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Week Two: Building Friendship with Christ

We began our retreat last week by coming to the foot of the cross. We brought ourselves before the pierced Christ who gives us life. It is there that we experience the compassion of God poured out upon us and all humanity. This week we continue our time of gazing on the face of Christ.  We take a long, loving look at the reality of Christ who calls us his friends. He invites us into an ever-deepening relationship of friendship. I encourage you to read John 15: 9-17 (Online Bible Resource), slowly and reflectively.

This Scripture text is part of the “Vine and Branches” passage in the Gospel of John. The vine was a rich biblical image that had been used in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., in the Book of Isaiah. When it is applied to the person of Jesus in this Gospel, it expresses the call to live in communion with him. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Jesus is the source of life for those who remain in communion with him. This symbol of the vine speaks to us about “connection” – about the critical importance of remaining connected with Jesus. It is in this context that Jesus seems to surprise his disciples by calling them his friends. They are not to think of themselves as his slaves, nor simply his students, but as his friends. He calls them friends because he has communicated to them what he has heard from the Father. He has shared himself, his very life, with them. This is a quite significant moment in the Gospel of John and in the entire New Testament.

This text is part of the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. At this point in the journey the disciples have been sharing everyday life with Jesus for some time. They have walked with him, listened to him, conversed with him, and seen him “in action.” The bond that had been forming between Jesus and his disciples must have been growing stronger up to this moment. The Gospels give us only a few “snapshots” of the interchanges that took place between them. We can only imagine what other events and conversations must have transpired. There had to be times of confusion, when the disciples wondered what Jesus was all about and what his teaching really meant. There must have been moments of discouragement, and words exchanged about this. I wonder if any of the disciples ever sat down with Jesus and spoke to him about their feelings of discouragement. There would also have been experiences of deep satisfaction and even exhilaration, as they stood so close to the One who offered hope to people, who taught the crowds with such authority, who reached out and touched the dreaded leper to bring him healing and new life. Now this bond between Jesus and the ones he calls “friends” will be cemented by his laying down his life for them. The depth of friendship love that impels him to do this is also what he asks of them in their love for one another.

This intriguing theme of friendship has been explored by many classic thinkers in the Christian tradition. One of them is Teresa of Avila, the great 16th century mystic, Carmelite reformer, and Doctor of the Church. Teresa was a woman of extraordinary strength, courage and initiative. For years she lived a commitment to consecrated life that she felt was neither very satisfying nor particularly fervent. When she was 39, she experienced what she called her “conversion.” From that point on, she resolved to live a life of closer communion with Christ.

In her autobiography, Teresa offers what is the best description of prayer that I have ever read. She is technically talking about mental prayer in this passage, but I believe that her definition is applicable to prayer in general. Hers is a description set within the context of friendship. About prayer, Teresa writes, “In my opinion, it is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (Life, ch. 8).   In my mind, this is a very penetrating description of prayer. It echoes the words of Jesus about friendship in the Gospel of John. In another place in her autobiography, Teresa encourages her readers to gaze on the sacred humanity of Jesus. She says, “The Lord helps us, strengthens us, and never fails; he is true friend” (ch. 22).  All through this part of her autobiography, she refers to Christ as true friend at our side.

One of the distinguishing marks of friendship love is mutuality, or reciprocity. Sometimes we discover that we love people who do not return that love to us. The Gospel calls us to persist in love for these people (even for our enemies!), but this kind of love is not the same as friendship love. For genuine friendship, there has to be mutuality. Professor Paul Wadell (Saint Norbert’s College), who has written several fine books on the theme of friendship, remarks, “Friendship is mutual or reciprocal love in which each person knows the good they offer another is also the good the other wishes for them. This [second] characteristic of friendship attests that friends are those who recognize each other’s love and share it, the exchange of which is the soul of the relationship” (The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 350). Real friendship is grounded in mutual concern and mutual giving.

I believe that we can relate this general characteristic of friendship to our friendship with Christ. Great people of prayer like Teresa of Avila have consistently taught us that, when all is said and done, the spiritual life is much more than just a series of spiritual exercises. It is not a kind of spiritual “Olympic training.” We certainly need to be active in our life with God and we need a certain amount of discipline in order for this life to mature. But ultimately the Christian spiritual life is an adventure of giving oneself to the Lord and becoming ever more receptive to his gift of self to us. That is the heart of the matter. This mutual self-giving has many dimensions. One of them is simply taking the time in prayer to articulate our love for Christ in a regular, heartfelt way. Another is making ourselves vulnerable enough to accept Christ’s love for us. You and I are challenged to allow Christ to draw close to us.

I suspect that this second aspect of mutuality with Christ is sometimes where we struggle the most. I know that this is the case in my life. We sometimes draw back in anxiety or fear, especially because we are conscious of our own weakness and sinfulness. At other times we are afraid that Christ will ask too much of us. We may try to “do a lot” for Christ and “say a lot” to Christ, but be more reticent about simply allowing Christ to draw close to us. This is one reason we find it difficult to incorporate silence into our time of prayer. We tend to fill up the quiet spaces with a multiplicity of words. But if our friendship with Christ is to grow and deepen, we must allow ourselves to receive from Christ, as well as give back to him. Our friendship with Christ is meant to be characterized by a genuine reciprocity.

