If you come to Church every Sunday, even more if you’re a regular reader of the gospels, you know that there’s a great deal of variety in their texts. Some passages read like stories, like the Infancy and Passion narratives, while others, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel or the Farewell Discourse recorded by John, are densely packed speeches, each line of which demands careful attention and mulling over.
Today’s gospel is a good example of the latter. In just two short paragraphs, Jesus connects obedience to His commandments with remaining in His love, being filled with joy, and being His friends. He says He’s chosen us for this and that His love for us is the same as His Father’s love for Him.
These are truly breathtaking statements, but unless we listen to or read them very carefully and reflect on each one, trying to see all the implications of what Jesus is saying, it’s likely that His words will simply go in one ear and out the other and not only not take our breath away, but will make no lasting impression on us at all.
I want to take a look at just one short sentence from today’s gospel, one we’ve all heard before many times, but which it’s very possible we’ve passed over as being nice or pleasant but having no deep meaning or special significance for our lives. The line is: I have called you friends. It’s not even the whole sentence, but let’s look at those five words for a moment.
Who is speaking? Jesus. Who is Jesus? The Word made flesh, the God-man, the incarnate second person of the Most Holy Trinity. At the very opening of his gospel, John the Apostle and Evangelist writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made.”
In a little while we’ll all be professing our faith. We’ll say: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.” You and I are adopted children of God. Jesus is the only-begotten Son from all eternity, the same stuff as God the Father. And so we call Him: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made.”
Do you see what all of that means? It means that Jesus, before He took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary and lived among us, was the God who created the universe and holds it in existence; and this almighty creator of all things is saying in today’s gospel, “I have called you friends.” The difference between God and us is infinitely greater than the difference between a mosquito and us, yet God calls us friends.
In class structured societies, members of one class don’t befriend those in another class. The higher class wouldn’t stoop to do so, the lower wouldn’t dare presume to do so. But God, in a class by Himself, calls us His friends. Jews, Muslims, Hindus don’t think of God as their friend. To do so would be demeaning to God, an insult, even blasphemous. A Buddhist wouldn’t think of calling the Lord Buddha friend. To do so would be to cheapen and lower him. But God almighty, in the person of Jesus, asks us to be His friends.
In the Middle Ages, a Trappist monk named Aelred of Rivaulx wrote a beautiful treatise on spiritual friendship. His vision of friendship, of course, was derived from Jesus Christ, our best and truest friend, one, said Aelred “who proves [Himself] a true companion in all things, joyful and sad, pleasant and bitter, ever loyal, seeing nothing in us but our hearts.”
There have been saints whose entire prayer life has been rooted in this sense of warm, intimate friendship with Christ, a simple on-going conversation and loving companionship through the ups and downs of their earthly pilgrimage. St. Therese, the Little Flower comes to mind.
What a blessing to have such a sense of friendship with Jesus! But it’s only a possibility because of the almost unthinkable truth that God not only calls us His friends; He deeply desires our friendship. “O what a friend we have in Jesus,” says the old Protestant hymn. “I have called you friends,” says the Lord Himself in today’s gospel. Amazing! But are we amazed? And do we believe it?
The thing that always strikes me about the Passion/Palm Sunday is the awful contrast between the reception Jesus got when He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey one Sunday some two thousand years ago and the way He was treated only five days later on Good Friday. Where were all those cheering throngs when the chips were down? Why wasn’t there a cry of outrage at the unjust condemnation and execution of this Son of David who so recently had been heralded with hosannas?
The fickleness and cowardice of the human heart are not something unique to the contemporaries of the historical Jesus. We err if we think they were a different breed from ourselves. They are held up to us as if mirrors so that we may see ourselves. We may not like what we see, but in them we see who and what we are.
How many people are in love today and out of love tomorrow? Or betray a spouse of many years? How many are fair-weather friends? How many go with the majority whether the majority is right or wrong? Where were all the Christian defenders of the Jews in 1940s Germany? How many Christians owned slaves up until the Civil War? Why, a hundred years after the Civil War, did we need a civil rights movement to declare segregation unconstitutional? Where were all the Christians behaving in a Christ-like manner?
The answer is simple and sad and bitter: They were the same place most human beings are when the cost of being good and true and noble is high, either going with the flow or cowering on the sidelines.
Believe me, I cast no stones; I am far from without sin in this regard. But let’s get the message of this Passion/Palm Sunday straight. In Christ we see the heart of God. In those who applauded Him Sunday and forsook Him Friday, we see our own hearts, which is all the more reason to thank God that His heart is made of love and mercy.
Our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters have a favorite prayer that is the central to their spirituality. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it goes like this: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It’s a perfect prayer for today, really for any day, for on any day, the truth is that we are poor sinners, ever in need of God’s mercy. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy of me, a sinner.
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