An Enduring Basis for Friendship as Taught by Jesus in the Gospel of John

Coming to South Bend in the Summer of 2016 from the Maltese islands, a little more than rocks in the Mediterranean, I marveled at the vast expanses of the Midwest and its array of tall, verdant trees. My daily route from the Notre Dame campus to the Preca Cottage ran along Twyckenham Drive. I walked home through a green corridor lined by oak trees, old and beautiful.

My Society of Christian Doctrine sent me for three intensive weeks of reading Theology at Notre Dame with Dr Timothy O’Malley (“Introduction to Catechetical Theology”) and Dr Angela Senander (“Renewing Moral Theology with the Call to Holiness”). I arrived in June, fresh from having completed my thesis for the Master of Arts in Theology. Three months later, in September 2016, I successfully defended this same thesis on “‘Love of Friendship’ in the Christian Life” and was awarded the MA in December 2016. Thank God for this Christmas gift, which began with the great privilege of studying theology first at the University of Malta and subsequently at Notre Dame. What twice-blest opportunities these were to share learning and insights through conversation with fellow students, in guided reading with our mentors of the Institute for Church Life and Theology Department, where I experienced collegiality, hospitality, and a spirit of good will.

However, in the wider American culture, I often sensed tension and a vague wariness that was difficult to explain. It was as if, just beneath the peaceful landscape and general friendliness, there lurked a certain sense of mistrust; people seemed to find it difficult to trust one another, even while seeming to long for friendship and communion. Someone in class observed that the atmosphere was always tense before a major presidential election: “We’re a very politically divided nation here in America,” she had said. Furthermore, liberalism and conservatism escaped from merely political jostling of the presidential primaries into opposing religious camps within the American Catholic Church as well.

Of course, unfortunately, it is universal that emotions run high before and during elections, no matter what the country.  The recent SNAP Election in Malta, that confirmed the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, was quite nasty, but our island is so small that the people, all highly interrelated, try to avoid messing with our common domestic nest. Even so, despite Catholicism being the state religion as established in the Constitution of Malta, the effect of political divisiveness and domestic distrust is putting a strain on friendship and disturbing the domestic peace. Everyone wants friends, but there has been extensive confusion in the common understanding of this word, as with many other similarly affective words. There is the traditional maxim of the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), which may be helpful as a reminder of courtesy and as a corrective for unbridled selfishness, but it does not go deep enough, nor can it act as cornerstone. Self-government, whether public and private, and their unity in communion with others, depend upon something deeper than a mere social contract for the common good. The foundation of a just and moral society depends upon authentic friendship. And, friendship, at its deepest level, originates in the love of God, manifest in the Incarnation and teachings of Jesus.

In Malta, as in America and everywhere else, friendship is not only essential, but the love of friendship is a compelling basis for unity and enduring peace. In the Society of Christian Doctrine itself members try to avoid partisan political discussion. We greet one another with a reminder that our lives are hidden in Christ’s peace: “Peace be with you.” St Paul stated the basis for this reminder in Philippians 4:7; the peace of Christ, indeed, passes all understanding and is not dependent on the outcome of a political election or a constitutional decree.

A solid theology of friendship finds its foundation and models in the Gospels, especially the Gospel of St. John. There, in the Johannine Gospel, the unique innovation of the Christian understanding of friendship emerges and shows the eternal and holy way, beyond all temporal alliances of profit and politics. The Gospel of St. John proclaims the profound truth that friendship with God, through trusting and following Jesus, serves as the basis for all authentic friendships. The Blessed Trinitarian God is the ground of all being, including friendship, and of perfect happiness and communion.

There is a natural model of human friendship that is to be found through the great writers of the ancient classical world, which is beneficial as far as it goes, and Christian writers have drawn on it. The incorporation of this ancient understanding of friendship was brought into full Christian life by the synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatise on the theological virtue of caritas in his Summa Theologiæ. However, this is not the place for discussing the benefits and limitations of friendship in ancient culture. Alas, we can only acknowledge the contribution of St. Thomas’s Summa in this regard, because we have to make room for reflecting upon the words and relationships of Jesus Himself as recorded in the Gospel of St. John, which I propose to do in three parts.

Suffice it to say that drawing upon our entire heritage, both cultural and religious, a theology of friendship can be discovered as a trustworthy basis for building happiness and holiness in Christian community as well as everywhere else. Friendship, as delineated in St. John by the unnamed “Beloved Disciple,” can both enrich the individual lives of authentic Christians today and, at the same time, contribute to the renewal of the theology of the Christian life everywhere as called for by the Second Vatican Council (Optatam Totius, §16). The Fourth Gospel is rich in many stories and examples of divine and human friendship. Combined with the Old Testament manifestations and amplified by St. Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of caritas in his great Summa, the Gospel of St. John is glorious, surpassing even the elevated Greco-Roman understanding of friendship. There seems to be a general longing everywhere to experience this dimension of theology, which heals all divisions, is long overdue in its development.

The Tradition of "love" and "friendship" in Sacred Scripture and the Church

In the life of the Church, over the ages, “love of friendship” managed to get a foothold and secure its place, despite being often misunderstood. From a theological perspective, the mistrust of this “love of friendship” stems from its appearing to be a preferential, even exclusive, kind of affection and, thus, a contradiction of the biblical command to love all people. However, it need not be either exclusive or contradictory. The Christian understanding of “love of friendship” emerges from many biblical texts, throughout the Old Testament and the New, but in a particular way in the Fourth Gospel.

