What does it mean to be Jesus’ friend? – Winter Issue 2009


« Pastor Benjamin is a Gondu tribesman who has been working among his own people for the last 10 years or more.  He is the shepherd of the church that he has planted.  In recent months, both the pastors and believers of his area have been attacked and threatened with dire consequences if meetings are held in any place or any form.

There is much fear and much uncertainty prevailing because of the persecution in the state of Orissa.  Since all the leaders were served with warnings, each one was anxious as to who was next to be attacked.  Last week at 4:00 a.m., Pastor Benjamin became the target.  He was so severely beaten that people in the village thought that he would not survive.  He was left alive at the pleading of the villagers but the attackers promised to return to complete the job if he did not stop conducting worship services.  He was broken in his body and in spirit, but not in his commitment to his Lord. »

This beating, which happened this past November in India, was related to me by my friend Bishop John Gollapalli of India.  It takes the discussion about being committed to knowing and doing God’s will to a whole different level, doesn’t it?  What is required to go beyond “the superficial” to “the sacrificial”?  Sooner or later in our cross-bearing that issue arises.  Perhaps it will not be a brutal beating for our obedience, but there are times when our commitment to the Lord Jesus calls for something very deep.

We do not know the setting of John 15 when Jesus said to his disciples:

I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father. [John 15:11-15, The Message]

Clearly, Jesus is sorting out the different motivational bases out of which His disciples could commit to being involved with His agenda for the world.  It is possible to serve the Lord slavishly, being motivated by the fear of blessings withheld or judgment and punishment being administered.  On the other hand, Jesus is opening up to them (and to us) the deeper level of doing His will because we are His friends.  So what did Jesus mean when He talked about friendship?

Last year when I was in Burundi, Bishop Elie Buconyori invited me to speak to a youth rally [about 700 young people and young adults were jammed into the church where we met] and the theme that was assigned to me was “Fear God.”  I talked to them about serving the Lord with all their hearts and the difference between the fear of a slave and the fear of a friend.

Bishop Buconyori, I told them, had become my very close friend.  Their heads came up when I said, “And I am afraid of him!”  The place was quiet as I paused to let that comment sink in, and then I went on to explain that I had two deep fears when it came to their bishop:  I did not ever want to do anything that would embarrass him in front of others; and secondly, I did not ever want to do anything knowingly or unknowingly that would hurt him.  This is the healthy fear of deep friendship.  It’s what moves one from “the superficial” to “the sacrificial.”

Let’s face it, there are a multitude of motivational bases from which we can do God’s will.  Sometimes serving the Lord is absolutely “delightful.”  In other seasons, we keep putting one foot in front of the other and “do the duty of cross-bearing” because we have said that we are committed to obedience to His will.

As I think back over my spiritual journey, I realize that in more immature seasons, “appeasement” was a motivational base.  In other words, “I am doing this for Him so that He is obligated to me” – as though we can bargain with God!  My deepest embarrassment comes when I own the times that I have presumed on my gracious Friend and pouted when He didn’t deliver on those things to which I felt I was entitled because of my special relationship with Him.

I think that St. Paul’s self-identification as a “slave of Christ,” properly understood, is one of the most powerful images of the deeper work of grace and obedience that draws us from “the superficial” to “the sacrificial.”  As a former slave of sin [including Pharisaic self-righteousness], Paul realized that he had been purchased at a great price by Jesus’ self-giving on the cross.  Because of His sacrifice, the Lord Jesus owned him and Paul knew it.  It was his duty to serve him as a slave because Jesus had bought the rights to his life.

But there is more to the picture and this gets us to the friendship that makes possible the sacrifice of love that we see in the lives of people like St. Paul and Pastor Benjamin.  In the Old Testament, there is a ceremony [see Exodus 21:2-6] where an owner gives a slave his freedom.  The owner walked the slave to the edge of the property and said that he was no longer his slave and he was free to go.  If the slave decided that he loved the master and would rather stay to serve him than take his freedom in the world, his ear was pierced with an awl.  He was no longer a slave because he had been purchased but because this was his heart’s choice.  He returned to his previous tasks, no matter how awful they were, with a new freedom to serve and to do them as the master’s friend.  He did not work because he was afraid of the master’s whip, but because he wanted to do everything he could to represent his master-friend well and not knowingly or unknowingly offend him.

So, what do you think?  What does it mean to be a “friend of Jesus” where you’re living?

Rev. Keith Elford is Bishop of The Free Methodist Church in Canada.