By Laurie Brink
The oft-told story goes something like this. A little child awakes in the night as a furious thunderstorm roars outside. “Daddy, I’m scared!” the child cries out. The father, not wanting to get out of bed, calls back, “Don’t worry. God loves you and will take care of you.” After a momentary pause, the child answers, “I know God loves me, but right now, I need somebody with skin on.”
I think most of us would agree. There are moments in our lives when we just need a God with skin on.
The Gospel of John gets this. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). That God’s creative activity became incarnate remains one of the more amazing tenets of Christian faith. As Karl Rahner, one of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century wrote of the Incarnation, “God is the prodigal that squanders himself.” The Gospel will go on to describe the signs by which Jesus’ true identity will be made known. But for the Word to be effective in its mission of salvation, it must first be enfleshed. Embodied. Jesus is our God with skin on.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that everything that belongs to God also belongs to Jesus (John 16:15), and if his disciples believe in him, they, too, may be one with the Father and the Son (John 17:21). As Jesus nears his death, he gathers for one last meal. Around this table, Jesus invites his disciples into a new relationship.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another (John 15:12-17).
Jesus is radically reorienting the relationship with his disciples. No longer is it between master and servant. Now it is between friend and friend. His disciples have become children of God. But this invitation to friendship is not only for the disciples; it extends to all who believe (John 20:29-31).
We might ask an important question here: “Why would God or Jesus want to be our friend in the first place?” According to Thomas Aquinas, the answer is actually quite simple. God desires our happiness, and the fullness of that happiness is expressed in friendship with God. It is initiated by grace, and it attests to the divine friendship between Father and Son which is expressed in the Spirit.
But as Aquinas recognized, we are at a bit of a disadvantage given our limited human nature. “Charity … is our friendship for God … which is not a matter of natural goods but of gifts of grace.” The gift of grace transcends the gulf between the limitation of human beings and the incomprehensibility of the Divine. Grace helps to level the playing field of becoming friends with God.
Jesus tells his disciples that he and the Father are one, so “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Friendship with Jesus leads us to friendship with God, since shared friendship is in God’s very nature. As Paul J. Wadell writes of Aquinas in Friendship and the Moral Life,
Thomas believes the unimaginable; in fact, he insists on it. Thomas believes we can, are called to be, and must be friends of God. That is what our life is, a life of ever-deepening friendship with a God who is our happiness, a colloquy of love given and love received, a sharing in which each friend delights in the goodness of the other, seeks their good, desires their happiness, and finally becomes one with them.
But friendship is not without costs. When Jesus commands the disciples to love one another, he doesn’t use the standard Greek word for friendship love (philia). He uses agapē. The type of love that Jesus demands requires the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. But this sacrifice is not without reward. A few chapters earlier, Jesus had commented, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Like the grain of wheat, the love of which Jesus speaks bears much fruit. “I chose you … to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
We know quite a bit about sacrifice. Three-quarters of a million Americans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The majority spent their last moments without family or friends. But you were there. The frail elderly in nursing homes and the dying in hospice. You are there. Those imprisoned. Those without homes. Without hope. You are there.
That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what chaplains do. As friends of Jesus, as friends of God, you befriend those who are sick, suffering, imprisoned, abused, disregarded, and dying. You help them understand that Jesus’ invitation extends to them as well. Quite literally, you are the friend of God with skin on!
Laurie Brink, OP, is a professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and the author of What Does the Bible Say About Friendship?