JESUS CHRIST OUR FRIEND AND THE PREPARATION FOR THE PUBLIC MINISTRY LUKE 3:1-6
The name of John the Baptist, John the Forerunner and John the Immerser, feature prominently in the Gospels prearranged by the church to be read on the last three Sundays of Advent.
There were no other men of his time on whom our Lord Jesus Christ made so many extolments as on the great Precursor (or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces Jesus’ coming and prepares the people for Jesus’ ministry). Jesus calls him “… A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet;” (John 7:26) and Jesus further declares that among “… those born of women, no one is greater than John.” (John 7:28)
But among the speeches of praise conferred upon John by his Master, there is none so caring and lovable as the title of “The Friend of the Bridegroom.” The closer we emulate John in personal righteousness and devotion, the more we can share with him in this beautiful honorific.
Among the blessings and enjoyments of this life, there are few that can be compared in value to the possession of a loyal friend, who will pour the truth into your heart, though you may wince under it, of a friend who will defend you when you are unjustly attacked by words of defamation, who will not abandon you when you have fallen into infamy, who will advise you in your uncertainty and confusion, who will open his wallet to aid you without expecting any return of his act of kindness, who will be elated at your successes and be sad at your misfortunes, who will carry half of your burden, who will increase to your joys and decrease your sorrows by sharing in both.
The Holy Scriptures, in the following passage, describes the value of a loyal friend: “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbours be.” (Ben Sira 6:14-17)
“A faithful friend is a strong defence.” When you are openly or secretly attacked by an enemy, or when any danger threatens you, your friend will hurry to your assistance, despite any personal dangers. He will make your reasons his own. An appealing example of this calibre of friendship is given in the Book of Kings. So tight was the friendship between Jonathan and David, that as the Sacred text expresses it, “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life; he loved him as his very self. Saul retained David on that day and did not allow him to return to his father’s house. Jonathan and David made a covenant, because Jonathan loved him as his very self. Jonathan took off the cloak he was wearing and handed it over to David, along with his military dress, even his sword, bow, and belt”. (1 Samuel 18:1-4) When the hostility of Saul was provoke against David, and when through envy he committed to the idea to slay him, Jonathan, his praiseworthy friend, hastened to inform David of the danger which threatened him, and to hide him in a place of security. “Saul kept a jealous eye on David. “The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raged in his house. David was in attendance, playing the harp as at other times, while Saul was holding his spear. Saul poised the spear, thinking, ‘I will nail David to the wall!’ But twice David escaped him. (1 Samuel 18:9-11) Jonathan then pleaded the innocence of his friend so eloquently before his father, that Saul promised to be reconciled to David. When Jonathan was slain in battle, “David seized his garments and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan”, (2 Samuel 1:11-12) and he exclaimed: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother! Most dear have you been to me; More wondrous your love to me than the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)
“He that hath found a friend, hath found a treasure.” The poorest of men, can be rich and happy. Whilst the wealthiest of men, can be poor and miserable, if he has no friend whom he can grasp by the hand, and to whom he can confide and share the secrets of his heart.
Ancient history informs us that while Dionysius I, the Tyrant, was king of Syracuse in Sicily, there dwelt in that city two men named Damon and Pythias, who were bound to each other by the closest ties of friendship, illustrating the Pythagorean ideal of friendship where “friends hold all things in common.” Pythias is accused of and charged with plotting against the tyrant and was sentenced to death, Pythias requests of Dionysius to be allowed to settle his affairs on the condition that his friend Damon, who had volunteered, be held hostage should he, Pythias, not return and be executed in his stead. The day of execution was drawing near, and when Dionysius and his court, who were strangers to the heroism of true friendship, saw that Pythias had not returned, they concluded that he had betrayed his friend. But on the day appointed of execution, Pythias presented himself. Dionysius admiring so noble a manifestation of friendship, pardoned the condemned man and released them both and supposedly exclaimed “although I overflow with riches, and am surrounded by a cortège of courtiers, how poor am I, since I have not a loyal friend in whom I can confide; while both of you, in the depths of your poverty, enjoy the wealth of each others companionship!
Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Gospel under the amiable and inviting name of Friend: “I no longer call you servants,” He says, “because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
But you may think to yourself and tell me, these words of Christ are addressed not to me, a sinner, but to the Apostles, and I’m not an Apostle. Well that may be true. But for your solace, I can tell you what Jesus is called in the Gospel, calling Him “the Friend of sinners.” Did not His detractors reproach Him because He associated with collectors of taxes and sinners? For that reason, notwithstanding the fact that we are all sinners, or rather for the very reason that we are sinners, He is our Friend. The reason He came was not to call the people that are righteous but for the sinners to bring them to conversion.
