“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 have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
We’ve spent Eastertide looking at ways God embodies love and God’s purpose for us. This passage repeats and summarizes those themes. The passage seemed almost stale in its familiarity until I latched on to the words ‘I have called you friends’. I was particularly interested in the peership and intimacy the word ‘friend’ conveys. But then in our FIRL group on Monday, much of our focus was how the scripture might be read prescriptively and conditionally. We are commanded; we are expected ‘to love as I loved you’; You are my friends if…and finally, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you.’
None of these are the concerns of deep friendships. They are the concerns of a particular understanding of God. It turns out that it is difficult to respond to God’s care, his desire for friendship, without worrying about what we have to do to receive such friendship or what we must do to keep it. It is hard to trust that one of the gifts of deep friendship is that it is a safe harbor for our heart.
In turn, these conversations led me consider two impediments to receiving and trusting God’s offer of friendship. The first is simply time invested. There is some research that suggests it takes 200 face time hours for an acquaintance to become an intimate friend. (Don’t get stuck on the number. Realize that whatever the number, it takes significant time and investment for relationships to grow.) Understanding scripture, hearing God speak is an evolving process. It rarely occurs in a first reading. It takes time and a lot of conversation to become friends with God. Like any other relationship, there will be conflict, distance and avoidance. But if we take the time and do the work, there is something wonderful and precious for us.
The same is true as we begin to know one another. Rarely are our first impressions sufficient. Relationships require we suspend our assumptions and first impressions in order to listen to one another. It takes time and shared experience to know another person. The same is true of our God.
The second is that we tend to idolize God. We make him into an image that matches our expectations rather than actually meet him. We, often unwittingly make assumptions about who God is and act as it our understanding is who he is. It is like assuming we know what someone means when they are speaking. But that assumption is very risky. A fundamental rule of communication theory is, when in doubt, be curious. The error rate on our assumptions is astronomical. The disciples’ assumptions about God and messiah were largely responsible for their consistent misunderstanding of Jesus. Everything they ‘knew’ seemed reasonable and certainly fit into the tradition. But it was not what Jesus was teaching. All too often words that do not match our expectations fall upon deaf ears.
Jesus wanted his disciples to understand the nature of the love he was offering as well as the love he wanted them to imitate. But, though they had been with him throughout his ministry, they still did not grasp the nature of his messiahship nor could they imagine what was ahead. The disciples had two thousand years worth of assumptions about what the messiah was supposed to be.
We are in a similar predicament when our primary images of God’s love are parental. In real life, we already have ideas about what a ‘good’ parent or a ‘good’ child is—which can prevent us from meeting the real person—or meeting God. Jesus expanded the concept of God’s love. Jesus announced that God the Father, the God of creation, the God of the centuries, wishes to be our friend. But just as the disciples understanding of messiah made it difficult to hear what Jesus was saying, our understanding of God as father or mother can make it difficult to understand God as friend.
How many of us, as parents, confide in our adult children as we would with a close friend? How many of us, whether child or parent, would consider such sharing as ‘too much information’?
In real life our relationships are always constrained by our sense of who we ‘should’ be. In hospice, I have spoken to many adult children who wish that just once, their dying parent would see them as adults. They wish their parent could see them beyond their role as child. They want to be be known more fully. But often that work is not done. (Sometimes the last gift we can give is to be our parent’s child). Likewise, many parents wish to be closer to their adult children but find even simple questions are deflected and go unanswered. Either a parent or child may seek a friendship but both must give up the roles and assumptions about each other in order to meet as friends. It is rarely a smooth process.
Whether in our personal lives or our spiritual lives, the ways we define ourselves and our relationship with God must change. A child’s idea of God rewarding or punishing the naughty or nice must mature. It usually comes as quite a blow to realize that the messiah did not come to relieve and protect us from suffering but came instead to share our suffering.
As parents, we realize our deepest love cannot protect our children. All we can do as parents is be present, offer guidance and pray our children make choices that are more constructive than destructive. We do what we can do and trust God. That is what God offered us in Jesus. That is the life Jesus lived—whether or not he was received or accepted. It is a startlingly different conception of God. It changes how we understand God’s promises and what God commands us to be.
This Sunday is Mother’s day. Taking care of another human being is one of the hardest things a person can do. On this day some of us will grieving the loss of their mothers. Some will wish their mothers had done a better job. And for some, their mothers harmed them. But remember, a real person, with her own needs, limitations and fallibilities filled the role of ‘mother’. All of us fail and none of us even ‘always do our best’. Meet them as a person. There is no better way to show your love. Our job is not to judge, or to idolize. Our job is to show kindness—to know them as a friend—to know them as more than role assigned to them by our birth. Our roles, our history and our expectations of one another will often get in the way. Do the work of love as Jesus loved.
Our faith claim is that whether or not we succeed, It is worth the effort. It is where life is. In the comic strip ‘Prickly City’ this past Sunday, Scott Stantis presents the following dialogue: “Be kind is always the right answer.” “But what if the question is really mean?” “I didn’t say it was the easy answer. Just the right one.” That is the secular version of Love one another as I have loved you. It applies to ourselves, to our families, our politics and our God.
Do not let your ideas of what should be keep you from engaging what is. Accept that God loves you as you are and you are called to love others as they are. It is a challenging call. Let it be so.