Three years ago Nothing Sacred, a warm and sympathetic television series about the lives of priests, religious and people in an urban parish, was canceled near the end of its first season. Various reasons were bandied about broadsides from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, overly sophisticated content, the fact that it aired at the same time as the immensely popular sitcom Friends. Rather ironically Friends, a procession of mindless episodes parading six urban yuppies facing trivial problems, has very little to do with real friendship, while Nothing Sacred, was all about the kind of friendship Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospelmutual affection, crossing barriers and putting one’s life at the service of others.
The Gospel continues the exhortation to abide, simply stated: remain in my love. In John a command is always based on a prior experience of grace, so Jesus says simply, love one another as I have loved you, and then points to the summit of love, laying down one’s life for friends. This part of the farewell discourse clearly echoes Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he washes his disciples’ feet as an example and first gives them the new commandment that they love and serve one another as I have loved you (Jn. 13:1). The little as underscores one of the deepest Johannine insights. The immense gift of love precedes and makes possible discipleship. The second reading captures this perfectly: In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10).
Jesus then goes on to call his disciples friends. John’s readers would immediately recognize friendship as the highest form of love, expressed by popular Hellenistic sayings such as friends hold all things in common, or friends are other selves, or share a single soul (cf. Acts 2:44; 4:32). Communality of heart and soul united early Christians. Friendship was expressed through hospitality, shared meals and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Jesus calls his disciples no longer slaves but friends, since the brutal institution of slavery was rarely bridged even by friendship. Jesus’ act of footwashing, in which he assumed the role of the slave, was a symbol of his love, which bridged this gap and liberated the disciples. Paul expresses the same vision of friendship when he expects Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female to form a new bonding in Christ (Gal. 3:28). The Johannine Jesus bridges a gap even wider than slaverythe gap between the divine and the human. no followers of his are ever again to think of God as master and see themselves as slaves. They are friends.
As we near the end of Eastertide and prepare for the great cycle of feasts from Ascension through Pentecost to Corpus Christi, we might pause to ask whether our church can truly go out and bear fruit. Polarization continues to divide the church and is often a scandal to authentic witness. Endless discussion about differences and their sources will do little to bridge such polarization, but a deep realization of the pregnant word as may call both sides up short. Without a deep experience of the self-emptying love of Christ who summons us to be friends, withered branches will continue to blight the vine.