As a youngster I had two best friends, which is why it troubled me when others would ask me who was my best friend. I knew there was supposed to be only one, but I had two, and I loved them both equally. Today’s readings speak of how God befriends humanity and shows no partiality.
In the verses previous to today’s reading from Acts, Peter struggles with this new insight. Three times God speaks to him in a vision, so that he is able to say to Cornelius, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” Peter recognizes that in every nation, whoever fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to God. The “fear” about which Peter speaks is not cowering or cringing before God, who has the power to crush you. Rather, it is becoming enraptured with awe at the Holy One whose immense love is beyond comprehension and then re-sponding by acting “uprightly,” that is, in right relation toward all: God, self, others and all that is created.
Even as Peter is speaking and still trying to grasp the implications of all this, the Holy Spirit pre-empts any further attempts at explanation, and in the divine erratic, inexplicable way, falls upon all without distinction. As Peter rightly asserts, those who consider themselves already to be God’s best friends must try not to put any obstacles in the way of the new best friends upon whom the Spirit falls. Like a parent who loves each child differently yet equally, so is the divine embrace.
The Gospel is a continuation of the Last Discourse of Jesus to his disciples. The Fourth Evangelist uses the term “disciple” more than 70 times to refer to all the women and men who believed in and followed Jesus. There is no scene in this Gospel of choosing or sending the Twelve, nor do the Twelve figure in any prominent way in the narrative. They are mentioned only in passing at 6:67, 70 and 20:24.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of having chosen and befriended all who have remained with him. The offer of friendship to disciples is part of a chain of love that begins with the Father, whose love is poured out in the self-gift that is Jesus, who offers friendship to all.
Jesus then tells his friends how to keep that chain unbroken: pay the love forward to others, befriending them in the way that he has done for them. He speaks of this as a “commandment,” which seems an odd term in this context. How can one be commanded to “love” another person? In biblical parlance, “love” signifies not so much the feelings one has toward another. Rather, it designates deeds of loving kindness toward another that communicate to that one that he or she is part of the community of chosen friends of God and Jesus. We are commanded to act this way toward others, no matter how we might feel about them and whether or not they reciprocate the love offered.
Jesus demonstrated what such love entails when he washed the feet of all “his own” (13:1), the many beloved friends gathered for their final meal with him. He did not skip Peter and Judas. He explains this as the greatest kind of love: the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is not an obligatory service, such as a slave is bound to render. Rather, the love of friendship is freely chosen self-surrender. The most challenging aspect of this love is that the friends of Jesus are asked not only to embrace within the community of beloved disciples all those whom Jesus befriends, especially those to whom we are not naturally drawn, but even to be willing to risk our own lives for such people. When this seems a humanly impossible choice, Jesus assures disciples that when they ask God in his name, the necessary grace will be given.
Abiding with Christ in communion with all his best friends brings an inner joy that is full to brimming over (15:11).
Barbara E. Reid