Few things in life are better or more important than having good friends. Good friends understand you, they anticipate your needs. Good friends love you for who you are, even on your bad days. Good friends are there to pick you up when you’re down, walk with you when the road is lonely, and celebrate with you. They share in your sorrows and in your joys.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my family decided to move to Chicago from Florida. Believe it or not, the change in climate wasn’t my main concern. I had a great group of friends in Florida. My biggest fear and worry about moving was whether I’d make the same good friends.
Even from a child’s first months, parents worry if she will have friends who are kind and generous, if he will find mutually beneficial relationships. Children and teens aren’t the only ones facing friendship challenges. As I’ve grown into an adult, I’ve discovered how busy lives, competing priorities, life transitions and geographical distance can spell the end of some relationships. Sometimes we run into people we thought were friends, but turned out to be bullies and manipulators. This all goes to say that friendship—true friendship—is precious. We treasure them and work hard at them because we need them.
In the gospel lesson from John, we’ve returned to the last night that Jesus spends with the disciples. In a moving gesture, Jesus has washed their feet and is now in the middle of a long discourse of encouragement to prepare them for life and ministry without their leader. It’s in the course of this lengthy speech that Jesus’ relationship with the others gathered around him takes a turn. No longer does Jesus call the twelve disciples or followers or servants. “You are my friends,” he says. And the force behind this new relationship, forming a new community, is love.
Sometimes I don’t think we have enough words in the English language to talk about love. It seems like we use love to describe everything, from our favorite food or Netflix series to the one to whom we’ve spoken our marriage vows. In ancient Greek, there were several words used to talk about love. But one of them in particular was a word the author of John uses over and over again—including in this morning’s commandment to love one another. Agape: charitable love, selfless love, love without limit; or my favorite definition: wasteful love.
In this brief scene with Jesus and his disciples—his friends—we find a new way of being in community and being in the world. Jesus invites us into a new reality in which all barriers and hierarchies disappear. All of us, friends, equally sharing in Christ’s resurrected life. All of us mutually sharing God’s mission to bring life—abundant life—to all.
The key to this new way of being in community is love: selfless love without limit, wasteful love. Love that frees us from our me-centric, survival-driven tendencies. Love that frees us to give ourselves away for others. Love that embraces people for who they are. This love can’t be bought, purchased, or stored away for a rainy day. This love can’t be created on our own. This love is something we receive only to share and pass along. This love is what binds us to God and to one another.
This love also stands in opposition to business as usual. God’s love is, according to human standards, quite unfair. God’s love goes to all people—Jews and Greeks, as Peter finds out in the reading from Acts—male and female, slave and free, as St. Paul famously declares in his letter to the Galatians. We can add to the list—God’s love goes to—old and young, black and white, employed and unemployed, free and incarcerated, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, gender conforming and non-conforming. God’s love even goes to all of creation—just ask the psalmist, “the rivers clap their hands, the hills ring out for joy.” God’s abundant love changes how we interact with earth and all its inhabitants.
Like a good friend, Jesus tells the ones gathered with him that fateful night that they will not be left alone, that you and I will not be left alone. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus hints at this promise: I AM the bread of life, the living water; I AM the good shepherd; I AM the vine you are the branches. These statements recall the sound of the great I AM that meets Moses in the burning bush in Exodus and accompanies the people as a pillar of cloud and pillar of fire across the Red Sea into freedom—visual reminders of the persistent and abiding presence of God.
And there’s that word again—abide. Love one another and you will abide in my love, just as I abide in my Father’s love. Love isn’t only a commandment, but a mark of Jesus’ presence with and within his friends. Love is an experience of God’s presence flowing through human life. God’s abiding presence is always with us and we know this by priceless moments of true love and friendship. God’s abiding presence is always with us, calling us into a new community of friends. God’s abiding presence is always with us, raising us to new life for the sake of the world God so dearly loves.
 John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).