That song has haunted me for three decades. It has crawled around my mind and traversed my soul because, when I’m honest, I’m not sure I can sing it with conviction. Would I have been a friend of Jesus in his time? Don’t know.
Of course, you can interpret Friend of Jesus a couple of ways. The straightforward inference acknowledges Jesus was a friend to sinners. He chose Matthew, James and John, as well as unsavory souls the song describes as the “hard-line gang.” Jesus picked people who needed a friend, and he became their friend. He even befriended a traitor like Matthew and a prostitute like Mary Magdalene.
So, when you look at it that way, maybe I would have been a friend of Jesus. He could read people the way a scanner reads a bar code. Maybe he would have seen the need in my life for a truly loving and close friend and responded with compassion—been my friend.
But when I think about the people who were not Jesus’ friends, I’m not so sure. The young ruler, the scribes, the Pharisees. These were conscientious, clean, middle-class, synagogue-going folk. And they weren’t Jesus’ friends. They didn’t need Jesus’ friendship. Or so they thought. Their backgrounds, social standing, faithfulness to status quo religion, education and money all seemed sufficient. They didn’t see the need for one more True Friend, like Jesus.
Still, I wonder if I’m different—may I say, “if we are different”?—only because we live on this side of Easter. We already know about Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday, Easter. So, it’s easy to say: “Yeah, sure, I would have been a friend of Jesus. Just look at me now.”
Yet each of us should ask a couple of questions: If I didn’t know what I learned because of Easter, would I have been a friend of Jesus. And more importantly: Do I behave as if I’m a friend of Jesus, anyway?
Jesus provided his followers with a forthright formula for determining if we are his friends. “You are my friends if you do what I command. ... This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:14, 17). Sounds simple, doesn’t it? “Love each other.” But how often do we Christians fail to love each other, much less the “hard-line gang” whom Jesus had the compassion to love and serve? We’ve all heard Christians say much-less-than-loving things about and to other Christians. Most of us have said them ourselves. We’ve avoided each other at all cost, when people who love each other want to spend time together. People who love see the loved one’s need and respond to it without being asked. They put the one they love first. People in love want to build up, strengthen and care for the one they love, no matter the personal cost.
If we follow Jesus’ example, we extend that circle of love. Not just to the lovely. Not just to the ones who loved us first. Not just to the ones whose bartered affection benefits us. Not just to the clean and educated and proper. We extend that love to the “hard-line gang,” who don’t even know they need to be loved. Pastor/ missionary/ author Earl Palmer calls this “evangelical ethics.” Jesus’ command to love others doesn’t so much demand that we give up something we own, but that we pass on the treasure that has been give us by Jesus—God’s words, not only expressed in words, but in loving acts of grace, kindness and mercy.
On Palm Sunday, throngs lined the road to praise Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. They appeared to be his friends. By Friday, all but a handful vanished. At Easter, we still cheer for Jesus. However, we demonstrate our friendship and loyalty when we not only say we love Jesus, but also demonstrate our love for each other and his creatures.
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Visit his blog at www.baptiststandard.com.