“To cling always to God and to the things of God – this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly.”These are the words of John Cassian, a monk and theologian of the late 4th and early 5th Century, who lived in the south of France. His words that we are to cling always to God for that is where our heart must follow, reminds me of the words of Jesus: “as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love."
Our hearts are to abide in love that is what Jesus asks of us; Cling to that love. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."
Jesus wanted to get across to his disciples that to follow him is to follow his command, to love, to love God and to love each other. Jesus does not set up elaborate rules or doctrines. He tells them to love just as he has loved them, leading us to see that being in relationship is the most important aspect of our life with God and one another. And that through our love of God and others we will find joy.
And then he reminds the disciples of their relationship by calling them his friends. "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you."
This new commandment that Jesus gives entails much since the relationship is no longer teacher to his disciples or master to his slaves, a one-way relationship of obedience. For in the ancient Mediterranean society that Jesus lived, friendship entailed much more, a relationship that expected loyalty and love. Friendship was close to being kin, you expected that person if need be to lose their life for you. And that friendship is something chosen by Jesus with his disciples. They did not seek out the teacher, Jesus chose them as his friends, and expects that their relationships will bear much fruit. "And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."
This idea of friendship with God proved to be so striking that some 300 years later St. Gregory of Nyssa would write:
"This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because we fear punishment, like slaves; not to do good because we expect repayment, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by enforcing some business deal. On the contrary, disregarding all those good things which we do hope for and which God has promised us, we regard falling from God's friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile."We are to cling to that friendship with Jesus, to make our journey along the road where being God’s friend is what the aim of our life (our heart) is to be. I think that the notion of friendship with God elevates and expands our lives. To be a true friend is to care about someone without regard to the cost to oneself, without regard for any possible repayment, and isn't that what Jesus does for us?
What's more, to think of Jesus as a friend means that we can find Jesus in our friendships with one another (to seek and serve Christ in one another). We can see the face of Jesus in the faces of those around us and catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God. As Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx, wrote in his book Spiritual Friendship in the 13th Century,
"Friendship is on the edge of the love and knowledge of God. It is a simple step from true friendship with another person to friendship with God."Our friendship with others, the love that we share, is that fruit that Jesus expects us to bear just as he did in his own life. It is a love that unites us even in the midst of illness. I recently read this story from an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe:
"Their father was in an advanced state of dementia. His care became more than his family could provide at home, so they were forced to place him in a nursing home. But they remain devoted. Dad was always easy to love, and still is, even when the greater part of him is gone.
One night the family visited and stayed to have dinner with him. It was the usual generic dining hall fare. Dad had little to say. In his younger days he was bone-shakingly funny and the tireless, unapologetic cheerleader for his children; now he mostly repeats simple questions.
When dinner was over and everyone was getting up to leave, Dad suddenly became agitated. No one could understand what was wrong nor could he articulate his distress. Then his wise daughter-in-law had an idea. She handed him a paper napkin and a pen. He scratched away, at peace, and handed the napkin back. The napkin was the check for the meal and he was paying for it. One of his joys was to take his family to dinner.
At that moment, his family saw their dad both as he had been and what he had become. In the fog of Alzheimer's, the essence of his old and protective habit of love survived.” [From "The joy in taking the family to dinner" by Elissa Ely, The Boston Globe, March 1, 2009.]
It is that type of love that Jesus demands of us, his disciples today, a love that is both simple and deep, a love and joy that even dementia cannot destroy.
May we in our lives cling to God and to the things of God – this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly, for it is through that love that we seek God's friendship and to share our friendship with others. For by sharing a love that God has given to us from the beginning and who loves us each and every day, we follow his commandment and we find that true joy.
It is God's gift to us to be called friends, so let us endeavor to bear that fruit in our world today. Amen.