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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Intimacy in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15

This is the first in a four part series on Friendship. The topics are inspired by each of the four verses in John 15:12-15 addressing friendship but are by no means an exegetical study. Instead, I let each verse serve as a springboard for discussion.
(12) This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (13) No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command you. (15) I do not call you servants any longer because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I call you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." -- John 15:12

As with all Scripture, that we should read this verse and conclude only one thing - that John 15:12 is really talking about intimacy - would be a mistake. St. Thomas Aquinas held that there were four ways to interpret and read Scripture. I'd agree that there are at least four.

But I believe among a treasure of other meanings, verse 12 speaks of intimacy, intimacy between God and man, intimacy between fellow humans.

These words, spoken by Christ, are preceded by some truly paradigm-shifting words spoken to Jesus' disciples. In them we learn the deep level of union that we not only desire but can have with God. Christ speaks of "abiding" in you and you in him, of being connected in the same body ("the vine"). It's mutual, oneness, togetherness, intimate.

The command to love one another as Christ has loved us is a command to have intimacy. There are practical limitations to this, of course, but it is clear that we are to have intimacy with our friendships, because love necessitates closeness.

This closeness is not only metaphysical. It is not an intimacy of ideals or shared principles, though we should hope those are in fact held in common. The language of sharing a body - the vine - is so raw, so fleshly, and so physical that like the Song of Solomon, it would probably be excluded in some churches if they understood its deeper meaning. But like Solomon's words, time and again the metaphor for "knowing" God in the Old Testament is sexual intimacy. This intimate knowing leaves no room for distance. You cannot love what you keep at arm's length.

Negotiating Intimacy

In my literal friendships, I find negotiating intimacy is one of the biggest challenges. I think it is especially difficult to navigate that path if you're single. Humans are made for relationship and intimacy, and singles still need to meet that need despite not having an outlet for true physical intimacy.

I'm blessed to actually have many healthy, intimate friendships with both men and women. And I've found different difficulties with each. To generalize, my male friends are predisposed to always be at arm's length, and a closer, emotionally intimate relationship usually has to be built over a long period of time. Being male, I'm often not viewed in the same "safe" light in which women are viewed by men. And I view other men the same way, sadly. The culture of "guyness" insists on a lot of rules and conforming to images of maleness that only time or a shared experience can break down. But it eventually, it does happen.

Women seem to be the opposite. Intimacy in friendships with women comes somewhat easily to me, probably because of both the "nature" and the "nurture" of who I am. But if the doorway to emotional intimacy is freely swung open, usually with women, then the difficulty lies in negotiating the boundaries of that intimacy. How much? Where are the healthy limits? This happens with men too but not nearly as often in my experience.

However it's done, intimacy with friends is difficult, either because it's easy to blur the lines between platonic/romantic and healthy sharing/unhealthy sharing or because you have contrasting views of the friendship. Or maybe something else entirely.

I wonder if the way out isn't the model of Christ's love that we have in the gospel. We often think Christ primarily had a self-sacrificial love. But what if we reimagined it as a "highest good" love. It just so happens that our highest good required Christ's commitment unto death but his dying for us wasn't the only reason for the Incarnation, otherwise Herod could have been allowed to kill the infant Jesus with the same results.

No, the love that we are to model in John 15:12 is an intimate knowing, an openness and union. You don't have to give up all boundaries - quite the opposite most likely. But it's a proper knowing, it's a way of unfogging the mirror that is required.

You have to see, as Christ did, the image of God in the person before you. Once you see God here, in this likable friend, then you can see him in others, and eventually you can see God everywhere and in all things. This isn't pantheism, or if you think it is you're being too literal and too surface-level. It's profound and it's the Gospel!

I think we have to renew our minds to see Christ isn't just in our explicit words from sermons, theologies, and Scripture. Christ is in creation and, perhaps most visibly, in the person whom you see so much good reflected in: the friend before you. Once we get that, we can holistically see as St. Patrick did:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Related Posts:
God in Evolution(reflection 2) Presence in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15
(reflection 3) Humility in Friendship // Reflections on John 15:12-15


  1. Sam,
    I don't read many of your posts but when I do I always enjoy your perspective. I think friendships and relationship in general is what's missing from Christianity today and one of the reasons its become so irrelevant. Our intimacy is abstract and for God alone. Loving God means loving each other, too. This is real and tangible.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, Ryan. I completely agree that it has to be real and tangible. I'm afraid you're right that churches often aren't welcoming and don't foster real friendship. The first church I attended after college, I went every Sunday by myself for a whole year without anyone ever stopping to talk to me or even ask my name. Luckily, though, I think this can be an easy fix. We just have to get there.