, speaking with him heart to heart, working alongside him, shoulder to shoulder. That’s you. That’s me. “The greatest love in the world is to lay down your life for your friends,” Jesus said to his disciples, “and you are my friends.” Jesus was saying a lot in those few words. He was telling them, once again, that he was going to give up his life, willingly, for their sake. But he was also telling them, “You aren’t just servants to me; I consider you my friends.”
“You are my friends,” Jesus continued, “if you do what I command you.” And that’s where I want to read this very carefully, because we can revert right back into our scared and insecure childhood with those words. It is possible, if we read those words out of context, to think that Jesus is telling us that our friendship with him depends entirely on us toeing the line. If we dot all our i’s and cross all our t’s and steer clear of all those things that God doesn’t approve of, then, Jesus says, then, you are good enough to be my friends.
But that only makes sense if you take it out of context, because that is not what Jesus is saying at all. First of all, the commandment of Jesus Christ is not and never was a matter of rules and regs. His commandment is the one great standard for living: that we are to love one another, the same way he loves us, the same way the Father loves the Son. We are his friends as we live in, as we act out, the very love that was given to us at our adoption. Because second, the word that is translated “if” doesn’t just mean “if” in a mathematical logic sort of way: if this, then this. It also means “when”. You demonstrate that you are my friends when you show love to one another. In another place, Jesus said that same thing: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What he is saying is that love is the defining characteristic of our family; it is the family resemblance, like a really nice nose, or red hair, or long legs. The people of Christ are known by their love. In the flesh, and over the centuries, we Christians have been a varied and imperfect and unpredictable and sometimes foolish lot, but everything that is uniquely Christian is embodied in love – compassion, forgiveness, grace, mercy. Those are the hallmarks of the friends of Jesus Christ. Followers of the other great religions of the world – Judaism and Hinduism and Islam – are known by their wisdom or their serenity or their devotion or their morality, and those good qualities are true bits and pieces of the image of God, who is all-good and all-peaceful and all-wise.
But when God put on skin and walked among us so we could see him for who he really was, it was love that turned out to be the over-arching quality that defined his kingdom, and that marked his children – the children he raised up to share in the work of his kingdom. It was love – love that sometimes looks like foolishness, love that sometimes looks like weakness, love that sometimes looks like grief – that marks us as his friends. Jesus said, “The world will persecute you and hate you and say all manner of things about you on account of me; but they will recognize you as my disciples by the love you have for one another.”
We can be absolutely sure that our friendship with God isn’t a transitory, conditional thing, that depends on our perfect obedience or else we’re out in the cold – and a very good thing that is, too, or we would be unfriended by Jesus Christ several times a day, as if we just had a very bad facebook relationship. We can be sure that’s true because our relationship with Jesus didn’t begin with us in the first place. We are children of the Father through our relationship with Jesus and it is he, Jesus, not we, who initiated the whole thing. “You didn’t choose me,” Jesus told us, “no, I chose you. This friendship is my idea. I wanted you.” We don’t have to be afraid of losing the Father’s love, or his friendship, ever. We don’t have to be afraid of not being good enough. We don’t have to be afraid. “There is no fear in love,” John tells us, “because fear is all about punishment, not love.” And Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn us; he came because he loved us. He came to bring us home.
But just as important as not being fearful of being rejected or found wanting, is to take seriously how much Jesus wants us to live out the love he gives to us. Even our human parents – at least any parent who loves their child at all – would never disown us because we behaved in a way they disapproved of, even a way they truly hated. Our children are always our children, we always love them. But it is our deepest desire to see them grow up to full maturity, and to become completely the men and women they were created to be. Just about the most painful thing a parent can suffer is to see their child living in a way that is harming them, that is stopping them from growing into their full maturity, physically or emotionally or spiritually.
I don’t care if my children become millionaires or impress people or get famous for doing great things; I just want my children to be whole and happy and completely themselves. I want them to love one another and to treat their fellow human beings with compassion and mercy and grace, because that is how we become whole people. I want that for them because they are my children, and also because they are my best friends. And that is, I think, a reflection – even if it is a very imperfect one – of the Father’s perfect love for every one of us, the Father who adopted us in love, and redeemed us with the great love of his Son, the Father who is growing us up to our full maturity by his Spirit, and who calls us to be his friends and co-laborers, restoring his creation side by side with him, through the power of love.