Here is what I do with my friends. I watch football with them even if I don’t particularly like their favorite team. I argue with them about meaningless things (e.g., whether or not Coach K uses “Just for Men”). I know where their dishes go. I think their jokes are funny…or, at the very least, they know when to laugh when my jokes are funny. I hug them with both arms. In most cases, I’ve played with their kids…and they’ve played with mine. I’ve even cried with them once or twice.
I don’t do any of this with Jesus. At least not with Jesus directly.
There are a handful of instances in the Gospels where friendship is referenced.
–Herod and Pilate became friends in Luke 23. Yikes.
–Jesus addressed Judas Iscariot as “friend,” right before Judas makes his betrayal official. Double yikes.
–Jesus was called a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” by people who hated him. But that’s not Jesus talking.
–Jesus calls his 12 disciples, “friends,” from time to time, but I wasn’t there.
–Jesus uses the term in parables a few times. They’re just characters in the story, really.
He did not address me (or any other human now living) as friend, except in one possible instance: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In my reading, this seems to be a deal-maker across time and space. One who does what Christ commands = friend. Annnnd, according to Romans 7, you can imagine how well I do on that front. I, like Paul, do not do want I want to do. The things I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. My (non-)attempts of doing what Jesus commands (“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”) is a depressing collage of missteps, catastrophes, and outright humiliations. Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Paul understood the primacy of Jesus’s savior-ness over his friend-ness, even in his day when the word “friend” still had substantive meaning. Just a few decades before, the great Roman orator Cicero defined friendship as “nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection.” His character, Laelius, continued, “I am inclined to think that, with the exception of wisdom, no better thing has been given to man by the immortal gods” . For Cicero, friendship wasn’t even possible without the presence of virtue. Common goodness binds two people in profound ways that allow for reciprocity and trust to grow like a green shoot through stony ground. Yet for all of these goods, Paul tells those same Romans that friendship is not the cure for the deepest ailments of a person, regardless of the presence of goodness and virtue. Paul cries for rescue, not mutual goodwill and affection.
I would argue that we, as a society, are quickly surrendering the vitality of the word, “friendship.” No one even likes the word, “friend,” anymore. To be called “friend” sounds too cheap, too dull, too saccharine. We substitute terms like “kindred spirit” or add a modifier like “dearest” to up the status of the relationship. No one wants to be single and in the “friend zone.” Whenever you can add the word “just” before another word, that second word isn’t that great. Just kidding. Just friends.
Facebook tells me I currently have 737 friends; this has to be the biggest “pants on fire” moment in the history of the Internet. The Digital Age is teaching our children (and me) this remarkable sequence: modern friendship begins with a transaction whereby you submit an application to another, and then, if you fit the bill, you are accepted by a click of the mouse. You then give the friendship maintenance with another series of clicks and emojis, trying to thread the needle between too much contact and not enough. Finally, when you can’t stand another post about your friend’s politics or a picture of their dinner, you decide to “unfollow” them. No embodied relationship necessary. None preferred.
So, to get this straight, I call Jesus my friend–and 737 other people? And this makes Jesus special?
Jesus is my rescuer. My redeemer. This is immeasurably more significant than Jesus’ ability to tell jokes that make me laugh. In a paradox, he both stands above me as Lord and Savior in perfect holiness and sits beside the whole of humanity in its tears and grief. He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped … and, he lowers himself to humanity. To obedience. To the cross. Now, at the cross, we’ve finally shed cheap friendship and hit at something far more profound: a godly friendship that is embodied in the actions of Christ at Golgotha and sustained by his ongoing presence in the Church. Or, if you prefer, in the Body of Christ.
Christian community (i.e., the community of the cross) defies the title of this post. It defies the definition of friendship that our contemporary culture has to offer. And, for Christians, it points to the remarkable value of embodied presence with other Christians, not for the purpose of watching football together or sharing hugs or shedding tears–but because your embodied presence with your fellow Christians is the presence of Christ himself! To your neighbor, you become the giver of absolution, the bearer of God’s radical grace, a fellow participant in the ongoing restoration of the world.
The Body of Christ shares the real Christ with one another every day. We join together at font and table as a community where, in the case of Holy Communion, we partake in the real body and blood of Christ. The Body of Christ proclaims Christ’s forgiveness to one another in the form of absolution–we receive the real Christ in that moment. We partake in the life of Christ.
Partaking. Sharing. Intense sacrifice. That’s friend language that I can get behind. The sacrificial Christ who says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Which is exactly what he does–to identify me as his friend in the midst of me, identifying him by thought, word, and deed as my enemy. Paradox.
My truest friendship with Jesus will begin with the coming of his kingdom, as I encounter the risen Christ with my own risen form. The relationship is embodied, intimate, and without guile or deceit. The friendship of that final day has no leverage, no distance, no second-guessing. Jesus cannot, and does not, hold sin over my head. Until that day, I have only a poor reflection of the relationship the Hallmark-card-religious-section thinks I have with Jesus. I know only in part what it means to be a friend of Christ.
Jesus may or may not be my friend, depending on how you define your terms. But he most certainly is my Lord and Savior. And, for that, I am eternally grateful.
 Cicero, De Amitica, vi. 20.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.