This morning, I had to revisit some difficult moments in my history. My darling Bernice and I had been invited by a good friend, Dr Eliza Lian-Ding, to share with a group of seminary students on what we learnt in building a blended family. There was no way we could talk about that without some reference to how Bernice and I had lost our first spouses to cancer, and my experience of divorce and clinical depression. Invariably someone would ask how I was able to survive that painful period of my life and my answer through the years remains the same: the grace of God and the care of a few close friends — the friendship of Jesus conveyed to me through a few special friends. The experience of the love of my friends has defined my life and mission. Through Graceworks, Bernice and I champion the cause of spiritual friendship because we both know the life-giving power of friendship. And we learn how to be a friend through our divine friend, Jesus.
We know that Jesus came to fulfil the roles of prophet, priest and king, categories defined and developed in the Old Testament. But there is one new role that He introduces, that of personal friend.
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last — and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other. (John 15:9–17 NIV)
Yes, Abraham was God’s special friend (Isaiah 41:8), but the ordinary Jew would never dare claim a personal, intimate friendship with God. Here, in John 15:9–17, Jesus, truly man, truly God, tells His disciples, and through them, all disciples who would come after them, that He is their friend and that He loves them. Jesus also defines friendship for us. True friendship is expressed in sacrificial love. Because Jesus is our friend, He is willing to lay down His life for us, which He did when He went to the cross.
I believe you find echoes of the most important spiritual truths in popular culture. My most recent encounter with the power of sacrificial friendship was in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014 https://tinyurl.com/l9a7bu4). Captain America’s main antagonist in the movie turns out to be his best friend, Bucky Barnes. But his friend had been brainwashed by an evil organization and turned into a ruthless assassin, the Winter Soldier. A large part of the movie was taken up with Captain America’s dismantling of an evil plot to control the world (yes, another one), but he was also committed to helping his friend regain his memory, to getting him back to the side of the angels, and most important of all, simply to getting his friend back. For this, Captain America (Steve Rogers) was willing to give his life. He chose not to defend himself when attacked by Bucky. Here is the climactic scene:
Steve Rogers: You’re my friend!
Bucky Barnes: You’re my mission…
[Bucky starts pounding Cap’s face, then hesitates before giving the final blow]
Steve Rogers: [bruised and bloody] Then finish it…
Steve Rogers: ‘Cause I’m with you till the end of the line.
The phrase, “I’m with you till the end of the line” was what Bucky had said to Steve when they were younger. Bucky had been a true friend to Steve Rogers and that line had captured the essence of their friendship. Steve never forgot, and in an attempt to get his friend back, he too was willing to go to the end of the line, to die for his friend.
As we journey towards Holy Week, many thoughts occupy our hearts and minds. Here is one we mustn’t forget. Our Divine Friend loved us so much that He came back for us, and He died that we might live. He loved us till the end of the line. Or, in the words of the apostle John:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1 NIV)
Jesus is the friend that loves to the end but He also makes it clear that beneficiaries of His sacrificial friendship must also be imitators of His sacrificial friendship. In a lonely and selfish world, sacrificial friendship is a powerful apologetic for the reality and character of God. It is definitely the basis of our life in Christian community. Today I was reminded afresh of the Friend/friends who loved me till the end of the line and am inspired afresh to be such a friend.