By Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl —
“Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Jesus’ parting words to his followers ignited a missionary movement that has now spanned millennia. In his teaching, he left no doubt that every commandment and every undertaking should derive from—and point to—love for God and neighbor. But undergirding everything Jesus said and did is God’s love for each person, most clearly evident in the love and sacrifice of Jesus himself.
Jesus made our outreach, mission, and ministry very personal when he said in Matthew 25 that when we have responded to the needs of the least of his brothers or sisters, we’ve responded to him. When we’ve fed or clothed, sheltered or visited a person in need, Jesus has experienced our expressions of care as ministry to himself.
Sacrificial love is at the heart of mission and reconciliation. But love and reconciliation can seem pretty abstract until we ask questions like What does reconciliation look like when you love Jesus and want the best for people who are caught in situations of terrible evil, need, or despair? How would our lives and our ministries be different if our understandings of love emphasized friendship?
Friendships are revelatory of truth. Within friendship we learn truths about the other person we couldn’t know any other way except through a context of trust and fidelity. Within friendship we learn about ourselves as we see our love and action through the eyes of another who loves and trusts us. And relationships forged among friends can open into deeper understandings of God’s love and concerns.
Evangelism, and even the notion of mission itself, has sometimes been reduced to the words we share with another person, telling him or her about Jesus, salvation, or eternal life. Words are important, but they can also be cheap. If we use words and get words in response, sometimes we think we’ve done mission or evangelism. Ministry among poor and vulnerable people reminds us that words are rarely enough—what each of us needs is to know that we are loved by Jesus, beloved of God. Everything else flows from that. In situations of injustice or despair, words alone are particularly insufficient. People need to be loved and valued by others. They need to see what love looks like.
The heart of it all
We don’t usually think of God as having friends, but several times Abraham is described as being God’s friend (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Abraham—mostly faithful, generous, and obedient but also imperfect and prone to taking shortcuts—is described as one chosen to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19). Abraham’s life was transformed by his relationship with God. He followed God to a new place and a new role; he was chosen and willing to be a part of God’s purposes. And God was remarkably faithful to Abraham, confiding in him, rescuing him, and blessing him.
Jesus calls his disciples friends rather than servants because of shared commitments and purposes (John 15:7-17). The love that Jesus commands his friends to have is the love that he is about to show them. “No one has greater love than this,” he explains, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The linking of sacrificial love and friendship is key for his disciples, and the result is joy, lasting fruit, and a love that endures.
When Jesus is called a friend of tax collectors and sinners, the description is not intended as a compliment (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). But it does acknowledge the shocking welcome he embodied in reaching out to those considered unclean and unworthy. He seems to have enjoyed being with them. Causing considerable offense to the religious authorities, Jesus gladly shared meals with these friends and brought them love, hope, and healing. And they often embraced him with dramatic generosity and powerful spiritual insight.
Friends of God love what and whom God loves. The Scriptures make clear that God’s love is abundant and available for each of us, but also that in a particular and protective way God loves those who are most vulnerable: widows, orphaned children, strangers, and those pushed to the margins of a community.
Jesus offers us friendship, and that gift shapes a surprisingly subversive missional paradigm. A grateful response to God’s gift of friendship involves offering that same gift to others—whether family or strangers, coworkers or children who live on the street. Offering and receiving friendship breaks down the barriers of “us” and “them” and opens up possibilities of healing and reconciliation.
Learning to see the so-called other as a friend increases our sensitivity to the reductionism, commodification, and manipulation that plague some versions of mission and ministry. Human beings who are not Christians are far more than potential converts. In our concern for reaching out with the gospel, we can unwittingly reduce the person to less than the whole being that God formed. When we shrink our interest in people to the possibilities of where their souls may spend eternity, it is easy to miss how God might already be working in and through a particular person. We are better able to resist tendencies to reductionism when we are in relationships that affirm each person’s dignity and identity and when we come into those relationships confident that God is already at work in the other person.
Because a business mindset is so prevalent in our society, the work of mission is sometimes recast in very economic terms. Missional language like “target audience” and a focus on results-driven measurements echo a sales approach that sees people first as potential consumers—in this case, consumers of the product we’re offering, a particular version of Christianity.
Such approaches open us to the temptation toward manipulation, and manipulation should never be mistaken for evangelism. Unfortunately, certain types of strategic outreach assume that the means don’t matter if the end result is good. But the means and ends are profoundly intertwined. If we want people to experience the kingdom of God and to dwell with God for eternity, then how they experience their relationship with us should be a foretaste of that goodness and beauty.
The very content of the good news helps us resist temptations to overlook the connection between the goal and means of mission. To understand mission and evangelism, we need to recover a fuller understanding of the good news itself: the gift of God to humanity expressed in the incarnation of Christ.
Becoming friends of God
The idea of being a friend of God should strike us as pretty outrageous. That members of God’s obstinate, broken creation could be drawn into friendship with the Creator and Redeemer of the universe is extraordinary. And yet this is what God offers us. We are welcomed into the deepest fellowship and friendship of the Trinity. Jesus invites us in and wants to live in us. If this notion weren’t so familiar to Christians, we might respond more often with grateful astonishment.
Jesus promises believers that he and the Father will make their home with those who love him and keep his word (John 14:23). He prays, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The possibility of mutual indwelling is overwhelming: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21-23). In these verses, we catch a glimpse of an intimate community of love that turns outward for the sake of the world. Jesus closely connects our testimony and mission to our relationships of love and unity.
The scriptural story reminds us over and over again that we are loved by God. This truth tempers the temptation to think of friendship with God as something we have to earn. We do not need to work harder to gain God’s favor or to be better so Jesus will like us more. Our belovedness—in spite of our sins and frailties—establishes the basis for a response of gratitude for the mercies we have received. Our lives then are offered back, out of gratitude, and with a heartfelt desire to love what God loves and live as Jesus’ friends.
Most of us understand friendship with God in a very individualistic way—a close, loving relationship between Jesus and me. Such a relationship is a priceless treasure of the Christian life. Yet there is more; friendship with Jesus is also bigger and more spacious.
In drawing closer to Jesus, we discover that we cannot love him without loving others. Our friendship with Jesus does not become diluted as more people are included in God’s heart of love. But neither can our friendship with him be overlooked because of others. The relationships are mutually reinforcing.
When we recognize the significance of Jesus words in Matthew 25 that inasmuch as we have welcomed “the least of these” we have welcomed him, we begin to understand the extraordinary kind of identification and oneness available to us. As we love and live among those most likely to be overlooked—those who are poor, hungry, despised, imprisoned, or sick—we find ourselves in intimate relationship with Jesus.
There is no way our friendship with Jesus can remain dynamic and close, however, unless we take time to be with him in worship and reflection. Little gasps for help or quick prayers of desperation in the midst of difficult circumstances do not sustain a friendship. In the same way that e-mail, text messaging, or Twitter can only support friendships that are sustained by extended conversations and being periodically in one another’s company, friendship with Jesus involves being in his presence, taking time to know him.
Our challenge, as we seek to draw closer to God’s heart, is not to presume on the friendship or to take it for granted, but rather to cherish it. As we grow in friendship with Jesus, he will continue to transform our love to make it bigger and more fruitful. Love is not a scarce commodity we need to ration in case we run out. Friendship with the source of love guarantees that we will have sufficient supply.
At the heart of mission is friendship. God’s friendship is a gift available to anyone who is open to receiving it. It sustains us in mission as we introduce our friends to friendship with Jesus.
Not prim but pure
We live in response to and in light of God’s friendship and goodness. What can we do except offer everything, our very selves, in response to God’s mercy? Paul grasps this powerfully when he writes about offering ourselves as living sacrifices in response to the mercies of God (Romans 12:1). Living sacrifices—not dead animals, not substitutes, not giving something and holding the rest back, but giving it all in gratitude.
Paul gives us an idea of what such living and holy sacrifices might look like. He tells the early believers to stop conforming to the patterns of this world and instead to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. What patterns of the world got the early church at Rome in trouble? What threatens us? They, like us, struggled with pride and arrogance, with making inappropriate distinctions among persons, with envy and revenge, with returning evil for evil, and with losing hope.
Our minds are renewed as we come to share the mind of Christ, as we see with his eyes and as we cherish what he loves. This renewed mind allows us to understand better God’s good and perfect will. The change is radical. Our minds are not just altered—they are transformed.
Particularly when we dwell on the margins, we desperately need a robust holiness that is simultaneously strong and tender. It is a holiness of heart that can experience genuine horror at evil, but also see human beings for what God intended them to be. It is a holiness that trusts God for redemption and therefore can sustain hope.
Paul’s final words to his beloved friends in Philippi include an assurance that the peace of God would guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. He writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Paul was not saying to close our eyes to the misery, need, or evil around us, or to create holy huddles that exclude, but rather, in the midst of the world, to fix our minds and to take our joy from what is good.
The holiness we need for living on the margins comes only as we draw closer to Christ, as we take hold of what he loves and cherishes and as we take on more of his heart and mind. The gracious surprise is that this transformation is not burdensome but a gift of freedom and grace and an opportunity to become part of the beauty of God’s goodness.
Our holiness then is an eruption of God’s goodness and beauty in the world. When we embody a unified commitment to personal righteousness and efforts at justice, we help to expand the possibilities of transformation and healing.
Christopher L. Heuertz is international director of Word Made Flesh, an organization that exists to serve Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He is the author of Simple Spirituality. Christine D. Pohl is professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Her books include Making Room and Living on the Boundaries. This essay is adapted from Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Copyright (c) 2010 by Christopher L. Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.