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Experiencing the Trinity

Is there a case for suggesting that evangelical Christians have forgotten the Trinity? Some have lamented the neglect of this important doctrine in the church. Others have criticized the posturing of gender biased leadership on the basis of the “eternal subordination” of the Son and the Spirit to the Father. The early church fathers debated, discussed and finally determined that a credal statement of faith on the Trinity was vital to the church universal. Hence, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381AD.

The mystery of the Trinity relates to the Christian life in matters of prayer, worship, mission and discipleship. We recognize the crucial importance of a Trinitarian Faith for spiritual formation and congregational life. The faith passed down through the centuries by the apostles and prophets has clearly celebrated the glory of the Trinity. We worship, love and serve the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our faith is Trinitarian. Anything less is unbiblical and heretical.

We are drawn closer to the Triune God by the Father’s eternal love through the Son and by the Spirit. Being made in the image of God, we bear the likeness of the Triune God as persons in relation. The eternal relation of the Three Persons indwell and interpenetrate in perfect community of the One God. Therefore, we are adopted by the Father into His family, transformed by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our identity in Christ is essentially defined by our relationship to the Father as sons and daughters, confirmed and sustained by the Spirit dwelling within us so that we can call God, Abba Father. Consequently, our experience of the Trinity is manifest within the community of faith in terms of loving, grace-filled relationships energized by the Spirit.

There are some valuable resources available for further reading and reflection on the Trinity. Here are my recommendations:

Brian Edgar, The Message of the Trinity (2004 IVP)

Millard J. Erickson, Making Sense of the Trinity (2000 Baker)

Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons – A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (1995 Baker)

Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity (2002 Regent College Publishing)

Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity – In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (2004 P&R Publishing)

Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (1988 T&T Clark)

Thomas F. Torrance, Trinitarian Perspectives – Toward Doctrinal Agreement (1994 T&T Clark)

In addition, please consult the classics written by the Church Fathers – Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hilary of Poitiers, and John Calvin.

Two dominant issues raised during the Reformation centered on the Gospel promise of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ – “What can I do to be saved?” “Where can I find the true church?”  Luther and Calvin along with other Reformers sought to answer these questions. Greater attention was given to the authority of Scripture and to the centrality of Christ than to the mystery of the Trinity. Unlike the early Church Fathers who approached their theological thinking about God and the Gospel message from a trinitarian perspective, the scholars and theologians from the 17th century onwards developed a rationalistic and logical framework for doctrines. The question “What is God like?” generated much discussion and debate on the philosophical basis for talking about God in a rational, coherent and systematic manner. As a result, the significance of the Trinity was marginalized or reduced to an appendix in theological writings.

By contrast, the Eastern Orthodox theologians maintained a strong alignment with the early Church Fathers in their conception and description of the Trinity as both a mystery and a relational unity. They were deeply interested in answering the question: “Who is God?” The Cappadocian theologians, namely Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, expressed a profound understanding of the Trinity as the coinherence of the three divine persons in the Godhead. The key word in Greek was “perichoresis” which served to express the dynamic relations between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as a mutual indwelling and interaction of the three persons of the Trinity without diminishing the particular and unique character of each. The Son reveals the Father and the Father loves the Son. The Son obeys the Father and the Spirit empowers the Son to fulfill His mission. The Spirit confirms the actions and message of the Son by directing our attention to the Son who in turn focuses our worship and prayer to the Father in heaven. The activity of the Triune God as revealed in Jesus the Son demonstrates the Father’s love and manifests the Spirit’s power. A prime witness to this reality is recorded for us in the Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34)

The Scriptures declare a corporate faith in the One God who reveals Himself through Jesus Christ. As the early Christians came to a formative understanding of Jesus as Lord, Creator and Redeemer, they worshipped Him as the Son of God. Thus, God was deeply revered and loved as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, their experience of the indwelling Christ through the Holy Spirit heightened their awareness of God’s presence and power. The blessed Trinity informs, inspires and instructs our life as the People of God. A trinitarian faith shapes our prayer life, our corporate worship as well as our mission in the world today. We need a lively and engaging encounter with the Holy Trinity in the church. Who God is matters as much as what God says. The way we think and talk about God will influence the way we live the Christian life. Ultimately, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a theory about God but a foundation for our faith and for our relationship with God. We are baptized and blessed in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are the People of God who bear the name of the Trinity.

For the people of God, true worship is established on who God is and what He has done in the world for our sakes. The Father has sent his Son to redeem us and to make us His sons and daughters. Through Jesus the Son, the grace, mercy and forgiving love of the Father has been mediated to us. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted as children of God, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and presented as holy in the Father’s presence. The basic premise of the Gospel as outlined by Paul in Galatians 4:4-7 affirms God’s actions as from the Father through the Son by the Holy Spirit.

