Servant or Friend

I shall no longer call  you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father. You did not choose me, no, I chose you; and I commissioned you to go out and to bear fruit, fruit that will last; so that the Father will give you anything you ask him in my name. My command to you is to love one another.

John 15:16-17

 

Work plays a central role in human life. We bear fruit in the world through the work that we do. In fact, Jesus, in today’s gospel, says that the disciples can only understand what it means for them to be chosen by him as they “go out” and “bear fruit.” If our work is a response to the commission we have been given, then anything we ask of God will be given to us. For, we will only be asking, in that case, what it is that will fulfill God’s will, God’s work through us. Throughout the gospels it is clear that a core constituent of discipleship is mission. It is being sent out to do God’s work in the world that constitutes being a disciple of Jesus.

As we go about our work, however, it is appropriate to ask ourselves the question, “who is being served” by our work. A truthful answer will almost always mean acknowledging our multiple motivations. Much of what we do is, hopefully, a response to the task for which God has chosen us, the fruit he has created us to bear. However, there is always to a degree an element of self-creation and self-promotion in our work. It is through our work that we become defined in society, that we become identified in the eyes of others — and so in our own eyes. When first meeting a new person, quite quickly, in the always awkward first moments of encounter, the question arises: “What do you do?” At such moments we are always confronted with the question and often the doubt about our own significance. Our work, no matter how altruistic, is always to varying degrees about ourselves.

The spiritual traditions call us to simplicity and purity of heart. This call is so often repeated, however, because in truth we are complex. Even our most sincere attempts to help others and to do good are to a degree tainted by our own need for self-justification, self-approval, and the approval of others. It is very difficult not to desire to be a good person and to feel good about ourselves. None of this is at all bad or evil; it is merely the way we are constituted. We tend to see and to engage in the world almost always as in a mirror, with ourselves being reflected back to us. The servant serves the master always in part out of self-interest and even self-preservation. Thus, his or her service is always performed with a sense of distance between him or herself and the master. As Jesus points out, the “servant does not know the master’s business” but only the task or demand at hand. The servant’s job is to do what he or she is told without any sense of the larger picture or perhaps even the task’s context or larger purpose. The servant knows the will of the master or mistress in this one regard but does not know his or her mind and heart. Thus, the purpose of the action for the servant’s work is to appease, or please or satisfy the master in order to stay in favor and keep his or her position.

In John’s gospel, however, Jesus bequeaths to his disciples before his death a much deeper truth about the possibility of work and of the mission to which he commissions them. You are to go out not as my servants but as my friends. You are to do what you do out of friendship for me, out of a love that eliminates the mirror between you and the task. You are to act not on an external command but rather out of an experiential knowledge of the love God has for the world. To love God, to act in and from love is not something we create and evoke. To love God is to know in our very core the truth of what Jesus says: “I call you friends.”

If we are honest and unsentimental, we have to acknowledge that speaking of loving God is often quite incomprehensible for us. There is admittedly an aspect of this we can understand. The Torah makes it quite clear that loving God means doing what God commands. In the Hebrew scriptures and throughout the tradition, “love” of God means obedience to the covenant. Yet, we also hear of a love that seems to come from a will that is other than our functional or executive will. Jesus speaks to his disciples, and to us, of this other dimension of love. It is not something that comes primarily from us, but is a love that we receive and to which we respond.

I can do good for another and so love them and care for them. I cannot, however, make them my friend. Friendship is a gift that is received and then reciprocated. It is another’s recognition of our value, in all of what we see as our positive and negative dimensions, and their delight in who we are and who we are called to be. In this gift they evoke in us, in return, our capacity to reciprocate that friendship in their regard. In such friendship we experience a deep desire and longing to express ourselves in all honesty and openness and to receive from our friend a mutual openness. Julian of Norwich her revelations writes, “it is very pleasing to God that a simple soul should should come naked, openly, and familiarly.”

The uniqueness of the love of friendship lies in its nakedness, openness, and familiarity. The great gift of friendship, what distinguishes it from all other relationships, is that it is not an action but a state of being and relationship without reserve, in which we hide nothing of ourselves, in which we are finally able to rest because we are not working at hiding aspects of ourselves or making something of ourselves. Jesus calls his disciples friends “because I have made known to you everything I have learned from by Father.” In reciprocating that friendship they and we make known to him everything that we have learned, and even don’t yet know, of who we are. “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” (John 21:17)

So it is that for the great teachers of prayer, the “work” of prayer is the experience of friendship. St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the will of the friends must be in accord.” (The Book of Her Life, ch. 8 #5) Because our ordinary mode of presence and work in the world has about it an inherent element of dissociation from our own depth, and so from God, we must, says St. Teresa, “take time frequently to be alone with the One who we know loves us.” The work the disciple has been given to do is a work that depends on and springs from the disciples’ friendship with Jesus.

So, when Jesus says to his disciples, whom he has now identified as his friends, “I chose you,” he is telling them that it is who they truly and totally are that he is commissioning. They have no need to hide in their work. They need not fear how they will be seen. There need not be any mirror between them and the world they serve. We, as they, are sent out of the friendship we have received and known. Our work, our mission, is an expression of our being loved and befriended by God. “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.” (1 John 4:16) To know God’s love and friendship in our regard is to know who we are. It is to no longer require that our work and the world’s response to it give us an identity. Because it is not easy to believe that the world needs what we have been given, we are always acting in search of confirmation and reassurance from the world. To truly take in the fact, as Jesus tells us today, that we are his friends and to return that friendship in how we live our life and structure our days will allow us, in self-forgetfulness, to truly love our world and to work on its behalf in a way that will bear fruit that will endure.

God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us. And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it has despised as nothing all things which are created. When it by its will has become nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.

And also our good Lord revealed that it is very greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul should come naked, openly and familiarly. For this is the loving yearning of the soul through the touch of the Holy Spirit, from the understanding which I have in this revelation: God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me, and I can ask for nothing which is less which can pay you full worship. And if I ask anything which is less, always I am in want; but only in you do I have everything.

Julian of Norwich, Showings (Long Text), Chapter V

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