What makes a community “Christian”? Believing and following Jesus as Christ are of course the basic requisites. But how should a Christian community distinguish itself from other social groups in its pattern of belief and pattern of life? By reminding the church in Corinth that they “are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2), Paul evidently regarded a Christian community as one whose members are transformed by Christ and uphold the standard of “holiness” (hagiotēs), living a new way of life pleasing and honoring God. Concluding his Gospel with the great commission: “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching . . . ” (Matt 28:19-20), Matthew was saying to the church in Antioch that a Christian community should focus its mission on “disciple-training” (mathēteia) so that its members may be committed to the Triune God and fully equipped to share Jesus’ commandments with the whole world. What about John the Evangelist? Since the major witness in the Fourth Gospel was nicknamed the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 21:7) and Jesus said that his disciples would be properly recognized by their mutual love (13:25), John the Evangelist obviously expected his readers in Ephesus to form a community that would embody God’s love in Christ (agapē) so genuinely that they might testify to the eternal life already granted to them by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All such visions of community are gems of insights for our life together as a Christian community today.
A close look at John 15 reveals three facets of the Johannine vision of Christian community as an embodiment of God’s love in Christ.
1. Circle of Friends
One extraordinary term that Jesus deliberately used to call his disciples in John 15 is “friend” (philos). To the confused disciples at the last supper Jesus said: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (15:15). In this statement Jesus made it clear that friend has a higher status than servant (doulos) in terms of relationship. He also explained why he elevated their status: they understood what Jesus was doing and they had learned divine revelation from him. Friends are people of kindred spirit who share their minds and hearts with each other. Jesus had told them what he was about to do – to die on the cross for all – and had taught them how much God loved the world. By raising their bar to a true knowledge of his Incarnation and Passion, he now called them his friends. What a grace and what a privilege!
In Jewish tradition, Noah, Abraham, and Moses have been called “friends of God” because they trusted God and obeyed God’s commandment. In response to God’s call, Noah built an ark on Mt. Ararat, Abraham left his hometown Ur, and Moses returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh (Gen 8:4; 12:1; Exod 3:10). Divine calling and human obedience made them friends of God. Among Greek and Roman philosophers, friendship was considered a special relationship existing only among people with equal status, kindred spirit, and reciprocal affection. In light of these cultural norms, by calling his disciples friends, the Johannine Jesus wanted his followers to form a circle of friends in which everyone trusts and obeys God, understands and honors each other, and shares sincere love with Jesus and one another.
It should be pointed out that this friendship was given to the disciples as a gift, because Jesus first offered himself as their best friend, ready to die for them: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). Indeed, he had chosen them, not they him (15:16). Thus, Christian community as a circle of friends is bonded together by Jesus’ self-sacrificing love. Like the Beloved Disciple, all followers are beloved of Jesus. It is particularly remarkable, when we think about the timing of this declaration. It was in the last supper before his arrest, and Jesus already knew Judas was about to betray him, Peter to deny him, and the others to desert him. Notwithstanding, Jesus called them his friends.
It is indeed by grace for us to become a friend of Jesus, but it takes genuine commitment to remain his friend as Jesus sternly said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (15:14). The privilege comes with a condition. The truth is Jesus reserved the right to be the master in the circle of his friends as he said: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am” (13:13). His claim to leadership was legitimate and worthy not only because he was the Son of God, but also because he was a respectable teacher practicing what he preached by offering himself up on the cross as the Lamb of God (1:29) and the grain of wheat (12:24) so that his friends may receive eternal life through faith in him (20:31).
What is Jesus’ commandment? In 13:34-35, he had already made it clear: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” This commandment is so important that he repeated it (in 15:12) right before he called his disciples his friends. It is a tall order, however, because the standard of the friendly love is Jesus’ own love for them, even unto death on the cross. In his study of the so-called “Book of Discourse” in the Gospel of John, Francis Moloney has aptly argued that before Jesus gave this order for the disciples to imitate his love, he first exemplified it by humbly washing their feet and freely offering bread even to Judas the traitor. After repeating this order in 15:12 Jesus prayed for his disciples to be one with him, with God, and with one another, in anticipating their suffering and grief in Ch. 17. A Christian community, whose members strive to be worthy friends of Jesus, should show relationships marked by Christ-like love, tangibly expressed in actions of humility, service, generosity, unity, endurance, and hope.
To be a friend of Jesus is also a calling with a purpose, as Jesus said: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (15:16). What does the metaphor of bearing fruit mean for the Johannine community? In the preceding passage (15:1-11), Jesus took a familiar metaphor of the grapevine for Israel (Ps 80:8-16; Isa 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; Ezek 15:1-6) and allegorized it to urge his disciples to dwell in him so that they may bear fruit. Jesus said he was the true vine, God the vinegrower, and they the branches (15:1, 5). The branches are expected to bear fruit, but they can do so only if they abide in the vine, that is, if they are closely connected with the vine so that they may constantly receive from it nutrition and water to grow strong. Interestingly, every branch that bears fruit, the vinegrower will prune or cleanse so that it may bear even more fruit (15:2), but those that are not connected with the vine will wither and be thrown into the fire to be burned (15:6).
For Paul, to bear fruit means to bear the fruit of the Spirit in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23), in other words, to exhibit a Christ-like character in one’s life. For John, to bear fruit may be summarized in the idea of soli Deo gloria, for Jesus said: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and be my disciples” (15:8). To bear fruit is tantamount to being Jesus’ disciples, and to be Jesus’ disciples is to love one another as he has loved them (13:35). As such, bearing fruit is a social enactment of mutual love that imitates Christ and glorifies God!
As we reflect on Jesus’ earnest words in calling his disciples friends, we may find the best poetic summary of this gift of loving friendship in Samuel Crossman’s hauntingly beautiful words in the famous hymn: “My Song Is Love Unknown” (1664):
My song is love unknown, my savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh, and die?
He came from heaven’s throne salvation to bestow;
the world that was his own would not its Savior know.
But O my Friend, my Friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend!