John 15:12-17 is a well-known gospel. “It is my commandment,” Jesus says in it to his disciples, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” And he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” And he says, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” And again he implores them to love one another.
Pardon the pun, but that love is the heart of the Gospel teaching is not news. By the 1st c. CE, it was a common – one might say, dominant – method of interpreting the Scripture in Pharisaic/Rabbinic schools of thought to boil down the Law of Moses and prophetic word to the “two greatest commandments”: love the Lord your God with all your might and all your heart, and, second only to that, love your neighbor as yourself. One wandering rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth put a twist on this teaching by refusing to rank the commandments – conflating two into one, love for God and love for neighbor. Saying they are one and the same. Love is Love. God and the world. Inseparable. When you do for the least of these, you do for Him.
So – yes. Love one another. He’ll say it again. He’ll never get tired of saying it. Agape love. That’s his whole message, the overarching commandment, of which the rest of the gospels are mere explications. But what fascinates me so in this particular passage is the interplay between love, wisdom, and friendship.
This is the Gospel of John, so Jesus who speaks is not just a down-to-earth teacher. Though this passage is free from explicitly high christology, John’s Jesus is the mystical Logos, God’s Word incarnate, eternal co-creator of the universe. Nothing he says is limited to a simple human understanding. He is mystery and power and dual nature. His meaning is of infinite depth, and when he says “I,” he means “I AM” as well.
And so he speaks to us, his disciples, and he commands us to love – not just any love but the same love that he has for us: the love that flows uninterrupted through human and divine, that makes human and divine belong to each other. Agape love. The fabric of reality that keeps it together. And he says we are his friends if we obey this commandment.
For a second this makes sense. Friends love one another. If we love, we are friends. But then… isn’t it a slave who obeys commands, not friend? Slaves obey. Friends choose. He says we didn’t choose him, he chose us. How are we friends? Then he explains.
Slaves obey blindly. A master doesn’t bother to explain his plans to a slave or to justify his rules. Slaves don’t know what’s going on. Friends do. The difference is… communication? Ability to understand? Level of security clearance? A head of the household or a general may still be in charge, but he will make sure his spouse, his advisers – his trusted circle – will understand the reasons for his decisions. Not so for children, for soldiers, for servants.
If this is the framework, if this is the mode of thought, then, we are slaves of God in that we wade around in the dark, limited and ignorant, stumbling into dead ends and empty corners. We are slaves when and however we try to follow but follow in blind obedience. It is better, perhaps, than being enemies, but it is so much less than He is offering… Because in this framework, we are friends of God in that we search for answers – for knowledge, for Truth.
The author’s language here is neither new for his time nor incidental. I seem to remember Isaiah and the book of Exodus referring to Abraham and to Moses as friends of God – a somewhat unique distinction in the Tanakh, but a distinction that was acquiring a different popular meaning a couple of centuries before the time of the Gospels. Abraham and Moses – both recipients of the Covenant in their ways. Those who listened. Those who spoke to God face to face. One’s face tends to glow afterward. Abraham and Moses, who knew something precious after they listened – who said, “Yes.” And left behind the Law whose every letter Jesus cherished – whose spirit he cherished even more. It is this spirit that turned the term “friends of God” into a phrase that Philo seemed to use broadly for men of wisdom. Those who are wise are friends of God.
“I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” We are friends of God if we touch the Truth. We are His friends to the extent that our obedience is not blind but through our awareness, in that we are thinking and questing partners in creation of free will.
But there is more. One more thing. One more connection in this gospel. This connection seems to be in that awareness comes through love.
Think of it as two lines converging into one. Jesus tells his disciples to love, and he tells them that they become his friends by obeying the commandment of love. So love makes one a friend of God. Jesus also says that a difference between a slave and a friend is knowledge – understanding of the big picture. So wisdom makes one a friend of God. Love seems to be the utmost and basic prerequisite for being included in the reality of God – that’s a conclusion both from the position of first-and-last framing of the commandment in the passage and from the overall Gospel message. So love makes one of God and of the world. But the pursuit of Truth – knowledge and wisdom, awareness – is what elevates a human being from a mindless follower (slave, pet, child – someone who can be loved but not equal, taken care of but not asked, not free) to a friend, a companion, a participant in Creation.
So here is the formula, then: Love + Wisdom = Friendship with God.
What do you think?