The Scriptures describe the drama of salvation as a movement of God’s People responding to the saving actions of the Trinity. Therefore, our relationship to God is seen as by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ to the Father. This encompasses the entire response of faith in all dimensions of human life before God, from worship to the whole range of human experience. In Ephesians 2:18, Paul asserts: “Through Him (Christ) we both have access by the Holy Spirit to the Father.”

In the Gospel of John, we learn that true worship is directed to the Father through Jesus by the Holy Spirit (see John 4). The NT apostles insist that worship is Trinitarian in nature. We worship the Father in the Spirit through the Son. Gregory of Nazianzen summarized this perspective with the following comments: “This, then, is my position . . . to worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, three persons, one Godhead, undivided in honour and glory and substance and kingdom.” (Oration 31:28)

We might be inclined to view worship from our human point of view as something we do. In reality, it is first and foremost something the Triune God does which prompts our participation and response. The worship of the church is the communion of the Holy Trinity with His People. Our focus is God-ward, centered on the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Therefore, since Christian worship is determined, defined by, and directed to, the Holy Trinity, we worship the Triune God with one undivided act of adoration. Gregory of Nazianzen provides a vital principle: “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One.” (Oration 41)

In the divine economy, only the Father sent the Son into the world. Only the Son became incarnate, not the Father or the Spirit. At Pentecost, only the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, not the Father or the Son. The Triune God is eternally One but subsists as three persons. The mystery of the Trinity attests to the unique yet distinct being of God the Father, Son and Spirit. There is no confusion, no subordination and no division.

We are thereby called to worship and to love the Trinity. Our response in worship is shaped by the reality of the one we worship. A living relationship with the Triune God requires that each of the persons be honoured and adored in the context of their revealed relations with each other. At the same time, we must give full attention to the reality that God is one, indivisible and incomprehensible. The three persons of the Trinity are mutually coinherent and share equally in true communion as One.

There is the danger for our theology and worship to be conditioned by human expectations of what God should do for us simply because He loves us. Out of gratitude and humble submission, we need to relearn how worship is essentially a response to the revelation, redemption and renewal which the Triune God has made possible for us. Our response by faith is to know Him, to love Him and to render all praise and honour to God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Amen.

The Gospel of John chapter 9 records a unique account of Jesus healing a man born blind. It took place on a Sabbath day which stirred controversy and criticisms from the religious authorities. The disciples raised a question of causality. Who was responsible for the man’s condition? Was his blindness caused by his sin or that of his parents? In the minds of both disciples and religious leaders, the perception of blame for one’s sin was inevitable. Disease, sickness or disability were signs of divine judgment or punishment.

To everyone’s surprise, Jesus took the initiative in healing the blind man. However, in the process, Jesus presented significant lessons on the theology of suffering and healing. According to Jesus, neither the man nor his parents were to blame for his congenital blindness. It was not necessary to speculate on the cause of his physical condition. Human curiosity would suggest that somewhere in this man’s past specific transgressions might have led to this fate. We seek a reasonable explanation for our experience of pain, suffering and disease. We attempt to fix the blame on something or someone. By providing causal explanations, we feel justified in either accepting the condition or else protesting the consequence.

For some, if it is not the man’s fault nor his parents’ sin that caused his blindness, then God is somehow unkind and unjust. For others, God must have a reason or purpose for this undeserved condition. Either way, we are troubled by the problem of suffering and mystified by the act of healing. Why does Jesus heal this man? On many occasions, those who were sick or tormented by demons were brought to Jesus for healing. In this episode, Jesus heals the man even though there is no indication that he sought healing. According to Jesus, the glory of God was demonstrated in this case. In other words, this man’s healing was divinely ordained and Jesus glorified God in his healing action.

The story continues in John 9 with further testimony from the man who was healed, causing more controversy for the religious leaders as well as for his parents. Nevertheless, Jesus took the time to reveal his true identity to the man. As a result, the man believed and worshipped Jesus. Those who claim to see but fail to recognize Jesus as the Son of God remain blind in their guilt. But for those who admit to their blindness will see Jesus as the One who heals and sets them free from darkness and sin. The significant lesson in this episode focuses on the mercy and compassion of the divine healer. Jesus performed the impossible by healing someone born blind and giving sight. The miracle in this man’s life was more than the cure for blindness. He gained a whole new perspective on life that was no longer determined by his past, nor his religious tradition or genetic code.

