Jesus’ Privileged Friends

Seemingly innocuous words spoken by Jesus carry a weight of meaning.

Bible text: John 15:13-15

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. I do not call you servants any longer, 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.

Chapters 13-17 in the Gospel of John record the farewell discourse Jesus has with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. Many teachers and commentators on the spiritual life have turned to these chapters because they are a rich source book on the nature of the Christian life. One finds many weighty things said in them.

So when in chapter 15 Jesus says that he calls his disciples his friends, it is easy to let the words slip by without recognizing that they are weighty words, too.

That’s because we in modern America do not value friendship as much as the ancients did. We may have many friends, especially on Facebook. We may like them, and in some cases even love them deeply.

But we don’t tend to think of friendship as the highest form of human relationship. Instead we tend to give that honor to marriage. We expect to find our greatest intimacy in marriage, especially in its sexual aspect. If not in marriage, then we are likely to look for it in the relationship between parent and child.

Marriage, however, did not hold such a high status in the minds of the ancient world. It certainly did not represent a relationship of equality and free choice. Most marriages in the Jewish and in the Gentile world were arranged. The marriage partners had little say in who their marriage partner might be.

Also ancient societies regarded the wife as the inferior partner in the marriage. She was not the equal of her husband either in status or power. Marriage was hierarchal.

Friendship, on the other hand, was a very different type of human relationship. First of all, it involved a freedom of choice. Friends chose each other to be friends. If you were compelled to be someone’s friend, it was not likely that you would call the relationship true friendship.

In a friendship, too, you might come from different social classes, but in a friendship, the interaction was an equal exchange between emotional equals.

For both of these reasons, the ancients tended to regard friendship as the highest type of human relationship. It afforded the opportunity for the greatest emotional intimacy between the two or more human beings.

This carried over into the political realm. Hellenistic kings often had a circle of close associates around them known as the King’s Friends. They represented a very high honor a king might confer upon an associate to enlist him within that privileged circle. Kings might manipulate the conferring of this honor for political purposes, but still to be enlisted among the King’s Friends was to have risen to a very high status.

So when Jesus in John 15 says to his disciples that he no longer calls them servants, but friends, we need to keep in mind this concept of friendship that prevailed in the ancient world. He is raising them to a relationship of high status and intimacy with himself.

We see this clearly when Jesus says that he has made known to them everything that he has heard from his Father. He withholds no secrets from his friends. He shares with them what he has heard from God his Father. In the kingdom of God, there are no rules of confidential classification. All Jesus shares is unclassified.

When we understand the weighty meaning that lies behind Jesus’ use of the word “friend,” we begin to see the very privileged and very intimate relationship Jesus is conferring upon his disciples. This is pure grace in action.

A Word of Caution

Reading what I wrote above, I feel I need to add a word of caution, lest I be misunderstood.

When Jesus raises his disciples to the status of his privileged friends, we must remember that he says this as a part of his farewell supper with his disciples. That supper began, according to John 13:2-17, with Jesus rising in the evening, disrobing, wrapping a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of his disciples.

He explains his action with these words:

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15)

Jesus may be raising his disciples to the status of friends, but in so doing, he enlists them as partners in his life of service to the world. Privilege is redefined, therefore, as the call to service.

In calling his disciples friends, Jesus’ action gives no authorization for their thinking they can lord it over others and judge others simply because they are Jesus’ close friends. That is vitally important to remember when Christians seek to live out their faith in the political, economic, and social spheres. Christ’s kingdom operates by different rules than most of modern life.

Spacious Salvation

Have you stuffed your idea of salvation into too narrow of a box?

Scripture text: Psalm 66:10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;

            you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

            you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;

            we went through fire and through water;

            yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you saved?” I find more often than not that they are asking from a narrow understanding of salvation. What they mean is: Where will you spend eternity? Will it be in heaven or in hell? Salvation is thought of primarily as a spiritual form of fire insurance.

