Anyone who has ever been in church is familiar with the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was written by a son to comfort his mother whom he had left behind in
when he came to the United
States in the 1850s. According to the hymn,
Jesus is our friend because he bears our burdens and sorrows. The hymn writer
wrote the hymn to assure his mother that though he couldn’t be there with her,
Jesus is with her and he is a friend like no other. He asks, “Can we find a
friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share?” Yes, we have a friend in
Jesus, but the question I want to ask: Does Jesus have a friend in me? Am I the
friend of Jesus?
Jesus says to his disciples gathered with him in the upper room: “I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
It sounds like a promotion doesn’t it? Going from servant to friend. Being a servant, however, is not a bad thing. In fact, being a servant of God is always a high honor in the biblical tradition. It’s very likely that Jesus thought of himself as God’s Servant after the manner of the Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. Certainly, his first followers made that connection.
Jesus embodied the life of God’s Servant and taught his disciples to do the same. This is surely at the heart of what the feet washing is about in John 13. When Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet, Jesus says to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8). Jesus is saying, “Unless you allow me to teach you how to be a servant, you cannot share in my mission, you cannot be about what I am about.”
Maybe friendship with Jesus is a kind of relationship that we have to grow into. Perhaps it is a stage of discipleship that is not a given, but a relationship that we must nurture and develop. Until we learn how, with some humility, to be a servant of one another, to wash one another’s feet, we cannot enter with Jesus into that next stage of discipleship. Until I can say, “Yes, I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I have a responsibility to my sisters and brothers in the human family. I am a servant of all,” then I cannot share in a friendship that is a partnership in the
When Jesus says to his disciples, “Everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you,” what is he talking about? Jesus is certainly not talking about a mere sharing of information. Surely he is talking about a relationship, a shared intimacy, a sharing of God’s passion and heart for the world. This is why Jesus can say, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (15:16). This fruit is what flows from our lives quite naturally when we abide in Christ, when we share Christ’s heart, love, and passion for the world.
To be a friend of Jesus is to share and bear the intimate knowledge of God’s love and passion for the world. It is to share in what God is doing and how God is doing it. The fruit of friendship with Christ consists of acts of peacemaking, works of forgiveness and reconciliation and restorative justice, deeds of healing and compassion. This is why Jesus could say, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” And, of course, what Jesus commands is love (15:12, 17)
Friendship with Jesus is both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. It’s an immense joy to be able to share first-hand experience of God’s great love for the world. It’s also a crushing weight. This burden is hard to explain. Perhaps the best analogy is a mother’s love. A loving mother suffers with her suffering child and would gladly bear the suffering herself if she could. The loving mother suffers more when her child suffers that when she herself suffers. That’s the burden of friendship.
Tony Campolo tells the story of being on a landing strip just outside the border of the
Dominican Republic in northern Haiti. A small
airplane was supposed to pick him up and fly him back to the capital city. As
he waited, a woman approached him holding her child in her arms. The baby was
emaciated—his arms and legs were like sticks and his stomach swollen from lack
of food. She held up her child to Campolo and began to plead with him, “Take my
baby! Take my baby!” she cried, “If you don’t take my baby, my baby will die!”
Campolo tried to explain why he couldn’t take her baby, but she would not listen. No matter which way he turned, she was in his face, crying, “Please, mister, take my baby!” She kept saying, “Take my baby to a hospital. Feed my baby. Save my baby. Please take my baby!”
Campolo breathed a sigh of relief when the Piper Cub airplane came into sight. The minute it touched down he ran to meet it. But the woman kept running after him screaming, “Take my baby! Please, take my baby!” Campolo boarded the plane as fast as he could. The woman ran alongside the plane as it started to take off, the child in one arm and with the other banging on the plane.
Halfway back to the capital, Campolo says it hit him with a force. He thought of Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . . in as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Then he realized that the baby was Jesus.
It feels good singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus” doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to have a friend to help us bear our griefs and sorrows? But the more important question: Does Jesus have a friend in me? Am I the friend of Jesus?