Looking back at the man’s past might stir up sentiments of guilt and condemnation. Is he a victim or a culprit? Who is to blame for his condition? Why does God allow human suffering without just cause? But Jesus looks ahead into the new possibility of sight and wholeness for this man. By touching and healing the man, Jesus demonstrated the glory and power of God that overcomes human sin and suffering.  Given the man’s condition, Jesus anticipates his need and initiates the healing act of making this man whole again, restoring sight and faith while revealing God’s glory and purpose.

We are aware of the challenges in our health care system. The cost of providing universal medical care is escalating dramatically. Advances in medical science and possible treatments offer great promise for addressing the diverse range of illness and disease. Pharmaceutical research in creating new drugs continue to offer hope to patients. But health is more than the absence of sickness. Life is not inhibited by the reality that one day we will face death. Our environment, social conditions and personal relations also affect our experience of health. We desire emotional, social, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Therefore, healing for the whole person is more than prescription drugs and proper diet.  Healing for each person is ultimately a gift of God for the Lord is the one who heals.

In the Old Testament, we find limited descriptions of divine healing. There are twelve instances of individual healing recorded in the OT: Genesis 20:1-18; Numbers 12:1-15; 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 1 Kings 13:4-6; 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-17; 2 Kings 4:18-37; 2 Kings 5:1-14; 2 Kings 13:21; 2 Kings 20:1-7 (2 Chronicles 32:24-26, Isaiah 38:1-8); Job 42:10-17; Daniel 4:34, 36. In addition to these incidences of individual healing there are three occurrences of corporate healing in response to prayer: Numbers 16:46-50; Numbers 21:4-9; 2 Samuel 24:10-25. Please take a moment to look up the above Scripture references and reflect on their significance.

The essential affirmation in the Old Testament concerning healing is premised upon the Lord as healer, the one God who heals and makes whole. Exodus 15:26 declares: “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” The Psalmists turn to God for help and healing in the midst of pain, suffering and sickness (e.g. Psalms 41, 103, 116, 147).

Deuteronomy 32:39 sums up the Old Testament position: ‘See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.’ Throughout the Old Testament health and wealth are presented as rewards of God whereas sickness, misery, misfortune, even death, are seen as his punishments. The sovereign God is the one who blesses and who curses. He is the One who wounds and heals. Yet, we are also assured that in all aspects of life and death, God is completely in control. If there is only one true God, then everything is subject to His sovereign will. However, we must not conclude that God is capricious and unjust. The promise of deliverance, healing and blessing comes from the Lord who cares deeply for His people. His holiness, justice and mercy are evident in His acts of salvation, including healing for the individual as well as for the nations (see Hosea 6:1-2; Ezekiel 47:12; Malachi 4:2)

When we explore the theme of healing in the New Testament, we discover the manifest power and compassion of Jesus Christ in demonstrating the presence of God’s reign on earth. The Gospels and the Book of Acts record significant signs and wonders of healing and deliverance. The preponderance of healing accompanying the witness and teaching of Jesus is intentional. Jesus is the Lord who heals for He is the Lord who saves. Thus, the promise of salvation and forgiveness of sins includes the assurance of victory over sin, death and evil. Healing is the divine act of grace and mercy in response to the damaging effects of sin, evil and disintegration.

Past and Future

Oscar Wilde once quipped: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” Looking back at our journey to faith in Christ, we are reminded of the gracious invitation to follow Jesus. At some point in our past, we responded to the love of Jesus and experienced His forgiveness. But we are also mindful of doubt, skepticism and fear that affected our response. Following Jesus was not easy and I would suggest it is still not easy today.

There might be memories of past traumas and hurts, past failures and sins that impact our current experience of grace. Perhaps, we feel inadequate and unworthy to be called a Christian. Perhaps, we find it hard to let go of past criticisms and complaints. Perhaps, we are discouraged by the lack of care and compassion from other Christians in the local church.  Perhaps, we have made some poor choices and given way to temptation. Perhaps, we are afraid our past will catch up and ruin our future.

I believe Jesus looks at us with deep love and real grace. Our past has been redeemed by Jesus and therefore nothing we have experienced is wasted. Jesus assures us of His forgiveness and healing for all that has taken place in our past. But He also challenges us to embrace our future as defined by His calling and purpose. We are no longer strangers or foreigners to the Kingdom of God. We are now beloved members of God’s household, brave citizens of God’s Kingdom, and bold partners in the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ. Therefore, we are called to live and to act as chosen disciples of Jesus. We have a future that is filled with hope and grace.

The Apostle Paul describes his own journey of faith in Jesus: “No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT) Every disciple can forget the past and forge ahead towards the future defined by Jesus’ call.

