Being In Christ
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.—John 15:12-17
When we consider our relationship with God we often think of many biblical word pictures. We might, for example, think of the Lord our shepherd and of ourselves as the sheep he gently leads and protects. Another illustration that illuminates our relationship with God is the way the Bible speaks of God as our heavenly Father, and the wonderful truth that we are his spiritually reborn children, adopted into his family, heirs of the riches of his grace.
In our passage Jesus speaks of the eleven disciples (Judas has left them by this time so that he might go and betray Jesus) as his friends. Of course, the honor, privilege and blessing of being his friends didn’t only apply to those specific eleven men who gathered around him in that upper room in Jerusalem. This special relationship is offered to each and every follower of Jesus down through time.
The idea of being a friend of God (as God the Father called Abraham), and a friend of Jesus (as God the Son called his eleven remaining disciples and by extension, all in whom he lives and resides), is rich with its own special meanings. Let’s take some time to consider what it means to be a friend of God.
We don’t choose the circumstances or the individuals involved in our physical birth. We don’t choose our mother and father, our sisters and brothers, our grandparents—we are born into a family. But we can choose our friends. Jesus actually says that exact thing about our spiritual relationship with him. In verse 16 of our passage Jesus says—You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.
Jesus Christ stipulates that he makes the first move. He chooses us, not the other way around. He reaches out first. We don’t become his friends because we decide that we would like to have him for our friend. Jesus offers us his friendship. First of all, he reveals himself to us, allowing us to know and experience him. Then, it’s up to us to determine whether or not we will accept the friendship he holds out to us.
As John further explains in 1 John 4:19, We love because he FIRST loved us (emphasis mine). In verse 15 of our passage (John 15:15) Jesus makes sure we understand the nature of this friendship he offers. He does not regard us as servants, in the sense that a servant is not part of or involved with the life of his master.
When Jesus reaches out to us, he brings us into his life —he shares his thinking—he shares his secrets—he shares his purpose. Once we accept the friendship he offers us, he actually lives his life in us, as Paul tells us in Galatians 2:20. Being a friend of Jesus means:
• He tells us all there is to know about himself. No secrets. Full disclosure.
• Conversely, Jesus has determined to be our friend even though he already knows all there is to know about us.
We may speak of our relationship with God as Christ being WITH us. We will even pray, asking him to be WITH us, perhaps as we travel. We ask him to be WITH us as we or a loved one go to the hospital or as we have a job interview. There’s certainly nothing wrong in asking him to be WITH us.
But let’s turn that idea around. Why not ask Jesus to include us in what he is doing, what he is thinking and what he is planning? How about thanking Jesus that we are WITH HIM? Asking Jesus to allow us to be WITH HIM is a way of placing the emphasis of our relationship on him, for he is the basis and the foundation of our being.
Of course, when we are united in and with Christ, whether he is WITH us or we are WITH him are simply two sides of the same coin. But it is helpful for us to remember that we can only be in him if he is first in us. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Elsewhere in the New Testament we also read of the fact that we BELONG to him by virtue of a divine transaction, when Jesus gave his life to purchase you and me:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Think of people who collect discarded glass, plastic and aluminum containers. The bottles and cans once had value, by virtue of containing a desired liquid. But now these containers have been thrown away. The only reason anyone takes time to collect them is that the redemption center pays a few cents per container. The transaction offered by the redemption center enables an aluminum, glass or plastic can or bottle to be redeemed and have value once again. Jesus determined to make us his friends by redeeming us and purchasing us at the price of his own precious blood. Our lives may seem to be as worthless as a discarded bottle or can, but Jesus has placed a value on us. Therefore, we BELONG to him.
Ultimately, while those of us who follow Christ might have other relationships in our earthly lives, beyond all other relationships, we BELONG to our Lord and Savior alone. You might hear people talking about belonging to a brick-and-mortar church. They’ll say, in conversation, “I BELONG to the church down on Main Street.”
But, in the ultimate sense of the word “BELONG”—no true friend and follower of Jesus Christ can completely and categorically belong to any earthly institution, religious or otherwise. Our primary loyalty is owed to Jesus Christ alone. We have one Master, one Lord, one Savior—and One Ultimate, True, Lasting, Faithful and Trustworthy Friend.
Some who are involved in the forms and functions of a church that meets in a building discover that their friendship in and with Jesus Christ can be at odds with the goals of “their” church. Temporal churches—with their constitutions, by-laws, organization, decrees, creeds, doctrines, rules, rituals and ceremonies—can fail to encourage individual intimacy with Jesus Christ in favor of their own survival, their own preservation and their own growth.
A brick-and-mortar church that may begin with a few Christ-followers, based solely in and on him, can soon be overcome with standardized religious practices and beliefs, with structure and with bureaucracy. What starts as a matter of following Christ can turn into a religious machine, which becomes an end in itself—a self-perpetuating juggernaut that opposes anything or anyone that threatens its existence—and sadly, that can include our Lord and Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ.
The rapacious demands of an organization and its structure often include gaining new members by virtually any means necessary, and that enterprise can turn what might have started as a small group focused on life in Christ into a group that is enslaved to a religious machine. In such cases religion can subvert the gospel—corrupting it—so that people think more in terms of BELONGING to religion as a MEMBER rather than being a FRIEND of Christ.
John 15:12-17 says that Jesus calls us his friends that we may bear much fruit. The fruit he wants us to bear is the fruit he will produce—which is not always one and the same as the fruit that institutionalized religion will produce. Christ will bring forth fruit in us, but the fruit Jesus produces in our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we will become part of institutionalized religion.
Some Christ-less religious institutions grow in numbers, but never grow spiritually. They, and many of their members, don’t grow spiritually, because they lose sight of Jesus, and instead become preoccupied with their own physical growth and their own physical programs. Their own preservation as an institution becomes more important than their friendship with Christ—they become obsessed with “building THEIR church”—and when they do that church turns from faith to religion.
Being a friend of Jesus is more important than the doing of programs and ceremonies and activities and rituals. When activities and doing and busy-ness replace relationship— when obsession with getting more people into a church building replaces grace—we lose our direction and we eventually lose our faith, and we sink into the abyss of religion. Let us therefore be committed to and give thanks for the abiding relationship we have in Christ, by God’s grace, for truly, as that great old hymn states, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”