In John’s “Farewell Discourse” (John 14–17), Jesus shares a close and emotional conversation with His 11 remaining disciples. He has announced that He is leaving them, and they are confused and frightened. To comfort them, Jesus says that they can continually abide in Him, like a branch abides in the vine, its source of life. And in this context, Jesus tells them something that will profoundly alter the relationship He shares with them. He announces that He is raising them to the status of “friends.”
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:13–15).
Now, I have to confess, the fact that Jesus calls His followers “friends” initially leaves me a little underwhelmed. I mean, if Jesus would have said, “But I have called you family,” like He does in Matthew 12 and Mark 3, the closeness of this new relationship He is announcing would seem more significant to me. Or if Jesus would have called His disciples His “bride,” as represented in His parable of the 10 virgins, that would have struck me as far more intimate. But “friends”?
Without a doubt the problem is with me. I blame it on my contemporary American ears. The word “friend” simply doesn’t carry the emotional weight for me that the word must have had in the first century. I think it is because the word “friend” has become devalued in our culture. For instance, when a dating couple break up, often one of them will say, “Let’s just be friends.” So the word “friend” in this instance means, “I no longer want to entertain the idea of being in love with you and spending the rest of our lives together.” The word does not stand for deep love and fidelity, but rather a relationship that takes second place. Is this not the reason that we can have “friends” as well as “best friends”? We tack on the adjective because the word “friend” by itself no longer means what we want to say about how close we desire to be to certain people.
Even worse for the word “friend” is what social media is doing to our use of it. I just checked our family Facebook page and found that my wife and I have 1,141 “friends.” I was surprised when I saw that number. I don’t think I even know that many people. Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful that we have been able to connect with a lot of people from our past whom we care about and would have lost track of. But how deep and abiding can a Facebook relationship be after all?
Sherry Turkle teaches social studies at MIT and has written a few books on the subject of how our devices are changing the way we view relationships. One of them is titled, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. I listened to her explain some of her findings in a TED talk. Turkle says, “We’re getting very good at being alone together.” We come together as friends for formal or informal conversation, and we remain tied to our devices. Therefore, she says we actually “hide from one another.”
I think that all of us have had our laptops and tablets and smartphones long enough to know what she’s getting at. Technology makes communication convenient, but it also puts distance between us. It separates us. Somewhere in our past we’ve probably all faced that difficult conversation with someone, so we were tempted to write a note or pick up the phone instead. Anything to put psychological distance between ourselves and the other person, to hold the conversation at arm’s length. Because we’re more vulnerable face to face. We can make mistakes in the conversation, emote, give ourselves away through body language.
But with the invention of a device we can take anywhere, with email, texting, Instagram, and whatever else my kids are using these days, this distance has become normalized. All of our communication can be remote, and we virtually never have to see anyone. I’ve even started using my iPhone like a walkie-talkie around the house. I can phone or even text one of my children upstairs to see how their day went. Or, better yet, ask one of them to come down and get me a cup of coffee so I don’t have to get up off the couch.
So, these devices we are tied to are so convenient, but they are changing the way we relate to one another. When it comes to texting, says Turkle, we’re connecting in “little sips,” rather than drinking in an actual conversation. This may work for little bits of information, but it doesn’t work for really knowing one another. She says, “We sacrifice meaningful conversation for mere connection.” Through our technology we have created “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
I probably sound like a conspiracy theorist on a crusade to rid the world of social media, but don’t confuse me with my mother-in-law. At a family gathering recently, she had courage enough to put a large basket on the coffee table and make everyone park their cellphones for the afternoon. I’m reasonably certain she knew I secretly slipped mine into my pocket instead. But I must admit that the conversation was much better that afternoon without everyone constantly cutting glances down to their phones!
But, no, I’m not on a campaign. The reason I raise the issue of social media is really this: If Jesus is going to define our new relationship to Him in terms of friendship, how are we going to understand Him and commune with Him in the way He is suggesting when we can no longer understand the relationship He seeks to offer us? When Jesus says, “You are my friends,” He obviously means more than a promise to like us on Facebook. But if we can understand the implications of the relationship that Jesus is speaking about, then it opens up for us the idea of a wonderful relationship with the Lord of Glory that we can scarcely believe possible if we really reflect upon it.
What does being friends with Jesus look like? Well, the word “friend,” philos, is from the verb phileo, the verb for “love.” At its basic level, a friend is someone whom you love. How much? Jesus Himself tells us in John 15:13. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In other words, the ultimate expression of what it means to be a friend is to give up your own life for the sake of the person you call your friend. On this night of His betrayal, this is exactly what Jesus is about to do. After He makes this observation about loving a friend so much you are willing to die for that friend, Jesus looks at His disciples and tells them, “You are my friends” (15:14)!
In the Roman world, the word “friend” (philos) was an expression of loyalty and intimacy, and sharing that set your friends apart from everyone else in your life. With a friend you would build a close and lasting relationship. Outside of friendship there was only surface conversation, partial knowledge of who you really were, what you thought, what you had done, what you knew, what you had seen, your hopes and dreams. But friends—the kind of friend Jesus is speaking of—divulged everything about themselves, their deepest feelings and desires. Because a friend trusted another friend with his life. Friends enjoyed each other’s company. They felt completely at home, at peace, because there was no unfair judgment in the relationship, no rancor, no competition, but only love.
Today it is often said that this relationship I am describing should be shared with your husband or your wife. That is wise advice. But in the Roman world, even marriage was not necessarily thought of in these relational terms. There may still have been some level of distance maintained between a husband and a wife. But true friends knew everything about each other and still loved each other and would die for one another.
Do you realize that this is the relationship Jesus offers to share with everyone who knows Him? And yet our technology is imperceptibly drying up within us our capacity for real intimacy with people. Are we becoming a generation of believers who confess Christ, love and worship Him on the one hand, but have little understanding of the true depth of the relationship He calls us to share with Him on the other? Jesus calls us His “friends.” Do we even have the ability anymore to reciprocate?
Intuitively, we all know that we cannot build a quality friendship with a person through little blips of information on an iPhone. But neither can we build a quality relationship with Christ with little snatches and bits of communication either. How we communicate throughout every day of our lives is spilling into how we communicate with the One who died for us. We must discipline ourselves to unplug, to put down our devices, to isolate ourselves with the Lord each day, spending quality time in actual communion with the One who is truly our dearest friend. It may seem like a throwback to a bygone era, but if our spiritual walk with Christ is going to survive in this culture, then this is one of the ways in which we must rebel against the culture.
This article was adapted from an article originally published on Theology in 3D.