Friendship requires some unquestionably indispensable characteristics without which, friendship would be undeserving of the name. The basis of a true friendship are self-sacrifice, not influenced by considerations of personal advantage, truth, integrity and steadfastness. We frequently hear the term that “there is honour among thieves.” But there can be no honour where the intend and pursuits of life are malicious and egocentric.
You may have friends who possess these qualities of friendship, but Jesus Christ alone possesses them all in a perfect portion.
First — No man has ever made such great sacrifices for a friend as Christ has made for us: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13) You may be unaware that Jesus has done much more than this for us. When we were His opponents, He made us His friends, and then He gave up His life for us. He has shown a formidable and more unbiased friendship toward us than Damon had shown toward Pythias, or that Jonathan had shown toward David. Like Damon, He had become a prisoner and a hostage on our behalf, so that we may enjoy the liberty of all the children of God. But more than Damon, He has died so that we may live. He laid down His life for His friends. Like Jonathan, He had pleaded our cause before God, His Father. But greater than Jonathan, He became the Victim of His Father’s justice, so as to enable us to escape His Father’s retributive justice. Just call to mind the early Christian Martyrs, women, men and children living within the polytheistic Roman Empire, whose names we may never know, whom rather than apostatising by denouncing Jesus as Saviour and the Son of God to escape execution gave instead their lives and died horrifically; when they could simply have made an offering to the false Roman Gods’ to save their lives. They stood firm in their friendship with Jesus and gave their lives rather than denying and abandoning Him.
Second — Where would you find a friendship that is so disinterested as that of Jesus Christ? In obtaining your friendship, He has absolutely nothing to gain from it. In being deprived of your friendship, He has nothing to lose. You are the one’s who would gain in enjoying His blessed friendship. You will all loose when His friendship is withdrawn from you. You come to Him empty-handed, or if you have any gifts to offer Him, it will be the fruit of His own bounty. Yet He comes to you overloaded with gifts. He brings joy to you and interior sunlight. He brings peace and tranquility to your heart. The words which He spoke to you in the Gospel persist in your memory like some exquisite perfume. And yet, how little sorrow we feel being deprived of the friendship of Jesus! If through our own fault we are separated from the fellowship of a friend, we become demoralised and inconsolable, yet if we lose the friendship of Jesus through committing a mortal sin, we seem to be in a state of moronic lack of concern, although in parting of the ways with Him we are deprived of a wealth which can never be purchased on earth.
Third — The friendship of Jesus is unceasing and persistent. No matter how strong and tender the ties of friendship which bind you to others may be, those friends will be distanced from you by force of circumstances, or they may break away from you through disloyalty, or be distanced by death. But no power on earth can separate you from the friendship of Jesus, against your own will. If you lose His friendship, it will be only through your own fault. He will be the last to leave you and the first to be reconciled with you. In order to be restored to His friendship, you have only to enter the hidden chamber of your heart, and invite Him inside through submissive prayer, and He will be with you directly, as He was with the two disciples travelling to Emmaus, and you will feel the joy of His presence as they did when they declare: “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)He will always be with you. You may enjoy His company day and night, alone and in public, in life and in death. He will be the last to say farewell to you on earth, and the first to greet you in Heaven. And how consoling it is to have Him with you! “When Jesus is present,” says à Kempis, “all is well, and nothing seems problematic. When Jesus is absent, everything is difficult. To be without Jesus is an agonising hell; to be with Jesus, is a sweet paradise”.
With true friendship it is essential for it to be reciprocal. A one-sided bond can never be called friendship. In the judgment of mankind, there is no crime so sinful as lack of gratitude towards a friend. Our Saviour bore in silence the wounds and indignity offered to Him during His passion. There was though, one offence which coerced from Him an expression of painful emotion, and that was the treachery of Judas, whom He had allied among His special friends: “Judas,” He exclaimed, “are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48)
It goes without saying that you should love your heavenly Friend in the same manner that He loves you. You should love Him more than any earthly creature or possession, because His love for you outshine that of any human being or object. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Your love should not be nostalgic or expressed in mere words. It must be genuine and considerable. You should be ready to suffer with your Him and for Him, for sacrifice is the strongest test of love.
