By: The Rev. Kim Jenne
Growing up, I bristled when my church sang the popular hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As a kid, I thought the song too sappy and monotonously rhymey. In my small Illinois town, I was firmly in the minority opinion, given how often the song was chosen during hymn sings. The song has long maintained a love-hate relationship among critics and the masses. As the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal notes, “In spite of the fact that this hymn, with its tune, has been criticized as being too much on the order of the sentimental gospel type, its popularity remains strong, and the hymn retains a place in modern hymnals.” My teenage condescension seems to have been made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has provided to generations through the years.
Looking back, my reaction to the song’s sentimentality probably had more to do with the quality of my friendships at the time than my relationship with God. I couldn’t identify a friend in whom I could share all my weaknesses and sorrows. I had learned quickly that middle school friends were often not the best equipped to help bear my griefs and burdens. My “friends” seemed to delight in my trials and tribulations so the metaphor of “Jesus as friend” was not one I desired. I wanted my Jesus to be my rescuer, my defender, my God.
In middle age, I am becoming more appreciative of the song’s sentiments – even if they still seem a bit saccharine – especially as I spend more and more time in the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.
Typically, during the weeks of Eastertide, we remember the accounts of Jesus’ appearances during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension and then the 10 days of waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But this week, we don’t read a resurrection story.
Today’s lection is a speech of Jesus while he was still alive. These speeches are read during Eastertide because they are a sort of preparatory teaching – preparing the disciples for what lies ahead. This part of the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as the Book of Glory (13.1-20.31), a section demonstrating how those who believe in him become children of God. Scholars have identified chapters 14-17 of John’s Gospel as a presentation of several of the teachings of Jesus in the form of a “farewell address.”
Because of the repeated themes in chapter five, the careless reader might be tempted to speed through the verses set aside for the sixth Sunday of Easter. In doing so, they will miss some of the most intimate indications of God’s desire for relationship with humanity. Or they may find themselves collectively humming, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as verse 15 is read aloud. Either way, the skilled preacher might consider unpacking what’s it means to be a friend of the Godhead including the notion of consent (according to Jesus, we get a choice in this relationship) and reciprocity (this is perfect friendship, shattering the barriers that often cause human friendships to stumble).
Jesus tells his disciples that his relationship to the Father has forever changed how we will be in relationship with God. Key to this relationship, according to Jesus, is remaining in his love. Remaining or abiding, from the Greek menó (to stay, abide, remain; of him who cleaves, holds fast, to a thing) should come as good news. We have a Creator who wants to be with us. Yet, in my experience as pastor, many church-going folks would prefer a root canal over hanging out with their Lord and Savior. Philosopher and spiritual formation teacher Dallas Willard reminds us that “the single most important thing about us is our idea of God and its associated images.” Far too many people have a picture of God that conflicts with the image Jesus shares in today’s reading. That picture often causes people to want to keep their distance from the Father.
Friendship as Being
But Eastertide offers preachers an opportunity to disrupt old notions of God for new generations. It also affords the teaching office to dispel any possibility of discipleship shortcuts for an on-demand culture. My spiritual director used to start our conversations by asking, “Are you still on speaking terms with God?” She was asking, have you been remaining or abiding in God’s love. Was I putting in the work to be the kind of friend that God’s desires in me? This is a life-long pursuit of investing in my friendship with God.
In “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life,” Rowan Williams describes relationship maintenance with God in this way, “Discipleship is a specific way of being. It’s not intermittent. It’s keeping company with Jesus.” Keeping company with Jesus may sound easy. It is certainly what the early followers of Jesus did. Repeatedly, we hear of people – some committed, some simply curious – following him around the countryside. Classically, students hung out with their teacher as a way of learning. Jesus, in the role of the good rabbi, has a group of students who are abiding with him and learning first-hand what it means to be in true relationship with the Father. The Twelve certainly would have understood their relationship to Jesus in this age-old pattern of teacher to student. In his farewell address in John, Jesus is clarifying that their relationship is far more intimate than teacher and student. It is one of abiding friendship and love.
Learning rather than Trying
For disciples who are in pursuit of this kind of relationship with God, but have struggled with commitment to their spiritual practice, a pastor might encourage them to consider eliminating the word “try” from their vocabulary. A spiritual mentor once suggested this after listening to me complain about my fits and starts in my spiritual journey. “Embrace the role of a life-long learner of Jesus,” he suggested. “Instead of try, what if you used the word, learn? You’re not trying to keep the company of Jesus; you’re learning to keep the company of Jesus.” This psychological shift has given me grace to continue learning how to be a better friend to Jesus.
Which is a lesson we might all need to learn. We are learning to abide in God’s love. We are learning to keep God’s commandments and we are learning to love one another as God has loved us. Jesus sets the groundwork for a disciple’s learning plan in this lectionary reading.
 W. G. Polack. Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (1941). St. Louis: Concordia. p. 323.