By Dr. Kurt Fredrickson
DJ was my best friend in high school. No one forced us to be friends. We chose to be friends. We went to church together; we did mission trips together. We had fun together; we got in trouble together. We went on double dates; we grieved together when our hearts were broken. Friends are with you through good times and hard times. Good friends are honest and loyal, no matter what. He was a good friend.
Twice in the gospels, Jesus is called a friend. In Luke, Jesus is criticized by the religious rulers of his day for being a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). What was meant to be a criticism, Jesus took as a complement. Throughout the gospels, Jesus reaches out to those who are judged or pushed to the margins or left in the gutter. Jesus will not alienate. He sees beyond stereotypes and even current realities. He moves towards us. He sees behind our masks, and he loves us still. He offers the feast of God’s kingdom to the most unlikely people, including you and me.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls his followers friends: I no longer call you servants, 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). While Jesus loses nothing of the worship and obedience due to him as the Christ and our Lord, he invites his followers to be engaged in a relationship with him that is characterized by freedom, respect and acceptance, by loyalty, by affection and joy (see Jürgen Moltman, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, pp 114f.)
The church through the ages has given Jesus the titles: prophet, priest and king. These titles express the majesty and the authority of the person of Jesus Christ. These titles can also create a distance between him and us. Rightly, we worship Christ. Rightly, we bow before him. Jesus is Lord. But the wonder of the Gospel—and the danger of the Gospel—is that Jesus invites us to call him friend.
Our faith is often expressed in music. The theme of Jesus as friend is found in our singing:
Israel Houghton (2012) writes:
Who am I that you are mindful of me
That you hear me, when I call
Is it true that you are thinking of me
How you love me, it’s amazing
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
I am a friend of God
He calls me friend
Joseph Scriven (1855) writes:
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Nils Frykman (1895) writes:
I have a friend who loveth me,
He gave His life on Calvary;
Upon the cross my sins He bore,
And I am saved forevermore.
Oh, hallelujah, He’s my friend,
He guides me to the journey’s end,
He walks beside me all the way,
And gives to me a crown some day.
Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.
There is a danger that we might turn Jesus into nothing more than just our pal. That is the criticism sometimes leveled (unjustly I think) at Pietism. Yet we know that sometimes Jesus becomes so much a friend that he no longer is Lord. The movie Dogma presents a false idea of Jesus as friend. In this quite sacrilegious film, Cardinal Glick played by George Carlin introduces a new image of the faith, the Buddy Christ. It’s a nullifying image of Jesus that removes any sense of obedience or sacrifice. Buddy Christ makes no demands. He is unable to transform. This is a false image of Jesus.
Being a friend of Jesus does not mean he no longer calls us to discipleship. He calls us to be with him in worship, and to go out in his name in in mission and service, doing the hard work of loving one another, bearing fruit as his followers. He is Lord, and there is also a sense of joyful affection. Jesus the Lord calls us to be his friends. All the songwriters sought to portray that balance.
But this friendship never happens in isolation: Jesus our Lord and friend calls us to be friends with each other. Mission Friends was the nickname given to the people who would become the Evangelical Covenant Church. It’s a good name! We never worship or witness alone. We worship together and we serve together. It is a beautiful picture of friendship—with our Lord, and with each other.
Kurt Fredrickson is associate dean for Fuller’s Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education programs and assistant professor of pastoral ministry. Prior to joining Fuller in 2003, he was on the pastoral staff at Simi Covenant Church in Simi Valley, CA for 24 years, serving as senior pastor for 18 of those years. He continues to serve as supervising chaplain with the Simi Valley Police Department, as a member of the city’s Homelessness Task Force, on the board of the Free Clinic of Simi Valley, and as a member of the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise. Fredrickson was honored as one of the “Top 25 People of 2011” by the Simi Valley Acorn, and as the 2012 City Volunteer of the Year by the Simi Valley City Council. Fredrickson’s blog, Church Then and Now, features timely updates and perspectives on changes in the church and culture, as well as helpful resources for pastors. He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church.