This song goes back a long way for me. It is one of the first songs I ever learned, probably in Bible School. I think, if I tried, I could sing all three verses by heart. My grandmother once told me that she remembers prayer meetings at their home when her own grandmother was sick. They would gather around and sing and pray. "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was one of the songs they sang.
I know, I know, the tune is not that interesting. But try singing the lyrics to another tune (Thy Strong Word, for example), and the lyrics don't sound tired or trite. "What a friend we have in Jesus/All our sins and griefs to bear/What a privilege to carry/Everything to God in prayer." And notice that it's "what a friend WE have in Jesus" -- the song is an expression of personal faith, but not individual faith.
I think many of us are very familiar with this comforting image of Jesus -- as a good friend, one to whom we can tell our troubles, who will hear and help and not judge. There's an old saying, "A friend is someone who knows all about you -- and likes you anyway." Yeah. Jesus is that sort of friend.
So imagine my surprise when I was re-reading John 15 this week and I looked again at Jesus' declaration of friendship to his disciples. "From now on I call you not servants, but friends." At first glance, this is, of course, "what a friend we have in Jesus." But it is just ever-so-slightly different. Jesus is not saying that he is our friend, but that we are his friends.
Maybe it's the same thing, you say. Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. But look: Jesus says we are his friends, and it's not about how we get to tell him all the things that are on our mind, not about how we get to unload on him when we're feeling blue. Instead, Jesus names us friends (instead of servants) because "the servant does not know what the master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father."
In other words, we are Jesus' friends, not because of the secrets we can share with him, but because of the secrets he has shared with us, the things he has heard from the father.
I use the word "secret" because Jesus has shared with his disciples things that not everyone knows, things we are privileged to hear, to know, to act on. Like a good friend, Jesus has trusted us with the most important things he has learned: about love and sacrifice and a God who washes feet. Jesus has trusted us with the most important things he has learned about the Father's love, and that is not something readily apparent in the world. To a lot of people, it's a big secret. Oh, once in awhile, you can catch a glimpse of something, if you look carefully. You might see people rebuilding houses in Mississippi, even now, or you might spy a man dancing with a woman in a wheelchair. You might notice people opening the doors of their churches to homeless families. But a lot of the time, the tragedy in the world shouts louder.
So Jesus says to us: "I have called you my friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father." Such as, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Such as, "I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you." Such as, "For God so loved the world.... "
And then he sends us out, armed with these secrets he has told us, and more.
What a friend we have in Jesus/all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry/Everything to God in prayer.
Yes, it's still a comfort and a privilege to share our own poor hearts with Jesus.
But it's an even greater privilege, I think, that he has shared his own heart with us.