Family and Friendship

First Reading: Sirach 6:14-16
Second Reading: 1 John 4:16-21
Gospel: John 15:9-15

(edited from a funeral homily. References to the individual who died have been removed, since this homily can be adapted for other funerals and need not be restricted to a funeral celebration)

For most of us, and I suspect for all cultures, family is one of our most treasured possessions, our primary bond. Whatever terms we use to define family, and whatever form it may take in the modern era it remains the bedrock of society. We often hear people speak of this importance by saying “family is everything”. One popular phrase that emphasizes this sentiment is “Blood is thicker than water”. Similar utterances occur in film, on stage and in a variety of literature.

A primary and often difficult task for parents is to help mold their children into a family—to instill in them those values that identify who they are and bind them together. I remember my parents telling me that I had to love my brother and sisters. This was often said in an effort to forge peace after we had been fighting. Although it did not always work when we were little, it did eventually take root in all of us as we matured.

Unfortunately, the idea of family has frequently been corrupted in the larger society. In the U.S., some politicians, without any genuine interest in family values, have co-opted the term for their own political gain and agenda. In organized crime it is not uncommon to hear members of the syndicate, particularly the Mafia, speak of their employees as “family” while they order them into the streets to commit murder. On the heels of the Mafia, street gangs manipulate the idea of family to lure impressionable and unsuspecting youth into a world of drugs and violence.

Still, within many religious traditions there remains a profound commitment to family, with both the Old and New Testaments bearing witness. Among Christians we speak of being baptized into Christ Jesus, thus becoming a brother or sister to him. With God as our father, we are not just brothers and sisters to Jesus we are also brothers and sisters to one another. Clearly, in our tradition the family relationship has great import.

Without in any way attempting to diminish the significance of family, I would like to suggest that there is a deeper and even more meaningful relationship in our lives that is also attested to in the Scriptures. The significance of this relationship is indicated all the more by its economy of use in the Bible. It is friendship.

People generally do not connect the idea of friend to the revelation of God. After all, in the Old Testament the use of friend is primarily confined to exhortations in the Wisdom literature, such as in today’s first reading. Even in the New Testament it is used primarily in a generic and formal sense, as when Jesus says, “Friend, who has appointed me your judge or arbiter?” Indeed, this is far from the personal and emotional use we make of the word. However, there is something far more subtle and compelling at work here.

Throughout the Bible, only one person is ever called the friend of God. It is not Adam or Eve; not Sarah or Moses; not even David. The only person ever called the friend of God is Abraham. Why? God revealed to Abraham his plan of salvation: to form a great nation, Israel, and from that nation to call forth the savior of the world. Put simply, Abraham knew the mind of God. This is not just academic.

Jesus’ disciples would have been very familiar with the sacred writings of Israel and so would have known that Abraham alone was called God’s friend. I don’t think we can exaggerate how stunned they would have been to hear the words of today’s Gospel. The night before his death Jesus tells them, and for the first time, that they are his friends. What’s more, as if to underscore his declaration, he also tells them why: “…because I have made known to you everything I learned from my Father.” Mind you, Jesus has already staked his claim to be one with the Father. So when Jesus called the disciples his friends, it conjured up the image of Abraham. The disciples may not have grasped the depth of their responsibility to continue the mission of Jesus. After all, even Abraham struggled in living up to his friendship with God. Still, the disciples knew what it meant when Jesus called them his friends.

We can learn much from these Scriptures. First of all, calling someone a friend is a choice. We do not choose what family we are born into. I have joked in the past that if we did I would have chosen different sisters and a different brother! Of course, I am pleased with the siblings I have and would not trade them for anyone. The point is that we do not have a choice about who will be our brothers and sisters, or even our parents for that matter. We do choose our friends.

Second, we might consider that it is more than a little tragic that we use the word so lightly in modern day America. It is not uncommon for people to meet at a party, then an hour later introduce each other as friend, without knowing anything significant about each other, often nothing more than each others’ names. The cautions and exhortations of the wisdom literature seem needed now more than ever.

Third, there is a profound challenge presented in today’s Gospel reading—at least for those of us who seek to live as followers of Jesus. What Jesus says of his disciples he says also of us. We are his friends. This might give us pause as to how we treat other people in our lives. It should cause us to question whether or not we live as though we know the mind of Jesus.

When I was in the seminary, one of our professors attempted to counter the phrase “Blood is thicker than water” with his own declaration that the “waters of Baptism are thicker than blood”. It is modestly clever and does make his point that the bond created in Baptism is more inclusive than the family. But I think he missed the real point. For in calling another person friend, we extend the depth of our relationship beyond even our religious traditions and biases. Jesus did not call his disciples friends because they were Jewish—they had always been Jewish. He called them friends because he shared the fullness of his knowledge with them. They knew the mind of Jesus, and consequently the mind of God.

Friendship also transcends the other limitations of life: age, race, ethnicity, economics and sex. There are no restrictions on whom we call friends beyond the reality of who we know and who really knows us. True friends enrich us beyond measure. As we wander through graveyards we see endless markers declaring that the one buried beneath us is a beloved wife or husband, son or daughter, etc. It might be a greater testament to write: “Here lies a friend”. As Abraham discovered, being God’s friend was greater than being God’s child. And as the disciples discovered, being Jesus’ friends was greater than being his followers.