As I sat at my writing desk this morning (it is still so odd for me — for my body and its memory — that I am not in the pulpit on Sunday mornings) I was struck with a few thoughts on friendship in the Gospel of John that I wanted to get down before they escaped, as they so often do. What follows is a brief, incomplete sketch on friendship and love inspired by the Gospel of John, and inspired too, by a small argument I have with C. S. Lewis.
Lewis famously wrote in The Four Loves that lovers are normally “face to face” and are “absorbed in each other”, while friends are “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” Like others, I am uncomfortable with C. S. Lewis’ clear distinction between “the four loves,” as if we can ever fully untangle the knot of desire and attraction. To be fair, even Lewis concedes this, writing just before the quote above that “we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person…”
In the image above, Lewis is attempting is to defend friendship, to argue for its legitimacy, by saying that friendship is not just hidden code for Eros. But to defend friendship, Lewis says that friends must look away from each other. Friends never are to look upon in each, as lovers can and do, for the danger of seeing and being seen means that one can be consumed, overcome with disordered passion. Lewis wants to wall off friendship from this danger.
It is true that lovers look each other in the face. But it is also true that lovers, as they seek the sanctification of their love, walk shoulder-to-shoulder in the common pursuit of building a marriage, a home, a family, the common pursuit of making their homes “little sanctuaries” and places of refuge and hospitality open to other pilgrims along the way.
And it is true that friends walk shoulder-to-shoulder in the common pursuit of some shared interest. But I think it also true that in Christ friendship is redeemed from erotic distortion. In Christ friends can look each other in the face, as their True Friend, Jesus has looked them in the face. They are made to see each other, as in their friendship with Jesus, they have looked upon and have been seen by God.
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The theme of friendship is a central motif in the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel begins with by telling us that Jesus was “with” God “from the beginning.” The Greek preposition “with” is pros which makes up one half of the Greek word prosopon, which is the word for “face.” Jesus, the Word, has through all eternity, been face-to-face with the Father.
A few verses later we are told that “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known” (1:18). Jesus, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has looked upon the Father face-to-face through all eternity, now reveals, declares, “exegetes” the Father to us.
All of this, I think, helps us to understand more deeply the theme of friendship that emerges and grows throughout the Gospel of John. In John 11, Jesus refers to Lazarus as “friend” (11:11). And of course, there is the Beloved Disciple, first mentioned in John 13 (and four more times throughout the end of the Gospel of John: 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20).
The Beloved Disciple, we hear in John 13:23, is reclining in Jesus’ bosom. He has been taken by Christ as his bosom friend. Christ, who is in the bosom of the Father — Father facing Son, Son facing Father — now looks upon the Beloved Disciple reclining his own bosom. No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known.
As Jesus says to Philip in the very next chapter: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). As he reclines in the bosom of Jesus, who “is in the bosom of the Father,” the Beloved Disciple reclines in the the Father’s bosom.
This theme of friendship culminates in John 15 where Jesus says that his disciples are to love one another as he has loved them. And what is that love? It is the Greatest Love of All: the love of friendship in which one “lays down his life for his friends” (15:13). Jesus continues just a few verses later: “No longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (15:15).
What is signified in his relationship with the Beloved Disciple is true for all who come to know Jesus. As he did with the Beloved Disciple, Jesus draws each of us into his own bosom, making each his bosom friend. Reclining at his breast he looks upon us that we may look upon him. In seeing him, we see the Father. In his knowing, we are known; as we are known by him, we are known by the Father, and as we know him, we know the Father.
This is the redeeming of the love of friendship in Jesus Christ. In the friendship of the Spirit of Christ, two friends can look upon each other as lovers, with intimate knowing, without it being reduced to the erotic, or deformed and disfigured by Eros. In Jesus, by the healing, sanctifying work of the Spirit, friends can rest and recline upon each others’ breast and look upon each other. In Christ, we are looked upon by and look upon the Father, as the Son has been seen and sees. And, we are made to love one another, to look upon each other, as Christ has looked upon us.
We need not fear, as friends, looking upon each other in holy, spiritual friendship. We do not need to fear to see and be seen by our friends. We walk side-by-side as pilgrims on the way in pursuit of the face of God (Psalm 27:8). But along the way, we can stop to recline and find rest in each other’s bosom, delighting in the love of our friends as they delight in ours. Yes, of course, friendship can always be deformed. There is always the danger that that love can be disfigured by sin. Yet, while we are to be wise and innocent (Matthew 10:16), we do not live in fear, but in the hope of the redemptive love of Jesus.
Friendship is one of the voices that can be heard in the polyphonic splendor of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Friendship stands alongside other motifs at the heart of the gospel. In sin we have been estranged from God, estranged from one another, estranged from ourselves. Now in Christ we are reconciled, as friends. In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made friends of God and friends of one another.