“I have called you friends…”

48th Melkite Convention Keynote Address
Bishop Nicholas Samra
Dearborn, MI – July 6, 2012

In the last discourse of Christ, most likely much of which was spoken at the Last Supper with his apostles before his passion, death and resurrection, the apostle and evangelist John summarizes the entire ministry of Christ’s short public life as recorded by the synoptic writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In this great discourse Jesus stresses that He will depart and at the same time provides the comfort to his disciples with a promise of a return – certainly a reference to the parousia and second coming. Jesus explains that He is the way to the Father because He is the incarnate truth about the Father and gives life from above to humanity. He is the source of knowledge about the Father. We know the Father through Jesus.

Jesus speaks about the greatest commandment of love, and the Spirit which is continuous life – the Spirit who will preserve the Church – Christ’s Body – throughout eternity.

Jesus uses some very beautiful imagery to get his message across: peace, the vine and the branches, the world’s hatred, God’s abiding love, the sacrifice of death, and the continuous bond of love.

Jesus speaks to his apostles and speaks to all of us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do the things I command you. No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and have appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit shall remain; that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give you. These things I command you that you may love one another.” (Jn 15:12-17).

Three times Jesus uses the word “friend” in this passage. If we go to a dictionary and look up the word “friend” we find: “friend, a person with whom one is on terms of mutual affection and respect.” A servant on the other hand, owes his life and body to his master, one who must do and act as one is told without question. There is a difference between a servant and a friend. Let us explore this a bit more.

In the Old Testament Abraham was the ideal servant. God asked him to pick up and move. God asked him for the difficult sacrifice – to offer his son Isaac on the altar of sacrifice. Abraham listened, Abraham put in all his faith without question to the command of God.

Jesus takes this a step further. He speaks of the supreme commandment of love. He speaks of laying down his life for his people. This supreme example of love goes beyond the servitude of the Old Testament to a new particularly Christian ideal: the New Testament ideal is to be a friend of Jesus. In the past Jesus called his disciples servants – now He raises them to the rank of friends. Now there is mutual affection and respect not just blind obedience. Because of Jesus our knowledge now outshines the Old Testament figures. Jesus has chosen his disciples and us as his disciples to be recipients of this revelation of friendship. Now we are all called to love one another because of God’s mutual love for us.

A friend is one who is a helper or a sympathizer, one who cares for the other person beyond servitude, one who has mutual affection and one who has respect.

“No longer do I call your servants…. I have called you friends.” The great theologian writer Paul Evdokimov writes: “Beyond the slave and mercenary ethic, the Gospel proposes the ethic of the friends of God,” God, and man: friends working together!! This we call “synergy” in our Eastern understanding of theology. Hand in hand we work with God because we are friends. God no longer commands us what to do, He offers us the freedom of making choices, of mutual love and respect – we are friends working together.

The various workshops at this convention today and tomorrow will touch on aspects of this friendship. Participate in them and learn more about your partnership with God and his creation, which spills out in friendship.

Let me touch upon more about this synergy and working friendship with God. A short story was originally a joke but in reality is a parable:

A great flood, similar to the problem of New Orleans some years back, found a man trapped on the roof of his house by rapidly rising flood waters. Earlier in the day an evacuation truck had come by. The driver, a friend, pleaded with him to leave, “no” said the man, “all my trust is in God that He will save me.”

While he sat on the roof, a boat came by. The rescuer, another friend, was greeted with the same response, “no thanks, God will save me.” Later a helicopter, piloted by a friend hovered overhead while the man refused to leave, “no thank you,” God will save me.” Soon after he was swept away and drowned.

As he stood before God in heaven; dazzled by the beauty of the divine face, he asked, “Lord, why didn’t you save me? I placed all my trust in You.” God replied, “But I tried to save you three times, I sent you 3 friends – once by truck, once by boat, and once by helicopter, and three times you refused me.”

This parable introduces an important word that expresses a basic belief of our Eastern theology: the word synergy.

In 1 Cor. 15:10 St Paul tells us that both he and the grace of God were operative in his life and ministry. “By divine grace, however, I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not ineffective. In fact, I have worked harder than any of them, that is, not really I but the grace of God that is with me.”

No longer are we servants or slaves, blindly obedient to God. We are not robots, and God is not a manipulator who pulls strings and pushes buttons to get us to do things. He gives us free will, declares us friends, and in friendship we share with God mutual affection and respect. We are co-creators and cooperators with God and his grace – given to us because we are friends.

Synergy is from Greek “ERGOI” – work and “syn” – with. God cooperates: He works with us. We work with him. God wants free-will partners. We are created to be sons and daughters, not slaves to his will. Once we know him, we do become his servants, but we do it willingly, out of love because He calls us friends.

First God reaches out to us – we may call this initiative of God “grace.” Then there must be a response to God’s reaching out – we call this “faith.” Faith is our hand reaching out to take God’s hand. This is Synergy.

In the Chrysostom Liturgy, St John tells all that God does for us: “You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, you raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until you led us to heaven and granted us your kingdom to come.” It is clear that all God did and still does for us is because of mutual love and respect – “I call you friends.”

Be what you are! By grace God made you a saint. Now be one! By grace Jesus implanted his life in you – Express it! By grace Jesus calls us his friends – show your friendship in what you do and say! We must call each other friends as Jesus calls us friends. Let every word and act express that friendship!

Many examples of God’s friendship and our synergy exist in the Bible. Probably the greatest example used by the Church Fathers is the Theotokos.

“The incarnation was not only the work of the Father,” says Nicholas Cabasilas, “but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin… Just as God became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His mother should bear him freely and with her full consent.”

Mary stands as the greatest example of man’s free response to God’s offer of salvation. God does not force his will on Mary – friends do not force but respect each other, God waits for her free response: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your will.” (Lk 1:38)

As friends of Jesus Christ, we need each other. Friends feel each other’s pain, friends rejoice at each other’s joy. God has created the human body for all the parts to work together. He has created his spiritual body – his Church – in the same way – all the members caring for each other as “friends.” There are no insignificant members in the Body of Christ. The eye sees, the ear hears, the hands labor, the teeth chew, the stomach digests. They all work together for the whole body – nothing in isolation.

We must keep the sacrament of the Altar and the sacrament of the brother united as one. We need to live the liturgy after the liturgy by ministering to the needs of the same Christ who calls us friends, – the same Christ who we met and whom we received at the altar. He is the same Christ who appears before us as the hungry, the poor, the aged, the infirm, the starving, the stranger, the hurting and the forgotten street person. This is the same Body of Christ we encounter at the altar.

There is a twofold work of ministry – we your bishops, priests and deacons need to gather the people of God for worship, instruction and empowering and to be friends of Christ. Then we must scatter you into the world as the same friends of Christ. We not only go to Church, we are the Church wherever we go. Go into the world, my beloved faithful as friends of Jesus and friends of each other. He calls us friends. And as the friends of Christ enter the world to show forth the love of God and the justice of God, you are ordained by Baptism and Chrismation to the royal priesthood to be the friends of Christ to the world. Have a happy and friendly journey!