How would you describe your personal story of faith? Does your past weigh heavily on your present? What is Jesus saying to you about your future? Where are you headed in your journey of faith? Are you looking back or facing the future?  Every Christian has a past and every disciple has a future in Jesus Christ. Following Jesus today is not easy but it is the only path that leads to total freedom from our past and total fulfillment for our future. We are destined to reign with Christ Jesus in the glorious Kingdom that He will establish at His return. For that reason, we persevere in faith and endure all difficulties by His grace. My dear friends, do not lose heart and do not be afraid.

The pulpit series on the Upper Room Discourse found in John 13 to 17 has been an intense and inspiring learning experience for me. Over the past seven weeks, we have given careful attention to the teaching of Jesus. In the short time with his disciples, Jesus revealed the Father’s heart and intentions for them. As Jesus confides in the disciples, we discover the vital truth about the essence of our relationship with God. The life of discipleship is initiated by the call of Jesus, transformed by the Father’s love, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In befriending Jesus, we experience personal reorientation, redemption, reconciliation, restoration and renewal.

Let us review what we have learned about befriending Jesus:

  • Jesus’ love is the hallmark and benchmark of the disciples’ love for one another. We are called to love as Jesus loves.
  • Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are drawn into communion with God through Jesus.
  • Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to all those who belong to Him. We are empowered to live for Jesus by the Spirit.
  • Jesus is the True Vine and we are the branches. We abide in Jesus and simply live as altogether Christians because Jesus lives in us.
  • Jesus calls us His friends. He sets us apart to produce lasting fruit through intimacy with the Father and deeper love for one another.
  • Jesus has chosen us out of the world to belong to Him. We are directed to live by the Spirit as agents of grace and love in the world.
  • Jesus assures us joy and peace in Him because He has overcome the world by His death, resurrection and ascension.

Therefore, befriending Jesus draws us into the mystery of belonging to Jesus. We are no longer strangers to the love of Jesus. In reality, we are led into the indispensable and irresistible union with God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are truly blessed to be called friends of Jesus. The question remains: are you a friend of Jesus? If not, may I invite you to respond to His love for you by giving your life to Jesus. Through faith in Jesus and by obedience to His call, we are given the privilege of befriending Jesus.

Last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, was filled with the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in our worship services. We were reminded that Jesus chose us out of the world to belong to Him so that we might be sent back to live by the Spirit, testifying to His love and grace in the world. Indeed, we give praise to the Lord for His magnificent grace in touching lives and turning hearts back to Him.

As the Spirit came upon us and moved freely in our hearts, many responded to the occasion for healing prayer towards the end of the services. One by one, and in some cases, couples and families, received anointing oil and prayer. Invariably, tears flowed. Hearts were opened to the Spirit. Lives were touched by the Spirit. What a joy to witness the hunger and yearning for the Holy Spirit. A profound sense of hush and reverence came over the congregation. We are simply grateful for the outpouring of God’s Spirit during this season. Praise the Lord for what He is doing in our community.

I believe the Spirit will continue to draw people closer to Jesus. I am confident the Lord Jesus will deliver individuals from mediocre faith and lukewarm hearts. I am praying for a deeper work of the Spirit in our lives so that we will experience freedom from fear and despair. I am trusting the Lord to move us from passive indifference to passionate investment in the work of the Gospel. I am anticipating a season of renewal, restoration and reconciliation. I am inviting you to partner with WVBC in prayer and service, leveraging our gifts and resources for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I am calling you to stand up for Jesus and to subvert the world’s influence with the truth and love of Jesus. I am challenging each person to reach out to one another with compassion and hospitality.

As we respond to the Spirit’s movement, I believe we are empowered to make a difference in our community. Where there is despair, let us give hope. Where there is fear, let us raise faith. Where there is hurt, let us show mercy. Where there is loneliness, let us offer friendship.  Where there is sickness, let us pray for healing. Where there is confusion, let us speak truth. Where there is sadness, let us share the joy of Jesus. Where there is a need, let us give generously.

From the earliest history of the Christian movement, believers have been persecuted for their faith. From the first-century disciples who followed Jesus to those in the 21st century who faithfully proclaim Jesus is Lord, many have suffered at the hands of those who are offended by the Gospel. Stephen was the first martyr in Jerusalem (Acts 7) and in recent times, Shakeela Bibi was beaten to death for her faith in Pakistan.