This understanding of salvation stuffs salvation into a too restricted theological box. It ignores the richer and more expansive understanding of salvation that I get from reading the Bible.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to hope that when we as believers die, we will be “with Christ,” as the apostle Paul expresses it (Philippians 1:23). The promise of eternal life to each of us as individuals is a precious promise of the gospel. But that does not exhaust the meaning of salvation.

Reclaiming Old Testament Roots

It is helpful to remember that the concept of salvation has roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Exodus story. First and foremost salvation deals with rescue and liberation. When a person or a people are in deep danger or bondage, a savior is the one who comes and sets them free.

God becomes such a savior when God comes and liberates Israel from bondage in Egypt. God leads them out into a new life, a life of freedom. Israel is set free from the constraints that keep Israel from being the people God calls them to be.

Those constraints are political. Pharaoh’s claim on them must be broken. The constraints are social and economic. Israel must be delivered from the literal bondage of slavery. The constraints are psychological. Israel must acquire a new mind-set. They are to live as responsible free people, not as passive slaves.

And the constraints are spiritual. Israel enters into covenant with God, a covenant that calls them away from all forms of idolatry. The first commandment is that “they shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In the Old Testament salvation has a clearly this-worldly and communal quality. It is fundamentally an experience of liberation.

Salvation Is Enriched in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, none of this Old Testament understanding is abandoned. Salvation continues to have its political, economic, social, and psychological dimensions. But the concept of salvation is enriched. For what has happened since the Exodus event is that spiritually sensitive minds have come to realize that the constraints that hold human beings in bondage are more than political, economic, social, and psychological, important as they are.

What ultimately holds human beings in bondage is spiritual. These bonds are sin, spiritual powers of evil, and ultimately death. Against these powers human beings prove helpless. We need someone to set us free, to save us. That is the mission of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans acknowledge him in John 4:42.

Jesus does this by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is the saving work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed acknowledges this when it begins its recital of Jesus’ saving work with the opening phrase “for us and for our salvation.”

There are many dimensions to salvation as we encounter it in the New Testament. For one, it is certainly spiritual. Sins are forgiven. We receive reconciliation with God. We are adopted as God’s children to enjoy an intimacy with God.

But it is also much more. When Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34, he tells her that her faith has made her well. The Greek word translated “made well” can also be translated “saved.” In her healing she is experiencing liberation from her ailment, and in that physical sense she is experiencing salvation.

When Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by saying that he will change his ways as a tax-collector, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10). Salvation embraces the dramatic change of mind-set and behavior that Zacchaeus has adopted.

Salvation = Shalom

I think the best synonym for salvation is the Hebrew word shalom, which we translate as peace. But the English word peace is an anemic translation. The English word usually means “a cessation of conflict or of war.” The Hebrew word is much more expansive in meaning. It embraces not only cessation of conflict, but also wholeness, prosperity, and social harmony. It is well-being in its many dimensions.

For the New Testament writers the greatest enemy of mankind is death. It is the one oppressor that no human being can break free from. So the ultimate gift of salvation is the gift of liberation from death. That is what the apostle Paul is celebrating in the glorious 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

            “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

            “Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The Cosmic Dimension of Salvation

But I want to suggest that this final liberation from death does not exhaust the dimensions of salvation that we find in the New Testament writings. Salvation exceeds even the ultimate destiny of human beings. There is a cosmic dimension to salvation.

Two passages in the apostle Paul’s writings weigh heavily with me here. The first is in Romans 8:19-23. There Paul talks about all of creation awaiting its own liberation, a freedom from the bondage of decay, a freedom mirroring that of the children of God.

Human beings are not the only ones held in bondage to death and decay. All of creation is as well (as evidenced by the scientific law of entropy). In the day of final salvation, the whole of creation will share in God’s liberation. Our salvation as human beings is part of a much bigger story, a story that embraces all of the universe.

The second passage that rivets my imagination is Ephesians 1:9-10:

With all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here Paul envisions that in the day of final salvation, all of the cosmos will be brought into a profound unity with Christ at the center as the one who unites all things together in peace.

