Character and Virtue: Friendship
Rev. Gracie Payne
Director of Young Adult Engagement

There is a common meme that circulates the internet from time to time that says, “Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s.” It’s quippy and it strikes a nerve in a time when, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 42% of Adult Americans reported feeling lonely in the prior week.

Jesus knew something about being among the lonely because the meme leaves some important parts of his story out. Jesus’ friends didn’t always earn their scouting badges for exemplary displays of loyalty. Peter failed to say the friendship was mutual three times. Judas sold his location for a few pieces of silver. The rest ghosted him in his final hours. Jesus knows what it feels like to venture friendship and be let down, be betrayed. So why did Jesus call them friends? The obvious answer might be the verse that precedes this week’s passage, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). Jesus calls them friends, not because they are worthy but, because he has befriended them, chosen them.

In doing this Jesus reveals a truth at the heart of God’s nature: God refuses to be God without us. And isn’t that friendship? Or in the words of Stanley Hauerwas in his work The Character of Virtue, “For what is friendship but the discovery that I don’t want to tell my story — can’t tell my story — without your story?”

The prophet Micah asked another question in his sixth chapter, “What does the Lord require of you?” And when Jesus calls his disciples friends, we who seek to emulate the way of Jesus are then faced with a new question, what does friendship require of us?

I believe it requires that we refuse to tell our stories without one another, that we plant roots deep and proximate enough that we become intertwined with one another. At Friendsgiving this past fall, I asked a room full of folks in their twenties and thirties where they’ve found grace in the changing tides of these transient years. One person answered, “I’ve seen God’s grace in the things that have stayed the same. As I look around this room, I remember that all the friends from last year are here again and there are new faces too. I’m giving thanks that we have one another as anchors when so much in our lives is changing.”

The counter-cultural call of the church, amid rising isolation and alienation, is to serve as anchors for one another. We are to be a befriending people. But this call doesn’t always come naturally to the church. In fact, in a survey done by Springtide Research Institute, it was discovered that participating in a faith community isn’t enough to protect against friendlessness. Over 37% of young people (age 13-25) who take part in religious groups still say they have no one to talk to. Our charge is clear: we are to be a people who bend toward the stranger as an act of beholding Christ.

In a few weeks we will remember that in Christ’s final moments he was not alone. Abandoned? Yes. But he was not alone. Jesus was accompanied by a thief who asked for his help; perhaps he was his final friend before death? An anchor in an experience of deep isolation? Recorded in our sacred story is a consummate moment of companionship. Jesus does not let the man stay lonely, but he joins their loneliness together and, in so doing, ensures that the story we recall each year will always include them both.

What does friendship require of us? To never leave another out of our story.