LIFE is full of laws telling us how to behave — or, more often, how not to behave. Some are statutory, or part of common law. Others are specific to a group or identity, such as a trade union or a church. But, for one aspect of our common life, there are no written rules. In our friendships, we have to absorb conventions and intuit standards.
As we pick out a firm path through the quicksand of human relationships, one reliable guide is the approval or disapproval of others. Our family probably love us, whatever we do; not so our friends. If we want to have friends, we must learn to give as well as get (Luke 6.38).
John 15.15 marks the first time that Jesus refers to his followers collectively as “friends”. It is a moment that cuts across any lingering suspicion that this charismatic leader and teacher might be just another giant ego that is using faith in God as a means to an end, drunk on the power of dominating others.
The relationship between master and slave (“servant” in some translations) is primarily a legal one. But friendship is something different. Being a friend of anyone, Jesus included, is not a matter of legal rights and duties; but that very freedom from regulations pushes the responsibility back on us to work out — and live out — what we owe to our friends.
My mother loved the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”, with its ear-wormy tune, Converse. Unlike another memorable hymn tune, Cwm Rhondda, it never (readers, correct me?) reached the supreme accolade of becoming a football chant. But the idea of friendship is present in both. If you look to the Welsh words (written by the visionary Welsh poet Ann Griffiths, 1776-1805) that usually go with the tune Cwm Rhondda, you will find there that Jesus is referred to as ffrind pechadur. The English hymn “Alleluya, sing to Jesus” follows suit, some decades afterwards, likewise addressing Jesus as “Intercessor, Friend of sinners” (see Matthew 11.19).
John’s Gospel, chosen to commemorate Barnabas, does so by proclaiming a change in humankind’s condition from slaves to friends of the Lord. Barnabas is not a showy saint, characterised by eye-catching asceticism or miracles. He is the kind of saint that we ourselves could strive to become: a “good person, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith” (v. 24).
Barnabas saw the grace of God in other people and rejoiced. That joy was so great that he went to fetch Saul and bring him to Antioch, too, where the two of them together spent a year building up the faithful. Luke does not say that this shared ministry was the reason that Christians were first called “Christians”, but he does link the year of ministry and the new name for the Lord’s followers in a single sentence. Pentecost and Trinity Sunday were the birthday of the Church, but this is her birth-place: “Christian” identity is born and established in Antioch.
Friendship is not always a matter of like-minded people sharing the same outlook, choosing to spend time together, and finding it mutually rewarding. It also embraces those who do good simply because they want to share their blessings with others, without payback in the currency of gratitude or obligation. Job is just such a person in this Old Testament/Hebrew Bible reading. The orphan and widow, the blind and the lame, receive his help because they are friendless in the world; and so a righteous person steps in to be the friend that they lack.
Most friendships, though, depend on our not depending too much. Though one friend’s needs may take priority over another’s for a particular reason, at a particular moment, there has to be a net balance. This can be very difficult for young adults to negotiate if one of their friends becomes over-dependent, because refusing help, or withdrawing (even for good reasons), can make us feel horribly guilty.
The key to true friendship is not one party always being supported by the other, but, rather, each enabling the other to grow well to maturity. Jesus calls us friends because we have been supported through our time of developing faith, in order to become for others what he has been for us. The “Friend of sinners” bit is simple: a friend’s love does not hold our mistakes against us.