On this day of the Last Supper, Christians the world over will read with devotion the biblical accounts of that most dramatic evening. St. John sets several chapters of his gospel on Thursday evening, first with the farewell discourses in the upper room (John 13 & 14), and then continuing on the way to Gethsemane (John 15 & 16), before the great high priestly prayer of Jesus (John 17).
At the heart of those five chapters, we find some of the most consoling words in all of sacred scripture, Jesus including His disciples in the love of the Father and the Son:
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another. (John 15:9-17)
Last week I wrote in this space about the honour of hosting Cardinal Robert Sarah, one of the Vatican’s most senior officials, in Kingston and Wolfe Island. In his addresses in Canada, he spoke on that passage, giving attention to what we might pass over. Jesus calls us “friends”, including us in the mystery of Trinitarian love. But then He adds, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14)
Cardinal Sarah invited us to think about the connection between friendship with Christ and obeying His commands. We are not accustomed to thinking about friendship and obedience, love and law, as going together. Indeed, we might well reject as a friend someone who attempted to command us. Or we might think that it is simply not possible to befriend those who have a right to command us, even if we desired it.
In this we think about Aristotle’s teaching about friendship and equality, that a true “friendship of the good” – as opposed to friendships of pleasure or utility – requires some measure of equality between the friends. Does this not mean that friendship between the commander and the commanded are not possible?
Addressing us in Kingston, Cardinal Sarah also went back to Aristotle to understand John 15:14:
“You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). We are Christ’s friends if we abide by His laws. Why does He say this? Why does He connect friendship and law? To answer this, we must say something about friendship and something about law.
Simplifying Aristotle, C. S. Lewis explains that friendship is born when two people recognize that they appreciate the same truth. To simplify Aristotle again, law helps us to discover truth, the truth about what is good. The connection between friendship and law is truth. When we abide by a law, we dispose ourselves to see the good at which the law aims – we prepare ourselves to participate in the vision of the legislator. Because friends appreciate the same truths, friends live by the same laws.
Friendship as a shared assent to the truth is a more noble account of friendship than we usually think. But it is the case that friends have to share something outside of themselves in common. Usually we think of common interests, or common personal qualities, but common truth is more sturdy a foundation.
Does this apply to our relationship with God? Surely God and I do not “share an appreciation” for truth, much less do we “live by the same laws”. Cardinal Sarah explains how such a conception of friendship can be applied to God, with the differences noted:
When we abide by God’s law, we prepare our hearts to receive the truth about what is good. That is, we prepare our hearts to receive God Himself. This is what it means to be a friend of Christ. We participate with Him, in Him, through Him in His obedience to the Father, so that we might also participate in His vision of the Father. To grow in friendship with Christ is to grow in our appreciation of His law, to conform our lives to His law, and to receive in our hearts what He came to reveal.
Cardinal Sarah noted that the Book of Psalms begins precisely by describing the “blessed man” as the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1).
The context of Cardinal Sarah’s address was a dinner to support Catholic missionaries on campus. Our campus missionaries and students propose friendship with Jesus to those who are searching for meaning and purpose. But would they propose following God’s law as the means to that? Surely on campus today there is little attraction to following the laws of anyone else, even God?
True enough. But is not the law that is proposed by Christian living, so much as it is lives shaped by God’s law, and God’s love. Cardinal Sarah makes the connection:
When we are shaped by the law so that we understand it, we obey it, and we delight in it, we call this virtue. It is the beauty of a virtuous life that will make obedience to God’s law intelligible and attractive to other students. In other words, virtue crowns law with beauty. The beauty of virtuous lives becomes all the more important in times when so much of our culture mitigates against the intelligibility and beauty of God’s law. The consequences of a false freedom, on a campus and outside of it, are all too evident: addiction to drugs, alcohol, and pornography; the so called “right to die” with medical assistance; the destruction of the family; confusion over our God-given identity. Growth in virtue – that is, thorough formation according to God’s law – is necessary for us to be effective witnesses to Him as missionary disciples.
Some theology is good for Holy Week. But we must not think that theology is not practical, remaining only speculative. What is more practical on campus than the desire to find real friendships? What is more practical than finding models for beautiful living?
Cardinal Sarah’s advice was therefore most practical. And how could it not be? Jesus told us so plainly, on that Thursday evening so long ago, the night on which “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to end” (John 13:1).
May these holy days prepare all our readers for the joy of Easter!