A vocation to friendship

On Thursday night we held the fortnightly meeting of our Open Space group, a group that meets in the friary to discuss topical subjects in a safe and welcoming setting.  Most of the members have been attending for years and; if they were not friends already, they have certainly become sound friends through the honest sharing of our collective wisdom drawn from wide experience of different kinds.  
So, it was fitting that the topic for discussion this time round was on the nature of friendship.  I was happy to present some initial ideas to start the discussion and would like to share some of these with you in this reflection.
My thoughts on the meaning and value of friendship grew out of my recent concentration on vocation or calling, which was the subject of my last reflection.  That in turn sprang from the Mass readings for Good Shepherd Sunday, when my interpretation focused on the words, “I am the Good Shepherd.”     
I was suggesting that a vocation is quite different from an occupation, where the focus is on what one does.  A vocation or calling has to do with one’s fundamental identity, with who one is all the time, even when one is not thinking of such a reality.  And I went on to give the central, key example of family relationships, where the calling to be a parent or child or sibling or husband and wife define who one is.  What one does will follow from who one is as naturally as day follows night.
However, in stressing family relationships I failed to include a further relationship, friendship, which may be more fundamental still as an identifier of who we are.
The way we speak of friendship in connection with other relationships suggests that it is often the foundation of marriage, parenthood, and sibling relations – at their best!  It is common for married couples to speak of each other as “best friends,” often most poignantly when one or other dies and the remaining partner is speaking in loving memory of their relationship.  
Surely, it makes sense to suggest that couples be good friends before they marry!  Likewise, it is as common an experience for many parents to have deep friendships with their adult sons and daughters as it is for siblings to be close friends.
What links all these relationships as expressions of friendship is a special moral and spiritual quality of love in which, first and foremost, we appreciate the character of the other person, their goodness and potential for greater goodness.  
This draw from us a natural altruism, whereby we wish to celebrate and enhance those good qualities, putting ourselves at the service of our friends, sacrificing our own interests even to the point of “laying down one’s life” for one’s friend.  
Think of extreme cases of soldiers throwing themselves on live grenades to save comrades, or a friend jumping into a raging torrent to save a dearly loved companion.
I take it that the main Christian teaching on friendship is found in the Gospel of John, especially in Chapter 15, where Jesus tells the parable of the vine and branches (vs.1-11) and then refers to his disciples as friends: “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (v.15). 
Note how Jesus uses the word “call” twice in this passage, reminding us of the concept of vocation.  Jesus has called the disciples to be his friends over the past years by sharing his life, with all its ups and downs, now almost becoming his equal, which is surely a practically necessary condition of friendship.  
He follows on by using another significant term “to choose.” “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you …” (v.16).  In the Gospel of Matthew, 22:14, Jesus says: “Many are called but few are chosen.”  But here in John’s understanding, the disciples are both called and chosen!
This whole chapter deserves to be studied in detail to understand the intimacy to which the disciples are called by the Lord.  It is primarily a sharing of knowledge or, better, the truth of who Jesus is as Son of the Father.  There are no secrets, no holding back, no privacy – as should be the case in true friendship where complete trust is the order of the day.
But the crowning glory of this poem to friendship is found in those famous words: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v.13).  This summarises the depth of the moral and spiritual nature of true friendship, based on a sacrificial love for another person.  
It is revealed beautifully in the whole Last Supper scene, from the moment Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  The one who speaks of not calling his disciples servants anymore, makes himself their servant!  
Jesus practically redefines both concepts of servant and friend by drawing them together.  For Jesus is the friend who serves, and the servant who makes those he loves his friends.
And if that were not enough, Jesus wants to introduce his friends to the love of his Father, who has given them to him in the first place.  And when he lays down his life for his friends, the Father will raise him up, and through that process of death and resurrection will make the friends of Jesus his own sons and daughters by adoption in the glorious Sacrament of Baptism.  
So then, we Christians are the called and chosen friends of Jesus and beloved children of the heavenly Father.  What a vocation that is!  
And don’t forget to pass it on – it’s given to be shared!
Kieran ofm