Friendship was highly valued in the Greco-Roman world. It was the ideal relationship between equals. For Epicurus, friendship was the basic pleasure, and the friendship found in Epicurean groups was a key factor in their popularity.
But the human being could also be a friend of God: “The sage is a friend of god” (Pseudo-Diogenes, Epistle 10). More than that, in Jewish thought, God could be a friend of the human being. In Exod 33:11, “Yahweh would talk to Moses face to face, as a man talks to his friend.” But it was only Moses who had this special positiion. The closest the ordinary person came to this notion of friendship was through seeking Wisdom: personified Wisdom was a friend of all who seek God (Wis 6:12–16; 7:26ff; 9:1–2; Prov 8:22–31).
With John’s Gospel, everyone can be a friend of God. In 3:19, John the Baptist describes himself as “the friend of the bridegroom,” and Lazarus is described as a friend of Jesus in 11:11. It is Jesus’ friendship that is betrayed by Judas (13:18).
For a Johannine community under attack from outside and faced with division within (cf. 1 John 2:19), there is the need to strengthen bonds. The relationship with Jesus becomes the model for the relationship with each other. Jesus has been their friend, ready to lay his life down for them (15:13). Disciples become friends of Jesus by doing what Jesus teaches (15:14), and he teaches by example.
Instead of the 613 commandments of Yahweh according to Judaism, Jesus gives only one: “Love one another as I loved you” (15:12). This love results in being prepared to give one’s life for one’s friends, because this is what Jesus did. This is the only commandment and results in friendship with Jesus and true friendship with each other.
With v.14, there is a clear change in the nature of the relationship between the disciple and Jesus. No longer are they slaves (douloi) but friends, with knowledge of what God himself is doing. This is true wisdom. This new commandment (v.12), if kept, leads to a new relationship with God. There is no specific mention of the love of God in this new commandment; rather, loving your friends will automatically result in union with God, because you love his friends.
Pilate is faced with a crucial decision at the trial of Jesus: Will he prefer to be a friend of the Emperor instead (19:12)? Being a friend of Caesar was a very privileged position in Roman society, and to be called ‘no friend of Caesar’ would lead to certain disaster for a Roman prefect. He prefers not to be a friend of the Truth, but of the Emperor.
For a community that is mourning the apparent absence of Jesus, the evangelist portrays Jesus as being present at their meals. It is at a meal among friends that “the house was filled with perfume” (12:3), and at another meal among friends that Jesus, as servant, first teaches them about love (13:34). At both meals, the betrayer figures prominently, and yet he cannot take away from the friendship, beauty, promise and hope of the two scenes.
For the Johannine community, Jesus, our friend, is present in the same way when we gather around the table of the Eucharist. Indeed, the image of community that we find in John’s Gospel is of “a community of friends.”
Do we see God as our friend? Do we share with him as we would with a close friend? Do we trust him? He has been prepared to lay down his life for us once, and we are reminded of this love through the Eucharist. Could he be more prepared to give everything for us?
If God seems remote at times for us, or if we have seen him as the One Who Commands, we can remember this new relationship that is available for the one who loves — such a person is God’s friend.