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Friends and The Friend


John 15:1-16       2nd John 12        Proverbs 18:24



[1]         Not so long ago a woman asked me what I have been doing for the 37 years of my ministry or what I have aimed at doing.  I told her I have wanted, above all else, to probe intimacy for myself and to foster intimacy in others; that is, intimacy with God as well as intimacy with other people. This isn’t to say I’ve spent 37 years in “touchy-feely” mindlessness.   But it is to say that however cerebral I may appear, the purpose of my cerebralism is never to leave hearers behind, let alone show off.   My purpose is always to enlarge understanding so as to increase intimacy. The more God is understood, the more he can be loved; the more he is loved, the more he can be understood – whereupon understanding and intimacy interpenetrate each other and spiral up together, always taking us deeper into the heart of God. As much can be said for our life with each other.

All my life I’ve craved intimacy.   But I haven’t craved it in vain, for I’ve never lacked it.  To say I’ve never lacked it, however, doesn’t preclude my craving it still, for when our desire for intimacy is met we are satisfied, to be sure, yet never satiated.   We are profoundly satisfied, but never surfeited.  Years ago my old friend, Ronald Ward (Anglican clergyman, superb Greek scholar, and a man whose godliness is both my despair and my hope) pointed out to me that the apostle Paul longed for even greater intimacy with his Lord just because his life in Christ was already indescribably rich.


[2]         Shortly before his death our Lord took his closest followers aside and told them, “No longer do I call you servants, for servants don’t know what their master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) The customary Greek word for “servant” is diakonos.         In the text just quoted, however, the word is doulos.   Strictly speaking it means “slave.”   “No longer do I call you servant-slaves, for slaves are never taken into their owner’s confidence.”   Slaves, we know, merely do what they are told to do, without knowing why they have to do it or to what end.   A servant-slave is merely a witless tool.

Not so with a friend. Our friend (as opposed to mere acquaintance) is someone with whom we share mind and heart. In the upper room, on the eve of his death, Jesus made known to the disciples what he knew of his Father. Earlier in his ministry he had cried out, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal the Father.   Come to me, all who labour and are heavy-laden…and I will give you rest, restoration.” In the upper room the disciples, however labouring and heavy-laden to date, were shortly going to know a much greater labouring and load.   And in the upper room Jesus rendered them his friends. Their new level of intimacy with him admitted them to a new knowledge of and engagement with the Father. This, of course, would sustain them in the difficult days ahead, and more than sustain them; it would be the occasion of their restoration.


[3]         Since Jesus Christ is God incarnate, to be his friend is to be “friend of God.”   In the older testament there are two men who are specifically named “friend of God”, Abraham and Moses.

[a]         Abraham is the foreparent of all believers, the foreparent of all who put their trust in God. Their trust? How much trust?   At the call of God Abraham left old securities and familiarities behind and ventured forth to the land to which God had appointed him.  Abraham ventured everything on God, living in what could only strike onlookers as utmost insecurity, insecurity so utterly radical as to be utterly ridiculous. At the call of God Abraham went forth knowing nothing of his future except that his future held the God who had called him, had made a promise to him and had insisted that he would be Abraham’s unfailing friend as Abraham was now his.

Was Abraham’s trust tested?    Many times, but never tested as it was the day the voice said to him, “Take your son, your only son….” You know the rest of the story, my favourite in the entire Hebrew bible.  At the end, Abraham’s trust in God remained iron-fast even when the ground of that trust seemed to have disappeared.         Abraham’s trust remained iron-fast even when the reason for his trust was undiscernible. Abraham’s trust remained iron-fast even when his obedience to the command of God (to sacrifice Isaac) undercut the promise of God (Isaac’s descendants would be as numberless as the sands of the seashore).   Abraham’s trust remained iron-fast when, from a human perspective, there was no resolution of the contradiction. Abraham’s trust got him through anguish and incomprehension, got him through to the exclamation, only days later but no doubt aeons later to him, “Yahweh Yireh”, “the Lord will provide.”

[b]           Moses too is named “friend of God.”   Moses is the transmitter of the Torah, that “way” which gives shape and structure, integrity and identity to the obedience of God’s people. While shallow Christians misunderstand Torah as promoting legalism, the truth is that obedience rendered Torah is obedience the believer renders the person of the living God through the vehicle of the Torah.  We must always remember that when Jesus tells his disciples in the upper room that they are henceforth his friends, he adds, “if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14)

Just as shallow Christians misunderstand Torah as promoting legalism when in fact it promotes righteousness, so they misunderstand Torah as promoting servitude when it promotes freedom.   In fact, just because Torah claims Israel ’s obedience, it yields freedom. The mediaeval rabbis used to say, “When Torah entered the world, freedom entered the world.” Of course. To obey God is to be spared the servitude of sin; to obey God is to be freed to live in accord with our true nature; namely, as children of God. Didn’t Jesus, Torah Incarnate, say, “Those whom the Son sets free are free indeed”? (John 8:36)


[4]         Like Abraham and Moses of old, like the disciples of Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry, we too are summoned to be “friend of God.” As soon as people in the era of our Lord’s public ministry heard “friend” three vivid pictures flashed in their imagination.

[a]         The first had to do with “friend of the king.”   In the courts of oriental kings “friends of the king” had access to the king at all times. “Friends of the king” were admitted to the king’s bedroom even at daybreak.  In other words the king spoke with his “friends” before he began the day’s work, before he probed the day’s perplexities, before he troubled himself with all the trying things that trouble any ruler. The king gave his friends access to him before he spoke with generals about military campaigns, or spoke with statesmen about domestic strife, or spoke with ambassadors about foreign nations.

When Christ the king told his disciples that henceforth he would deem them “friends”, he was telling them that from this moment they would be granted an access to him and would know an intimacy with him that most profoundly identified their relationship with him before they went out to contend in his name with problems and perplexities, principalities and powers. To be Christ’s friend doesn’t mean merely that he makes us privy to the reason for the work he wants us to do (the slave, remember, doesn’t know the reason for anything); to be Christ’s friend means he grants us access to him and intimacy with him before we are conscripted to do anything. Intimacy with a friend, after all, is an end in itself.  It’s not a means to getting something done.  The fusion of two friends and their unimpeded interpenetration of each other is so very glorious as to need no justification beyond itself.

[b]           “Friend” had yet another meaning in the ancient world.  “Friends of Caesar” were soldiers who had proven themselves undeflectably loyal. And how had they proven themselves loyal? They had remained steadfast throughout assaults, hardship, suffering.  They hadn’t deserted or revolted or sought another leader or even complained when battle campaigns with Caesar had found them afflicted, had even found them in such pain that only the danger they were in could distract them. The “friends” of Caesar counted it such an honour to soldier with Caesar that no campaign was too arduous and no adversity too wearing.

However put off church people may be today by military images, the fact is there are many references to them in scripture, including Paul’s advice to Timothy, “Put up with your share of hardship in Christ’s army.” (2 Timothy 2: 3) (JBP)

[c]           In Jewish circles “friend” had a third meaning.  A man’s “friend” was the best man at his wedding.  Plainly the best man is intimate with the groom.   But not intimate only; the best man assists the groom and is a witness on the groom’s behalf.

Now here the imagery borrowed from weddings becomes somewhat complicated. Scripture speaks of the church as the bride of Christ.  We must understand, of course, that it’s the church collectively that is “bride of Christ.”         Individual Christians, on the other hand, are declared to be Christ’s “friend” or his “best man”.   Collectively, all Christians of both genders constitute Christ’s bride; individually, all Christians of either gender are his “best man.” Each one of us is invited and appointed to assist him in his work and bear witness to him in his truth.

Does our Lord need our assistance?   Either his friends do what he insists needs to be done on earth or it doesn’t get done at all. (Remember Augustine: “Without him we cannot; without us he will not.”)  As for bearing witness to the truth, we should all be aware by now that the vocation of witness looms so very large in scripture just because, at the end of the day, we can and ever must bear witness to the truth when we have long been unable to argue people into the truth.