A few years ago, I spent time visiting a friend of mine who was very will with cancer. I had known Suzanne, her husband Jim, and their children almost since the time I was ordained. I had the privilege of visiting their home and staying in touch through the years. Suzanne was a very lively person who loved a good joke or a funny story. She had a hearty laugh that you could hear in the next room. She was also a person of deep faith. She was very committed to growing in her life with God. Suzanne had a recurrence of cancer that had begun as melanoma and later metastasized in her lungs and her brain.  She was able to buy some time for goodbyes with treatment, but it soon became evident that she was in the process of dying. Her husband invited me to preach at her funeral, which I found to be quite a challenging task. A day or two before the funeral, Jim gave me a copy of the last entry that Suzanne had made in her personal journal, just a little while before she discovered the recurrence of her cancer. With his permission, I would like to share an excerpt from that journal entry, because I think it reflects something of what Jesus says in the Gospel:

This winter has been unseasonably warm and almost snow free. Yesterday was my 51st birthday. It was a difficult one from the aspect of it being my first one without my mother. I miss her terribly. Although she is not here physically, I still feel her presence and can hear her sweet voice … so gently and lovingly wishing me a happy birthday.

Spiritually I have had “an epiphany.” I saw my life in a different light. I have a new perspective on “the present moment” and my life in general. I have a better understanding of “the gift of life.” I am filled with joy and gratitude for the people in my life. I have truly confirmed for myself that the reason for our existence is to love and serve God. I have felt the love God has for me as part of all creation. How blessed I am!

My life will be successful, if at its end I am remembered as a loving person – particularly by my children – and if I have been an example to them to discover within themselves the love of God, and God’s love for them, and the need for them to make that love the center of their lives.

These are the words of someone who had become a real friend of God, a friend of Christ, throughout her life. Suzanne had gained the wisdom and inner freedom that comes from that friendship. I was particularly struck by the last lines of her journal entry. Shortly before she realized that her life would soon be ending, she reflected upon what would make her life “successful.” She recognized that she would be a success if she were remembered as a loving person and as an example to her family of someone who had 
discovered the love of God and tried to make that love the center of her life. Suzanne seems to have had her priorities straight.

As you take the time to gaze on the face of Christ this week, I invite you to reflect on this image of Jesus as friend. Listen closely to his words: “I have called you friends.” Do you see yourself as called to friendship with Christ? Do you envision Christ as friend? Every friendship has a history with significant moments. What have been the significant moments in your own friendship with Christ? In what ways has this friendship brought you freedom? Reread John 15: 9-17 and ponder Christ’s invitation to friendship.

Reflection During the Week (Online Bible Resource)

Tuesday – Pray Psalm 121. Relate the sentiments of this psalm to the words of Teresa of Avila: “The Lord helps us, strengthens us, and never fails; He is true friend.” Reflect on specific moments in your life when you have experienced Christ helping you and strengthening you. What were those experiences like and what did they teach you about your relationship with Christ? Identify a specific area or situation in your life now in which you need Christ’s help and strength, and ask him for it.

Wednesday – Read First Kings 19: 9-15. In this passage the prophet Elijah, one of the most famous friends of God, is frightened and driven into hiding in a cave. In the midst of his terror, he is instructed to listen for the presence of the Lord, who will be “passing by.” He experiences God’s presence in “the tiny whispering sound.” In your prayer today, talk to Christ about the fears that may keep you from drawing close to him. Ask Christ for the grace of an open heart and a listening ear. Take a few minutes of silence just to listen to Christ.

Thursday – Read John 20: 11-18. Surely one of the most moving stories in the Bible, this scene speaks powerfully of the friendship that existed between Jesus and Mary of Magdala, whom later tradition will call “the apostle to the apostles.” Mired in grief at the loss of her Lord and Friend, her life is changed by one word – “Mary”. As the risen Christ speaks her name she recognizes him and is given hope again. This scene must  reflect many previous encounters when Jesus had called Mary by name. Christ calls us each one of us by name. In speaking our name, he relates to the unique person that each of us is. How have you experienced Christ calling you by name in your own life? In your reflection and prayer today, recall the liturgy of baptism in which Christ calls us by name. Ask Christ for the grace to recognize his voice as he speaks your name.

Friday --  Read John 21: 15-19. This is the famous scene of the commissioning of Peter by the risen Christ as depicted in the Fourth Gospel. Some have called this scene the “rehabilitation of Peter.” Having denied Jesus three times during his passion, Peter is led by Jesus to reaffirm his love for him three times. From this encounter, Peter is commissioned to shepherd God’s people. How have you experienced Christ welcoming you home after you have failed Him in some way? Has your friendship with Christ become stronger through those experiences? Ask Christ for the grace of deeper insight into your part in the mission of caring for His people.

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