You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

4 thoughts on “You can pick your friends …

  1. Thanks Carolyn for your post. I believe the story of Zacchaeus the Chief Tax Collector in Luke 19 provides good insight about what those who truly desire to find out more about Jesus would do – they take desperate steps to connect with Him. Though a rich man, Zacchaeus lacked another thing that his great wealth could not buy him – he was a short man but did not allow that to be an obstacle. He humbled himself and climbed up a sycamore tree and his effort motivated by his deep hunger for what only Jesus could provide paid off when Jesus came to the place where he was on the tree, looked up and asked him to come down. Jesus in this story invited himself to the house of Zacchaues. As was the norm when Jesus chose to hang out with “sinners”, all who saw how Jesus responded to this son of Abraham began to complain. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost but the person who is lost like the prodigal son must first come to their senses and realize their need for redemption. I read a story recently about a pastor who was reprimanded by His church leaders because his sermons were not seeker sensitive because he named sin while pronouncing grace. To keep his job, the pastor was sent for a training on how to preach seeker friendly sermons. That is what we call wimpy evangelization at its best. While Jesus showed compassion for everyone, even with those who disagreed with His message, He was consistent and did not focus on opinion poll. He was more interested in those who were ready to forsake their lives of sin and reconnect with God. Jesus did not change or water down his message to attract people. The church would do well to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. Those who truly seek the Lord would find Him if they do so with all their heart.

    1. At every table where Jesus showed up, he was still Jesus. That is never in question. And when he talked about being at those tables he referred to his fellow dinner guests as sinners. Never attempted to white-wash their status. But he showed up at every table. He was there with sinners just as surely as he was there with Pharisees. He was there in a way that opened sinners up to their condition without running them off. He was there as a friend.

  2. As I understand that story, Jesus was “invited” to eat with the sinners. That meant that those people, sinners, had a desire to get to know Jesus better. And in that context, where the sinner is searching or looking to get to know Jesus, then you’re absolutely correct. We should welcome them and treat them exactly as Jesus treated those who were looking for him. This is a subtle but important difference. My understanding is Jesus did not have a lot of patience or time for people who were not seriously searching for him. The “I want to get fed crowd.” For example, the Pharisees and Sadducees. But those who are truly looking, then yes, they deserve all the Christian love that we can give them.

    But how do we know who those seekers are? We could do what Jesus did and ask them. I believe Jesus asked someone who was looking for healing, “What do you want?” Perhaps we need to be asking questions instead of just assuming that everyone who walks in the church is a seeker of Jesus.

    1. I almost disagreed with this comment but, after a second, I thought, “That’s a pretty good thought.”

      We always talk about Jesus eating with sinners, and praise God he did, but Jesus is also the same one who said, “Do not throw your pearls before swine.”

      I have found that the people who go on and on about Jesus eating with sinners and how we need to accept everybody are usually the same people who talk and talk and who never actually set down with “sinners” in real life. If you actually do that, you will find that some just don’t give a shit about Jesus, doing what’s right, or spiritual things. You don’t give up on talking to folks and sitting down with them. But there is a time to shake the dust off your feet, move on, and give your “pearls” to some folks who recognize them as pearls.

      The whole Jesus ate with sinners and we need to accept everybody needs some nuances or it just becomes another empty religious phrase.

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