I didn’t clearly perceive this revolutionary foundation until two seemingly disconnected utterances arose in the midst of open worship a week apart. The first, from John 15:14-15, is where Jesus elevates his faithful followers from the status of servants and declares they are his friends. Among Quakers, it’s a central quotation, giving us our formal name as the Religious Society of Friends. On the surface, it’s a feel-good line of goodwill and invitation.
The second message however, based on Luke 9:23-25, is one that many ministers would prefer to avoid proclaiming. Here Jesus declares that each of his followers must deny himself and take up his own cross. The content is harsh and rebuffing. There’s no way to soften its directive:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
It was a passage I hadn’t considered for several years, but revisiting it now came as a jolt. I wondered what was going through the minds of others in the room, especially those who had never before encountered it.
My reaction came not because I was unprepared for the rawness of Jesus’ ultimatum – my approach to reading the New Testament had already shifted from seeking any comforting familiarity in the words and now attempted instead to embrace their astonishing weirdness, including the blatant challenges to any political and economic status quo. Later in the week I would chance upon a profile of a novelist that mentioned how he underwent what the Buddhists would consider a four-year death before he could be attain the wisdom that infused his later works. I could even point to Walt Whitman’s observation of Quakers in worship as appearing “as still as the grave,” and recognize in our meditation in kind of death to outward activities in order to restore our own souls. But as I sat in quietude absorbing the import of Jesus’ instruction, I realized that in it, he calls us to equality! We are not to take up his cross, but our own – whatever that may be. It’s the task we would rather avoid, at any cost. It’s a place where we will be alone and exposed, perhaps covered in scandal, as Jesus was on Mount Calvary, or branded as outlaws. And, unlike the Crucifixion, this is something we are to take up daily. (This teaching is also presented in Matthew 10:38-39 and 16:24-26)
When Jesus also calls us to be his friends, he again invokes an equality – one where race, ethnic identity, or gender cannot block the way. Friendship is chosen, unlike kinship, as Jesus proclaims in choosing to be friends. (Something his disciples could not do on their own, given the student-teacher divide.)
Friendship is a matter of give-and-take, which appears attractive when we consider the blessings that may follow but suddenly chafes when we realize friends can make demands upon us, as well. Borrowing a cup of sugar or a gallon of milk is one thing, but how do we react when our dear friend wants the car?