"He took Peter, James, and John with him and went up onto a mountain to pray." Luke 9:28
During the closing remarks by the leader of a 2012 retreat focused on ministry with the poor, our presenter in a moment of deep tenderness gifted each participant with this 5th Century Egyptian icon depicting Jesus Christ and his friend. His words to us were something along the lines of “You are called to the hard work of doing ministry with…not to or for a people but with a people. Know that Christ is with you, for Christ is your friend.” His wisdom was a nod to the surprising transition made between Jesus and his disciples when he called them his friends during his final discourse found in John chapter 15. “No longer do I call you servants…but I called you friends.” Until that moment I had never understood the power of icons and mostly I still do not. However, when I grasped this three-inch by three-inch square image I was moved to tears for in that moment my relationship with Jesus was transformed from one of authority to one of friendship.
To be clear I try to live my life so that Jesus has the ultimate authority in my life but there are times when a friendship can be so strong, so intimate, so grounded that we can yield authority to our friend without the threat of power imbalance. Look closely at this icon and see what you see. There is more to it than a casual glance will allow. To begin with, take notice of Jesus’s eyes; how one eye is on his friend while the other is turned towards the world. While Jesus is holding the Word of God the friend is holding a scroll thus Jesus has given the friend authority to share the Word as well. Finally, isn’t it odd that Jesus has no feet in this icon? It is only an odd thing until we remember that we who are Christ’s friends are also Christ’s feet in this world. This truly is a friendship through which the authority of the Christ is handed over to us that we might be the bearers of this friendship for the world.
While these hidden depictions of the ancient icon bear deep truths about our friendship with Jesus the most profound depiction still remains the sudden and shocking discovery that the image led me to which is the simple truth of our friendship with Jesus. If Jesus is my friend so too am I Jesus’ friend. Each week during worship I borrow a prayer from one of my preaching heroes, the Rev. Alan Storey. In this prayer I ask that my teaching might help us to be “…Jesus’ faithful friends.” I have prayed this prayer as many times as I have preached in the last six years of my ministry since I first heard it. I thought it to be beautiful and yet did not fully understand nor believe it. Sometimes we must pray our way into understanding and into belief. It was not until I preached the story of Jesus’s transfiguration this past Sunday that I came to understand what it means to be Jesus’ faithful friends. In the sermon I taught a point that I have taught in at least three prior transfiguration sermons – that Jesus invited those three disciples up the mountain to pray with him because he needed friends to accompany him during a time of deep sorrow. He has just spoken the words out loud for the first time – “I will be killed.” With the proclamation of Jesus’s pending horrific death he needs friends to be with him. He cannot bear to be alone in this moment.
We rely on Jesus to accompany us in our darkest and most trying moments. Why should we be surprised that Jesus asks us, his friends, to accompany him in his darkest and most trying moments just the same?
On this day we begin the season of Lent. Lent is the season when Jesus’ sets his face towards Jerusalem where he knowingly marches straight to the cross of his crucifixion. The love he has shown, the words he has spoken, the challenges he has asserted have all set him on an irreversible trajectory to his dying and as soon as this dying becomes convincingly clear after the procession into Jerusalem his friends and casual followers drop off with lightening speed. Then just a few days later we see Jesus in his distress in the garden of Gathsemane praying…with his faithful friends in his midst. Again, Jesus in his distress has requested faithful friends to stay with him for the thought of bearing this great burden alone was too much for him to bear.
While the death of Jesus was an event in time Jesus continues to invite his disciples, you and I, to be his faithful friends. He cannot bear this journey to the cross of Good Friday alone and so asks that we might join him on the journey. This is a journey requiring us to acknowledge the suffering amid the grace, the cross that comes before the resurrection, the Jesus who in distress says, “Come up the mountain with me to pray.” We are to mirror the image of Jesus in the icon only in mirroring it will be us with one eye on Jesus and the other on the suffering of the world with arms around those who need friendship, for surely in this time we are the presence of Christ for the broken.
It is only in committing ourselves to this kind of faithful friendship with Jesus that our Lenten journey's will give birth to real understanding of what it means to be resurrected to new life on Easter Sunday.
Spirit of God
come and grow our faith
deepen our hope
strengthen our love
and water within each of us
the desire to be your faithful friends forever.