During the past Sundays, Jesus revealed his desire to enter into a personal and intimate relationship with each of us. He expressed this by using images, like the good shepherd, who willingly lays down his life for his sheep, and the vine which liberally shares its life to the branches so they may live and bear much fruit. Today, he offers yet another image, more relatable and truly special, that of a friend.
A sheep is bought or born into a flock, and a branch sprouts from the vine. But a friend is personally picked; he is chosen. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” What privilege, what magnanimity!
But can we truly enter into friendship with God? Aristotle tells us that friendship is between two individuals who have something in common. It is possible only among equals. But there is nothing common between us and God, nor can we ever stand before him as an equal. Between God and us, there is only an infinite abyss.
To make us His friends, Jesus made himself our equal. He divested himself of his divinity and became man like us. (Phil 2: 6) Then, he shared his divine life with us (the vine and the branches), so “that we might become God”. (St. Athanasius) This is poignantly expressed at Mass in the silent prayer of the priest, as he pours water into the chalice containing wine. “By this mystery of water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” What an ineffable exchange! Such divine madness.
“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I heard from my Father.” In Jesus, God reveals himself totally to us. We may never know or understand God fully (like the Trinity) for he is mystery. No matter. He reveals himself to us all the same because between friends there are no secrets.
“With a friend, we can speak and share our deepest secrets. With Jesus too, we can always have a conversation. Prayer is both a challenge and an adventure.” (ChristusVivit, 155) Let prayer sustain our friendship with Jesus. It is in prayer where we reveal our secrets to God and learn the secrets of God.
“You are my friends, if you do what I command you… This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The ultimate test of our friendship with Jesus is in loving our brothers and sisters as he loves them – to the point of laying down our life for them. Can we really do that?
Humanly speaking, we can’t. But if we heed Jesus’ words to “remain in him,” we can. The sap that flows from the vine to the branches is nothing else than God’s own life and love flowing in us. St. Paul tells us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rm 5:5) Through the Spirit then we can love God with his own love and our neighbor with Christ’s love for us, which enables us to make even the supreme act of sacrifice for others.
Perhaps, we may never have the chance and privilege to lay down our life for our brethren, like the martyrs, but there are certainly many occasions in ordinary life when we are asked to love beyond our human capacity, like forgiving. Alexander Pope rightly says, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
In a concelebrated Mass I once participated in the garden of Gethsemane, our homilist pointed out that we were more or less on the spot where Jesus was arrested by the soldiers. It was also there where Jesus asked Judas, “Friend, are you betraying the Son of man with a kiss?” This was not a sarcastic question meant to induce guilt, our homilist commented, but a sincere affirmation from Jesus, that despite his betrayal, Judas remained his friend. Note that the Eucharist, the greatest act of love, is celebrated in the context of betrayal. “On the night he was betrayed, he took bread…”
“Friends are friends forever, when the Lord’s the Lord of them.” (Michael W. Smith) Indeed, when our friendship is founded on Jesus and his love, it perdures even beyond betrayal and death itself.*