It is striking where the word for friend comes from in many languages. Let’s take Latin: amicus is a form of the word Amor, amare. In Greek, philia means both friendship and love. And in German, the word comes from Old Saxon friohon, Old English frēogan, Old Norse frjā, Gothic frijōn, which means to love anything, but is also related to free.
Old High German friunt (8th century), Middle High German vriunt means friend, neighbor, beloved, relative.
Jesus tells us that he no longer calls us servant, but friend. (John 15:15)
Do we realize what that means? Today, the word friend has a different meaning than it did in Luther’s day, and even more so than the Hebrew or Greek concept in Jesus’ day. Following someone on social media is a far cry from friend, neighbor, loved one, relative.
That Jesus uses the word philos in a much stronger sense becomes clear when we look at the context.
What at first seems like a call to obedience changes in the course of the passage. First, Jesus calls us to keep his commandments, as a prerequisite for his love, so to speak. Or so it seems.
But he doesn’t stop there. He tells us what his commandments are: love one another.
Now it becomes clear what Jesus means when he says: I no longer call you servants. Servants obey, often without knowing why. Simply because the Lord has said so.
Beloved — and I think we should use this word because the whole passage is about love — have no secrets from each other.
It goes further than that. Can I command love? No, because love out of obedience is not love. It is obedience.
So when Jesus says his commandment is to love, he is telling us that he has no commandment. So if the prerequisite for his love is a paradoxical, impossible construct, then there is no prerequisite.
Why didn’t Jesus put it that way?
Imagine you live in a culture that has lived for centuries believing that God’s love, his acceptance, depends on your obedience. In a culture that still believes that sacrifice is necessary to be at peace with God again. God had long since told them that he did not want their sacrifices. He would have preferred their obedience.
God could not have gone any further. It would have been too big a step to be understood. Therefore, the first step was from sacrifice to obedience as a prerequisite for a relationship.
Jesus now takes the second step: not even obedience, but love. But love is not a commandment, it is a gift. And God goes before us. He loved us first. And he gives us his love unconditionally.
How does such love manifest itself? We often fall back into the belief that it is all about obedience. Those who love will keep the commandments. Not because they have to, but because they want to.
Again, this is a first step. Perhaps that is why Jesus commanded love. But he tells us what love is: to give one’s life for others.
Elsewhere, he tells us that everyone can love their friend (or perhaps even that everyone can love their beloved). The love of goods is shown in the love of enemies.
May we take these words of Jesus further?
God was leading humanity down a path of growth: no human sacrifice, obedience instead of sacrifice, love instead of obedience. Jesus spoke into this step. He came into an obedient society that rested on commandments and the law, and opened up the next step for us.
At best, the church turned this into obedience out of love. Obedience out of love corresponds to the slave who, after seven years, decides to remain a slave voluntarily to his master. But it does not correspond to the image of the beloved.
How could we continue God’s train of thought? His love is unconditional. Not even a decision to obey him or even to love him is necessary because that would be a condition.
Love as a voluntary decision. Can it be that simple?
In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul tells us this:
Do you not know that those who do not follow the way will not possess the kingdom of God?
So obedience, after all? “Those who do not follow the way” is usually translated as “the unrighteous” nonetheless.
Let us use the above-mentioned path of God from sacrifice to obedience to love as “the way” to follow.
We need a second change of thought in this verse. The kingdom of God is in our midst, even within us, says the Bible. So this is not about the place where we spend eternity. It is about the here and now.
This verse tells a wholly different story than we are used to. Let me try.
The context is about the relationship between brothers, like-minded people, friends, relatives, in other words people in the philos category.
Taking advantage of them, but also holding them accountable for it, is not the way that God has prescribed. “Why don’t you prefer to be taken advantage of?” asks Paul.
Demanding obedience blinds us to love and therefore to the kingdom of God.
The following list goes a little further. It shows us that all selfish behavior blinds us to the kingdom of God.
The story of the servant who had massive debts comes to mind. After these were forgiven, he still insisted that one of his debtors had to pay everything. He was blind to love, blind to the kingdom of God.
God is merciful. He leads us forward on the path of growth at the speed we can shoulder.
Jesus has shown us the next step, pushed open the door. He no longer calls us servants, but beloved.
Why do we hold on to commandments, exclusion, and conditions?