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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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

This is the last reflection 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.

"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." -- John 15:15

Amazingly, in verse 15 Christ gives us a definition for friendship. God himself defines friendship for us! And it's clear that friendship involves intimate sharing, presence, and humility. Now we see that friendship also involves a sense of equality.

Christ defines friendship in terms of mutuality, revelation, and equality. Because Jesus so openly shared of himself - what he knew and was and did - the disciples are redefined from "servants" to "friends." That's quite a shift.

But it makes perfect sense. Imagine a friendship where one person thought they were better than the other. Or more important. Or had more to say or a greater need. I can't imagine that scenario working because it's very difficult to feel friendly toward someone who would regard you with such self-centered disdain. If you would be loved, be lovable. And friendship is love.

One of the most awe-some aspects of Christ's very person is the way he continually strips away barriers, even the ones we think our religion has given us. He redefines holiness by willingly becoming "unclean" through contact with sinners. He overcomes the dualistic thinking of the religious elite of his day. He regards with humanity and grace those who show God's love but are outside of the 'saved' religious label, which is precisely why telling a parable of a "good" Samaritan was so paradigm-shifting. Could we accept a parable about a "Good Muslim" who shows the love of God in ways many Christians fail to? Somehow I don't think most of our churches could.

Jesus is sending a message of equality, first in personal relationships and then outward. We learn in Philippians 2:6 that Jesus who was God still "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Not only does this tell of us the reality of the true inequality of Jesus with his disciples and all of us but it flips the importance of such a claim on its head by saying that Jesus is putting himself on our own level. God comes to us and shows us the model of equality in friendship.

Reuniting the Divided

A sense of equality in friendship does not mean that we forget to acknowledge our unique characters. But it is certainly a shift of focus to what unites rather than what divides us. You cannot have meaningful friendship without a sense of equality, a sense of oneness and mutuality.

Practically, this means not being selfish in our relationships, what you might call, "Friendship 101." The first social lesson we learn as children - to share - points toward this deeper sense of sameness and equality. And it's always tragic to see a friend who hasn't learned this, who dominates a conversation or regards others merely as supporting characters in his/her own life's drama.

Children have to learn that their own self is not the only thing that matters or even the most important. We learn to share, to extend our own desires to others. Once we regard our friends as equals in dignity and worth and need then our thinking starts to change. We forget to rank in importance me v. them or my group v. everyone else. We start to see the connection between everything.

We start to realize that many of the "important" splits we hold aren't even true, let alone helpful. We start to see that there is no split between the mind and the body; we are one in being. We see that life and death are not opposing forces but two sides of one coin. We start to see that our "good selves" and our "bad selves" are also one without a need to destroy our shadow. And finally we see that all of creation is one because it's all part of The One.

Jesus himself regards all of us with equality and levels dividers between God and you and others. He says what you do to others you do to yourself and to God, what you do for God, you do for yourself and others.

I think in friendship this principle of sameness and equality opens up a much bigger way to love one another. We regard someone else not as better or worse but as an equal reflection of God's love and the unity of creation. We can acknowledge our deep, foundational equality as the German poet, Friedrich Schiller, wrote in words now famous in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" 9th Symphony:

Joy, Bright Spark of Divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy heavenly sanctuary! 
Thy mystical power reunites
All that custom has divided;
All men are brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wing.

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