The feast day of the Blessed Disciple is an opportunity to meditate on friendship, something unexpectedly difficult. The present danger seems to be the thinning out of friendship, via social media, as “friendship” increasingly means receiving an unending stream of fleeting thoughts, holiday purchases, dubious endorsements, and cultivated bits of personal information. In contrast with that sort of friendship, as William Deresiewicz writes,

[W]hen I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character.[1]

But we cannot look wholly to someone like Deresiewicz. His idea of friendship, even if it’s far better than that of Facebook, risks being an elite and exclusionary pursuit. As he notes about classical friendship, “Friendship was a high calling, demanding extraordinary qualities of character.” Such a model seems inevitably exclusionary, even if we generously expand “extraordinary qualities of character” to include the gift for “dark humor,” as he does. (And we may wonder about the potential for rivalries among those friends who are self-conscious of one another’s “high callings.”) It’s no surprise, then, when Deresiewicz points out, albeit with a bit of disappointment, that Christian monastic communities saw particular friendships as “threats to group cohesion.” They can be just that.

The Gospel of John, I think, helps us to recover an idea of friendship that is thick but inclusive, placing it within the framework of discipleship.

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As Gail R. O’Day and others have shown, Jesus exemplifies the self-sacrificial theme in classical friendship.[2] Seneca had written, “For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die.” Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:15), after which he indeed dies upon the cross. The Gospel of John emphasizes that Jesus’ death is voluntary, an expression of love for “his own who were in the world,” a love that is “to the end” (13:1). Jesus calls his followers to this very same “love,” which is entangled with being his “friends” (15:14), and entails the willingness to lay down one’s own life as a martyr.

Further, John’s Gospel presents the Beloved Disciple, “whom Jesus loved” (13:23), as the ideal friend to Jesus.[3] The Beloved Disciple first appears in the Last Supper memorably “reclining next to Jesus,” in an oft-painted scene that is already charged with symbols of friendship. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet can be seen as a friend willingly lowering his status out of love. A common purse, shared among a band of friends, is mentioned. Peter, always too eager, declares to Jesus his intention to embody the ideal of classical friendship, “I will lay down my life for you!” (13:37). Later, when Jesus is arrested, the Beloved Disciple “went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard” (18:15); he accompanies his friend whereas Peter — the still less-than-ideal friend — waits outside.

As Jesus is crucified, the Beloved Disciple is entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother and indeed takes Mary “into his home” (19:27), as a good friend would. Finally, after the resurrection, the Beloved Disciple runs to Jesus’ tomb, outracing Peter. This friend sees and believes. The Beloved Disciple thus parallels a theme in classical friendship in which friendship outlasts death; a good friend, for instance, might stay on the battlefield so that the enemy cannot take his dead but still beloved friend’s body and armor. Based on the model of classical friendship, we can expect nothing more.

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The Beloved Disciple does not merely go where Peter does not and outrace him; he also seems to run faster than we ever could. The pair of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple can seem like a closed circle — the most exclusive friendship. Indeed, some monastic writers, presumably anxious about that exclusivity, suggest that the friendship between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple can only be explained by the Beloved Disciple’s singularity.

But this love of one in particular did not indicate any coldness in love for the rest of the disciples, but only a fuller and more abundant love towards the one, which his prerogative of virginity and the purity of his flesh bestowed upon him. (John Cassian, “First Conference of Abbot Joseph,” Spiritual Conferences, emphasis added)

The vision of friendship that Jesus exemplified and to which we are called is not elitism, whether in holy pairs or tight groups of committed disciples with common purses. The case of the elusive Beloved Disciple ironically shows us that. The emphasis in John’s Gospel is not merely friendship but witness. Jesus’ disciples must love, but this love must in turn lead to witness to others: “You must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” (15:27). And, here, as Kelli O’Brien has shown,[4] the Beloved Disciple, the ideal friend, initially seems to fall short of some less-than-ideal characters.

While the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter to get to the empty tomb and quickly “believes,” we do not learn what he believes. O’Brien writes, “The Beloved Disciple believes, but it comes to nothing. Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the reader remain just as much in the dark as ever.” Earlier, the Beloved Disciple is strangely passive when Jesus tells him of his forthcoming betrayal (13:22-29).

In contrast to the Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene, even if she first thought that the risen Jesus was the gardener, proclaims the gospel to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18) Peter, however outrun, is charged by Jesus to “Feed my sheep” (21:17).

The friendship of the Beloved Disciple, however moving and classically fulfilling, isn’t immediately discipleship. The Beloved Disciple may be singular in many ways — he may have “purity of flesh” (Cassian) and the capacity to “believe,” but what is truly important is the willingness to wrestle with his experiences, presumably again and again, and grow through the Spirit to reach eventually the point of testimony. John’s Gospel portrays the Beloved Disciple’s belief as coming to “nothing,” at least at first. But it hardly ends that way. After all, John’s Gospel ends by noting that it was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (21:20).

He has become what Richard Bauckham calls the “ideal author.”[5] This growth isn’t a rejection of his friendship with Jesus or of the concept of classical friendship. It is just that the point of the friendship could never be the friendship itself. Friendship had enabled the Beloved Disciple to be present at Jesus’ key moments, which he can now recount for us in his gospel. He has been perceptive, even if quietly so, perhaps because Jesus had spoken more to his friend or more clearly at times (13:25-30); he can now share his insight with us through inspired words. The meaning of the friendship may have been in the writing of the text that the Beloved Disciple eventually composed, perhaps as an old man — this text that millions of us hold in our hands or peer at inquisitively on computer screens. The fruit of the Beloved Disciple’s classical friendship with Jesus has become his very different friendship with all of us.

That’s not Facebook. But it’s hardly exclusionary, either.

Footnotes

[1] Deresiewicz, “Faux friendship,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 6 (2009).

[2] O’Day, “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John,” Interpretation 58:2 (2004), pp. 144-57.

[3] Hock, “Jesus, the Beloved Disciple, and Greco-Roman Friendship Conventions,” in Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture (Brill, 2012), pp. 195-212.

[4] O’Brien, “Written that you may believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67.2 (2005), pp. 284-302.

[5] Richard Bauckham, “The Beloved Disciple as Ideal Author,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 15:49 (1993), pp. 21-44.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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