Persecution seems inevitable in places where Jesus Christ is hated. Just as Jesus predicted, the disciples will face the same fate as their master: “Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you. They will do all this to you because of me, for they have rejected the one who sent me.” (John 15:20-21 NLT)

In places like Iran, India, Pakistan, China, Nigeria, North Korea, and many others, Christians are not permitted to practice their faith. Yet they persist despite the threat of violence, harassment, imprisonment, and even death. The intensity of their faith is incomprehensible to their persecutors. Over 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest, and even death for their faith, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation.

Though it is sometimes difficult to identify the difference between persecution and the everyday inconveniences of living in a world hostile toward Christianity, Open Doors USA (opendoorsusa.org) says there are some clear defining factors. Persecution occurs when a believer is:

  • denied the protection of religious freedom
  • prevented from converting to Christianity because of legal or social threats
  • physically attacked or killed because of their faith
  • forced to leave their job or home because of the threat of violence
  • imprisoned and interrogated for refusing to deny their faith

According to Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, chief strategy officer for Open Doors International, there are at least four lies that drive the persecution of Christians today:

  • In the Middle East, the lie is that “Christianity is a foreign religion, a Trojan horse for pro-Israel, pro-American forces.”
  • In the Asian subcontinent, the lie is that “Christianity only grows through unethical or forced conversion and wants to take over our countries by stealth.”
  • In those countries where the Marxist ideology still lingers, such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, and parts of Latin America and Africa, the lie remains this: “Christianity is for weaklings who can’t face the world on its own terms and need crutches of illusion.”
  • In the West, the lie is that “Christianity is intolerant, anti-scientific and best kept out of public life completely.”

In the face of lies and threats from a world deeply prejudiced against Jesus and His followers, we are challenged to persevere in love and witness for Jesus’ sake. We depend on the Holy Spirit to convict and convert human hearts by subverting the world’s lies with the truth of God. Jesus made it clear that the disciples are not of the world but they belong to Him and thus live by the Spirit. As we follow Jesus, we are called to lay down our lives for Jesus. The prevalence of persecution in the world, including North America, is a wake-up call to be vigilant and bold in the Spirit. Jesus warns us in John 16:1 “I have told you these things so that you won’t abandon your faith.”

Chicago Tribune writer Marla Paul took a risk when she wrote a self-revealing column confessing her sadness and frustration over her own struggle to build and sustain friendships. Over time, she discovered many people experienced a similar crisis in friendship. It is not easy finding good friends. However, friends are vital to our wellbeing.

Marla Paul writes: “I think we all instinctively know we feel better after spending time with a special friend. We feel energized and happier. If we share a problem with a friend, we feel less hurt. But there’s also this whole new body of research showing how profoundly friendships impact our emotional and physical health. Friendships protect us from depression and anxiety. They boost our immune system, and we have a healthier cardiovascular system when we spend time with friends. Our memory is enhanced and we sleep more deeply. The list goes on about how spending time with friends and having close confidantes supports our health.”

The benefits and rewards of enduring friendships are positively desirable. We long for deep and meaningful connections. We also desire spiritual friendships in the church community. The yearning to belong and to feel accepted accompanies our need to know that God loves us. When we feel welcomed and respected, we also feel encouraged and affirmed. As we reach out to one another with the love of Jesus, we initiate and form spiritual friendships. By becoming present to one another, we learn to be available and vulnerable to each other. The organic nature of relationships within the community of God’s People involves an intentional process of attending to the needs of others while trusting the Holy Spirit to show us how best to respond in love.

But the challenge of fostering significant friendships persists in the local church. Some congregants have expressed frustration and disappointment in forming friendships. Casual greetings and conversations on Sunday in the foyer do not always transition to deep friendships. We may find it hard to remember names. Cultural and social diversity might affect our confidence in reaching out to others. Language might also be a barrier to greater freedom in expressing our thoughts and values. Perhaps, we could facilitate a network for hospitality whereby newcomers and visitors are invited to dinner and conversation in our homes. At our Welcome Lunches, we have been blessed with the privilege of recognizing those who have visited us in recent months. Hearing their personal stories of God’s leading in their lives, we sense a profound hope to belong to a community of people who truly love Jesus and who genuinely love one another. It takes time, effort and perseverance. Everyone is included.

The pre-eminent friendship of Jesus Christ is the basis for authentic relationships and spiritual friendships. We are called friends by Jesus because the Father’s love for us makes us valuable and significant. In befriending Jesus, we discover the joy and blessing of abiding in him. Our confidence in loving one another and in praying for one another emerges from a deep experience of Jesus’ presence in our lives. We are friends of Jesus – uniquely called and chosen to bear the fruit of loving friendship with others. Consequently, we are no longer strangers, isolated from others. Instead, we have become spiritual friends who delight in the company of those who love Jesus. We are friends of Jesus for life and for others.