This is about as cosmic as it can get. The kingdom of God, the realm of salvation, embraces not only human beings, but all of the cosmos, including its billions upon billions of galaxies and its many infinitesimally small atomic particles. Now that is breathtaking to me.

I’m not sure any human being has expressed the vision more expansively than has Dante in his final canto of The Divine Comedy. There we experience a vision of the triune God as the center and unifying force of a great mystic and cosmic rose that choirs forth God’s praise.

Spacious Salvation

I love the phrasing of Psalm 66 that I quoted at the start of this posting. It sings of the troubles that Israel has been through in its pilgrimage with God. They have passed through fire and water. But says the psalmist, God has brought them out into “a spacious place.”

I love that word “spacious.” It captures for me the whole vision of the Bible. What God is up to is nothing less than a “spacious salvation.” Now that is worthy of the jubilation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

God with Us in Extremis

Isenheim altarpiece crossWhy must Jesus die?

Bible text: Mark 8:31
Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must [Greek: dei] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (NRSV)

There are few things more disastrous that a pastor can do at a time of sudden and tragic death, such as that of an infant or of a teenager in a car wreck, than for the pastor to suggest that God willed the death. I simply do not believe that a loving God wills anyone’s death.

But in one case, I have to backtrack on that belief. The New Testament makes clear that Jesus’ death was not an accident nor an unintended consequence of political machinations gone awry nor of Jesus’ naïveté. The New Testament asserts that Jesus’ death was something God willed.

When Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for his upcoming death, he tells them that he must go to Jerusalem, there to die and rise again (see Mark 8:31 above). The Greek word translated must is the word dei. It conveys divine necessity.

This is what gives poignancy to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he struggles to pray, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Mark 14:36).

Why must Jesus die? That is one of the mysteries of our Christian faith. Theologians through the centuries have suggested a variety of theories as to why. None of them has gained universal acceptance among Christians. Christians have never agreed on one definitive statement, other than the elusive lines in the Nicene Creed that it is “for us and for our salvation.”

“For us and for our salvation.” That’s a haunting phrase. It gives no definite reason for the death. Instead it suggests the purpose of that death. It is a purpose motivated by God’s love on our behalf. “For us and for our salvation.”

The gospel writer Matthew points to this purpose at the beginning of his gospel. He recounts how an angel tells Joseph to marry Mary because she is pregnant with a child whom he is to name Jesus, which means in Hebrew “God saves” (Matthew 1:18-25).

Matthew then goes on to say that this child is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means “God with us.”

God does not save us like some grand puppeteer in heaven who selects some human beings for salvation, lifts them out of the miseries of this earth, and places them in the bliss of heaven. That is not the God of the New Testament.

Instead God saves us by coming to be with us. God saves us by being born as we are born. By living a life of faithfulness in a community like ours. By reaching out in compassion to heal the sick and to serve the poor and needy.

God ultimately saves us not by lifting us out of this world of flesh, sin, suffering, oppression and death. He saves us by walking into it, into the very depths of our tragic lives. He walks with us in the Latin phrase in extremis.

He saves us by undergoing himself the very desolation all of us feel when we believe God has abandoned us, when death closes in on us and we can’t do anything to stop it.

He walks into it so that we can join hands with him in walking out of it. And in some mysterious way God cannot do any of this unless he in the person of Jesus experiences the depths of the pit itself.

Jesus’ death is the expression of God’s immense love that will not let anything, including death, rob him of his precious creatures.

Matthew will tell us that when Jesus dies, the skies darken with storm clouds and the earth shakes in an earthquake (Matthew 27: 45, 51). This suggests that the death of Jesus is in fact a cosmic event.

All creation convulses in sorrow and pain as the Son of God enters into the depths of death itself. Likewise on Easter Sunday, the earth will once again quake as life breaks out of the tomb and all the heavens break into jubilation (Matthew 28:2).

Why must Jesus die? We can’t answer that, except to say that all of Christian tradition proclaims it a mysterious expression of divine love “for us and for our salvation.”

Image: Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Crucifixion panel, 1512.