Our Lord sets before us a guideline of the highest quality by which we can ascertain whether we are His friends.
“You are my friends,” He says, “if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) The realisation of the divine precepts is the proof of our friendship with Christ. This is an effortless and feasible test. The laws of human friendship demand that you say and do nothing which would give unnecessary pain to a friend. It must, therefore, be the case that a divine friendship will not be satisfied with less. Be just as careful, therefore, not to injure the delicate heart of your heavenly Friend, in the same manner that you would not cause injury to the feelings of your earthly friends.
You have another physical way of bearing witness to your friendship with Jesus, and that is by loving your neighbour for the sake of Jesus: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” (John 15:12) And among your brothers, He singles out the victims of sorrow and misfortune in a very particular manner. Allow me presume that you have received a letter from a very dear friend settled in another country, a friend to whom you are greatly indebted for some past favours. This letter was handed to you by his brother, and was expressed in the following words: “My respected and dearest Friend: This letter will be handed to you by my devoted brother who is now in great anguish. I implore you by our long friendship to provide to him all the assistance your authority will allow, and I will consider the assistance you have given him as having been granted to me, and be assured that promptly you will be rewarded more than enough by me for your prompt help to him.” If you had received this letter written like this, how quickly and without a second thought would you grasp the opportunity to return the favour of your friends past generosity and help and assisting his brother?
Now Jesus Christ sends each one of us a letter just like this. After all, are the Gospel not a letter passed to you by your divine friend in Heaven? Does He not call every human being His brother or sister? And does He not tell us that He will consider any kindness done to a brother in distress, as if it were done to Himself? Does He not promise to recompense you a thousandfold for the services you will render him? Hear His words: “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)
There is yet another duty of friendship that you have to your Divine Lord. The treasured tradition of friends meeting together, to have conversation with one-another, sharing a meal and a drink at the table. Those regular gatherings which tend to cherish and nurture the ties of friendship. Now, my sisters and brothers, you have opportunities throughout the day, of engaging in day-to-day conversation with Jesus by prayer and meditation. You can eat and take a drink with Him by approaching the altar of the Eucharist. “Behold,” He says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)
Perhaps, you may even be jealous of those fortunate souls who were able to savour the friendship of Jesus during His mortal life. Being envious of Mary Magdalen, who embraced His sacred feet, who washed them with her own tears, and wiped them dry with her hair. You envy Zaccheus, who had the joyfulness of our Lord coming to visit in his house, and grant hospitality upon Him. Most importantly, you envy the Apostles, the closest friends of Jesus, who were His daily companions, and who at the Last Supper took part of His body and blood as a special token of their friendship.
But we should not envy them, because you can also enjoy all the same honours which these people had. Like Mary Magdalen, you can wash the feet of Jesus, and embrace them in spirit through showing remorse for your sins. Like Zaccheus you can welcome our Saviour into the sanctuary of your soul. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23) And, lastly, like the Apostles, you can sit at table with Jesus and partake of the new Passover Feast which He has prepared for you.
A friendship with Jesus elevates and sanctifies human friendships. It raises it onto a higher plane. It is the bond which strengthens it and allows it to endure. You must never be disloyal to a friend, so long as you are loyal to Christ. If the spirit of Jesus officiates at the festal meal, He will add flavouring to your meal and dialogue with the salt of wisdom and will toast you with the wine of thoughtful joy. If friendships transmit so much pleasure in this life wherever they are, are unfortunately, short-lived, what a delight then must it be of gatherings with you friends and loved ones in Heaven, where they are never broken by death or estrangement! eternal friendships founded on virtue and religion, which begin with time and endure throughout eternity! blessed friendships which have their roots on earth, which bloom in Heaven, whose fruits ripen in the everlasting years! Wished-for days when old friendships will be renewed, and countless new relationship will be formed!
If the scrutiny lays bare the lives of men and women, recognisable for their lionhearted virtue, and living in a point in history and in lands that are far away from our own; even if our pondering of their portraits evokes such great loving admiration, what will the delight be in seeing them face to face, and sharing in their everlasting love!
If Jonathan and David derived so much satisfaction from those secret and stolen meetings, when they tried to evade the surveillance of a jealous king, what will be the delight of friends in Heaven, whose attachments will meet with the approving smile of the great King who will say to His followers: “I will no more call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master does; but I have called you friends, because all things whatever I have heard of My Father I have made known to you,” and the glory which I have from My Father I will share with you for all eternity.