[5]         At the beginning of the sermon I said that for 37 years I have been concerned with fostering intimacy with God and intimacy with our fellows as well. I’m convinced that intimacy with our fellows is as rare as intimacy with God. What passes too often for human friendship is unreal. What passes for friendship is a compound of superficial camaraderie and companionship of convenience, plus subtle exploitation of usefulness.  What passes for friendship should be but too often isn’t a meeting with another person so deep that all attempts at controlling are foresworn and all attempts at profiting are renounced.

Genuine friendship is meeting someone where the person (not merely the appearance or the usefulness) of the other becomes known. And what is it to know another person? Here I must mention once more the Jewish thinker I’ve mentioned many times from this pulpit, Martin Buber. Reflecting the logic of scripture Buber correctly expounds, “What we know of another person is the difference that person has made to us, the alteration which that person has effected in us.”   What I know of my friend is simply the change that has occurred in me in the course of the relationship. [What I know of you is the difference that meeting you has made in me. What you know of me is the difference that meeting me has made in you.]

With respect to our human friendships I’ve long recognised the need for physical proximity. I’ve long been moved at the conclusion of two of the shortest books of the bible, John’s 2nd and 3rd epistles. He says, “Though I have much to write you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” There is simply no substitute for seeing others face to face.  No paper trail, no fax, no telephone call, no e-mail comes close to seeing each other face to face.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer first drew my attention to the concluding verses of 2nd and 3rd John.  In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer pointed out that Christians find immense joy in each other’s physical presence.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together during his time as leader in an underground seminary in Finkenwalde. The Nazis were in power throughout Germany . The gospel had been sabotaged in the national church, the state church. There were 18,000 pastors in the national church; there were only a few score in the confessing church. The confessing church was struggling to find pastors whom it could trust to announce the gospel of Jesus Christ instead of a religionised version of the ascendant ideology. The confessing church became smaller every day as the penalties for supporting it increased. He prepared pastors for the confessing church when those pastors knew they faced betrayal and arrest and horrors they couldn’t imagine.  And in this context Bonhoeffer insisted that the physical presence of fellow-Christians brings a joy that can’t be brought any other way.

Nothing in my life comes close to the trials of a pastor in the confessing church in Nazi Germany. Nonetheless there have been developments in my life, including my life as a minister of the church, when I have needed to see a friend face to face as I needed nothing else. And in the providence of God, such a friend has been available.

When I say I have spent years probing intimacy I wouldn’t want anyone to think it’s risk free. To be sure, it’s risk free with respect to God, but not with respect to the human “other.” Yes, I have been blessed beyond telling in my friends.  I have also had friends with whom I had been so deep and had forged such a bond that I assumed the friendship would remain as resilient as spring steel; I have had such friends disappear on me in a way that I can’t understand yet and now know that I never shall.  Painful as it is, and no less painful for being ununderstandable, I’m not crushed by it. For he who does all things well has not only never left me without his comfort and consolation; he has also never left me without that human comfort and consolation whose arms are the vehicle of the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27) In it all I have never wavered in my conviction: Martin Buber was both correct and profound when he wrote fifty years ago, “All real living is meeting.”


Let’s gather together all that I’ve attempted to say this morning: By God’s grace and the faith his grace has wrought in us:

We’ve been admitted to the innermost mind and heart of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

We are one with Abraham in that we venture all on God; one with Moses in that we rejoice to obey him who has redeemed us.

We have access to the king of kings at all times and in all circumstances.

We aspire to be found undeflectably loyal.

Our Lord has honoured us by naming us “best man” (“woman”) as he calls us to assist him in
his work and bear witness to him in his truth.

It all adds up to joy in the master and love for each other.  (John 15:1-16) For while we are

blessed with friends and aspire to be friends, he is that friend who will ever stick closer than one’s nearest kin. (Proverbs 18:24)


                                                                                           Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                    

 July 2007