While reading through Jn. 15 (The Vine & the Branches) I was again struck by Jesus’ words to his followers in v. 15, ‘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 have learned from my Father I have made known to you.’
This conversation of Jesus with his followers is surely about relationship and intimacy. In fact the NASB divides ch. 15 into 3 sections: v. 1-11, The Vine & the Branches; v. 12-17, The Disciples’ Relation to Each Other; v. 18-27, The Disciples’ Relation to the World. I.o.w. there is an intimacy between us and the Life-Giver, between us as fellow-followers, and between us and a lost world.
Does the reference to ‘servant’ exclude all thought of intimacy? I don’t think so. ‘Servant’ (Gr. doulos) can be rendered ‘slave,’ but most translators favour the former. It is a paradox of course that Jesus’ followers are also his ‘slaves,’ i.e. his bond-slaves who out of sheer gratitude for their ‘ransom’ serve their master with all they are and have. The apostle Paul introduces himself to the Roman church as ‘a servant (‘slave,’ doulos) of Christ Jesus’ yet ‘called to be an apostle.’
Later in the Roman Letter (8:15ff, Life Through the Spirit) Paul expands this intimacy with God: “you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ (‘Abba’ is an Aremaic word for Father, conveying the thought of intimacy; Eugene Peterson renders it ‘Papa’).
While a servant’s task can be arduous, Jesus had already intimated that his yoke was ‘light’ (Mt. 11:25-30), i.e. compared with the unbearable yoke of the religionists of the day. The Messiah’s followers enter a relationship with God rather than a religion with a host of rules and regulations. Most know the song, ‘He aint heavy, he’s my brother.’
Coming back to Jn. 15:15, Jesus expands on this special friendship (Gr. philoi). A friend is a confidant. By this time Jesus had told his core community all he had heard from the Father: why he was sent by him to this earth, why he was going to lay down his life for the world, why he had to leave this earth, what he would do at his return, how people could have access to him, etc.
Someone close to me recently suggested that she saw me (metaphorically) sitting on God’s lap. My religious training sent off alarm bells. Yet there is a sense in which ALL of God’s children get to enjoy this privilege. He gets to share with us the intimacies of his love, his kingdom, his purpose in Christ (Eph. 1-2; Col. 1-2), the secrets of heaven. We in turn get to share our intimacies with him, our fears, inadequacies, need for purpose and direction, our love and worship.
Recently a ‘serious’ Christian from the UK attended a church service at a certain congregation in our city, and was apalled by the casual dress of the worshippers: to him it denied God respect, it affronted his majesty and holiness, etc. ‘Would one appear dressed like that before a king or president,’ he asked? My daughter-in-law spontaneously quipped ‘Yes I would if the king was my dad!’ The reformer Martin Luther got it so right when he pointed out that God’s majesty is most revealed in his coming as a baby to be born in a backyard cave for the sake of wooing a rebellious world.
AND YET many of us continue to meet weekly with pews full of believers who show little or no evidence of intimacy with God or one another. A religious exercise, yes, a ritual yes. But intimacy? Friendship?
For Jesus true friendship among believers is non-negotiable: v. 12-13, ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no-one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.’ In most churches their may be acquaintance and perhaps even friendship to a degree. But intimate, Jonathan-David type friendship, friendship that will lead me to sacrifice time and energy in relationhip, lay down my life for my brother or sister if necessary? Do you have friends like that in church? Are you likely to be a friend like that? For me that is impossible apart from my relationship with Jesus and his indwelling presence and my weekly house church gathering. I have always been an introvert by nature, not half as spontaneous in relationship as my gorgeous relational wife. But I tell you what, on a scale from 0-10 where in my institutional church years I registered 4-5, I reckon I now register perhaps even an 8? Even family and friends have commented on the difference. Do you grasp why I don’t tire of pleading for a smaller, organic form of ecclesia, where at least there is a better chance of growing into true friends of God and my spiritual siblings? You may recall from a recent blog of mine A.W. Tozer’s assessment (1950’s?) of the modern church as ‘an asylum for retarded spiritual children… a nursery for over-grown spiritual babes, most of whom do not have a clue about how to function spiritually with their fellow brethren in a co-ordinated way.’
So HOW does this friendship happen? Not by another church program or structure, or by trying harder. Ultimately it’s God’s gracious doing. On our part there simply has to be a much greater focussing on Christ, who he is, what he has done (and is doing), and God’s eternal purpose in him (Eph. 1-2; Col. 2-3). Even to focus on a better form of church is not going to crack it. We have to lift up Christ in every possible way (no clergy in the way), who being lifted up by the Father and us, will draw all people to himself! (Jn. 12:32).