Joseph Smith called friendship “the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,” so it’s fitting that friendship should resonate so deeply with one of the most sacred days of Jesus’ mortal life: the day when, according to the synoptic gospels, he instituted the sacrament, bathed his disciples’ feet, and went on to pray in Gethsemane while his closest friends slept nearby, and when, according to the Gospel of John, he gave those whom he addressed as friends the vital commandment to love one another.
To be without friends is one of the most deeply painful things a human being can experience. In a poem dwelling on the experience of despondency, the psalmist makes being shunned by friend and neighbor the capstone, the worst of all. Friendlessness is what makes Moroni’s plaint in the Book of Mormon so poignant: “I have not friends nor whither to go.” If he had friends, it would not matter where he went: “Let the saints go to hell,” Joseph said, assured that so long as the company was good, they’d be able to turn the devil out and make a heaven of it. Good companionship can make any road, not matter how difficult, more bearable. But to be without friends, that is hell indeed.
Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the Doctrine and Covenants is when Jesus begins to call Joseph and his fellow-laborers “friends.” His friendship to us runs deep, and yet hearing the word pass from his lips to our ears strikes us anew with a deeper recognition of the fact. How can we not love him, hearing that? The Hebrew Scriptures tell of David and Jonathan sealing their friendship with a covenant: Jonathan took David into his house and clothed him with his princely robes, because their souls were bound together. Just so does Jesus bind our souls to him by taking us into his house and clothing us.
But if being without human friendship can be hard, feeling cast out of God’s friendship can be worse. Our call, therefore, if we would be Jesus’ disciples, is to be good friends. We take people into God’s house when we take them into our own, and we clothe them with his princely robes when we envelop them in friendly love. When the souls of human friends are bound together in this way, in the service of love, they are bound together to Jesus for where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be also.
This kind of friendship, this charity, sits at the heart of Paul’s thinking about the Church. If we are to be the body of Christ, we cannot say to another, “I have no need of you,” but, rather, we give greater honor to the lesser members, so that the members may all have the same care for one another. We work toward this unity of care each time we take the sacrament, commemorating Jesus’ great act of friendship for us by reuniting the broken bread in the unshakable oneness of our community. Having eaten his flesh and drunk his blood, given in friendship for us, what more could we do than go forth and be friends with others?
That we rarely achieve such oneness reminds us that friendship is hard. People will disappoint us, and we will disappoint them, just as we all inevitably disappoint Jesus. Nevertheless, his faithful friendship endures. May ours do the same.
—Mormon Lectionary Project
Friendship (Maundy Thursday)
The Collect: O God, our Father and our Friend, who gave your Son in friendship to be our friend: pour out your Spirit upon us, granting to us the insuperable gift of friendship, that in the Gethsemanes where others fall on their faces, feeling abandoned by all—even you—we might sit and watch with them an hour, one people as you are one God. Amen.
In its very name this day calls for settings of the text from John about the new commandment. Here’s the classic one, by Thomas Tallis:
And here’s a modern one, by Peter Nardone: