There’s a syrupy Victorian hymn which begins “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Then there’s a much better contemporary gospel song by Andre Crouch: “Can’t nobody do me like Jesus. He’s my friend.” The idea of Jesus being our friend goes back, of course, to our Lord himself when he told his disciples: “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends”(John 15:15), Now we know something about being friends, right? We all have friends. One of the advantages of being a missionary is that from moving around so much I have friends all over the country and, indeed, around the world. But my longest lasting friendship is with my classmate, Gary. We were in college together, in seminary together, were ordained together. However since that time, forty-four years ago, we have never lived in the same state. Yet our friendship has, if anything, strengthened over time. There are friends that you like to get together with because you’re going to laugh and tell stories and have a good time. Gary is not a friend like that. We will talk about an interpretation of scripture or some aspect of history or a particular spiritual point. While I value my back-slapping friends, I really appreciate Gary as a friend because he makes me a better person whenever we are together. I suspect Jesus is more of that kind of friend. When Jesus calls us friends I suspect he’s not inviting us to go have a beer and eat some ribs.
We need to reflect on what friendship with Jesus means because nowadays we often hear of the importance of coming to know Christ personally. What exactly are we talking about? We can’t know him the way we do our other friends. He has, after all, gone ahead of us into glory and remains as the spiritual presence of God in the world. And most of us don’t have the knocked off your horse kind of encounter with Jesus. Usually, we come to know Christ is small things. One thing is clear: each of us encounters Christ in our own way. Maybe when you are with your family you feel close to Christ. Perhaps when you are at prayer or reading the scripture or when you receive communion you feel close to Christ. It could be that you meet Christ in the persons you are helping; you know, “whatsoever you do for the least you do for me.” For some a powerful experience in nature might reveal Christ to you. Mostly these encounters are fleeting and we go about our normal business not noticing the presence of God. The spiritual life is the process of deepening that Christ-consciousness, of letting those moments when we encounter Christ change the very atmosphere we breathe. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who died in 1968, wrote about an experience of Christ-consciousness. “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . I have the immense joy of being a human being, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” The moment faded for Merton but that the encounter with Christ on a street corner in Louisville changed his life. We might not have as dramatic a moment as Merton did but in many little ways God reveals the divine presence to us if we only have the eyes to see. Growing in awareness of that presence is how we encounter Christ.
These thoughts of being a friend with Jesus came to me in hearing the gospel passage from St. Matthew. Jesus was for his disciples, and is for us, not a hail fellow well met but a challenging friend. (If you think about, although Jesus is frequently portrayed as being at dinner parties there is no evidence he was ever invited back. People, after all, don’t like to be challenged.) “Whosoever finds their live will lose it and whoever loses their lives for my sake will find it.” Bit of a head scratcher there. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” That’s quite a statement. Jesus is not the friend who invites you to join him in the conga line but instead says we should take up our cross and follow him. What kind of friend does that? I remember a few years ago a group of us went to see someone we all had as a mutual friend. We had come to the realization that his drinking had gotten out of control. So as an act of friendship we intervened to call him to a more sane and healthy life. We had enjoyed his friendship when he was the life of the party. But being a true friend required that we also have the painful experience of asking him to change for his own good. So the fact that Jesus challenges us does not diminish our friendship. It does cause us to take a step back and look at ourselves in the light of what our friend Jesus asks of us.
St. Paul, a friend of Jesus if there ever was one, tells us what it means to encounter Christ: “Think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” Dead to sin, living for God. Got it. We no longer think we are self-reliant but rely on God’s grace. We no longer think we must take care of ourselves but learn to care for others. We no longer think we must create our own happiness but receive happiness as a gift from God. When we do those kind of things we have in fact encountered Christ. That is when we can sing, can’t nobody do me like Jesus, he’s my friend.