In the Old Testament there are many accounts of different kinds of friendship, from Moses and Abraham through the Prophets, in the Proverbs and the Psalms, and through the allegorical lover/beloved poem, Solomon’s Song of Songs. In Exodus 33:11, it is recorded that “… the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” Here is explicit reference to friendship with the divine when Moses and God are seen conversing “man to man,” just as friends do. Likewise, in Chronicles 20:7, there is a reminder of this relationship; God’s revelation to Abraham may also be viewed as an expression of friendship between them: "Did You not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel and give it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?” In addition to these references to friendship with God, there are also scriptural references to intimate personal friendships (Deut 13:6), family friendships (Prov 27:10), and political friendships (Esth 6:13). A good example of an intimate personal friendship is the relationship between David and Jonathan, who is said to have loved David “as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1-3) and “as his own life” (1 Sam 20:17). The absolute devotion of Ruth to Naomi, though not expressed using friendship conventions, nevertheless reflect ideals, such as loyalty and respect, which are associated with genuine friendship (Ruth 1:16-17). Thus, by understanding friendship as a central theme in the Bible, we can come to see the central role of friendship for Christian theology and the Christian life more specifically, for everyone’s benefit. It is precisely the role that St Thomas Aquinas grants to friendship in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiæ.

However, it is in the Gospel of St John that the truly glorious paradigm is found, and there is a long tradition linking friendship with the Fourth Gospel. In the history of theology, the Fourth Gospel has a special role in “Love of Friendship”; as Origen claims in his Commentary on John, it is “the first fruits of the gospel.”[i] This ripe fruit, “friendship” and “love,” arise from the very depths of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. The image of the Beloved Disciple reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper came to be viewed as the prototypical example of friendship among the medieval writers. Moreover, the Fourth Gospel explicitly gives “love of friendship” a central place:

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13-15).

Here, the author presents a sweeping change of status for Jesus’ disciples: they are no longer regarded as slaves/servants, but are called friends.

Let us first look at the friendship between Jesus and his disciples, a relationship that in some way mirrors the relationship that Jesus, the incarnate Logos, has with the Father. Jesus’s relationships with several characters (i.e. John the Baptist, the family from Bethany, and the Beloved Disciple) come to culmination in the discourse and events of the Last Supper. In the final drama, prior to Jesus entering into his passion, the Johannine Gospel is both detailed and explicit in its message. The author of the Fourth Gospel proclaims Jesus, who came not only to save the world, but also to offer those who want to follow Him a relationship that Greco-Roman philosophers only dreamed of, and which Judaism probably found preposterous: a friendship with none other than the Incarnate Divine Lord himself.

Before proceeding, it is important to make an etymological detour and speak briefly about the terminology used for “love” in the Fourth Gospel. The Johannine imagery of “love” and “friendship” spans two word groups: ἀγαπᾶν and φιλεῖν.  The verbal form, ἀγαπάω, is used thirty-seven times in John whereas φιλέω occurs twelve times. Most of this usage congregates around the Farewell Discourse (John 13:31–17:26), where “love” and “friendship” are major themes and where, according to the vast majority of Johannine scholars, the two verbs, together with their respective cognate groups, are used interchangeably with no distinction in meaning.

Indeed, over the centuries a great number of Johannine scholars grappled with the question of whether the alternation of verbs ἀγαπάω and φιλέω that appear in the conversation between Jesus and Peter, in which Peter is reinstated on the profession of his love for Jesus (John 21:15-23) is narratively significant. The consensus of those Johannine scholars who conclude that this alternation represents John’s stylistic preference for using different but synonymous words, is based on their insistence that all attempts to draw a semantic distinction between ἀγαπάω and φιλέω are doomed to failure, whether in Greek literature generally, the Septuagint, the New Testament, or John’s Gospel itself. One of these scholars, James Barr, wrote in his essay, “Words for Love in Biblical Greek” the following:

There is a difference of stylistic level, of associations, and of nuances. But within any one individual passage these differences do not amount to a distinction of real theological reference: they do not specify a difference in the kind of love referred to.[ii]

This later scholarship contradicts the consensus of many 19th century British scholars, who tended to see the alternation of verbal forms in John 21:15-17 as not merely one of style but of substance. However, support for this archaic position has continued to dwindle in the face of the apparently irrefutable evidence that the Fourth Gospel regularly deploys synonyms for the sole purpose of stylistic variation.
 Featured Image: Paolo Veronese, Wedding at Cana, 1563; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[i] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John: Books 1-10, trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington DC: Catholic, 2001), 31-36.

[ii] James Barr, ''Words for Love in Biblical Greek,'' in eds. L. D. Hurst and N. T. Wright, The Glory of Christ in the New Testament. Studies in Christology. In Memory of George Bradford Caird (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 15.


Jonathan Sammut

Jonathan Sammut is a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine (founded by St. George Preca) in Malta where he lives and works. He studied Theology at the University of Notre Dame in the Summer of 2016 and holds the M.A. in Theology from the University of Malta.

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