Year B, Easter 5 April 29, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Our gospel today, with the allegory “I am the true vine” and the imperative “Abide in me as I abide in you” is part of a three-chapter long teaching by Jesus known as the Farewell Discourse. It is one of the great movements of the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist, almost an aria of heart of Jesus Christ. He gives this to His disciples (well, 11 of the 12) right after the Last Supper. No time like the last minute. It was His last chance to sum up everything that He had been teaching and give His final instructions about how to be and live once He was gone, dead and risen. We should pay close attention to Jesus’ final words from that side of the grave.
Today’s pericope from the Farewell Discourse is centered on the statement “I am the true vine.” This is an allegory of one of the most important things that Jesus ever says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Abide is one of those great church words, like firmament. “The Big Lewbowski” aside, you just don’t hear the word abide used this way in regular usage. “If there is one thing I can’t abide…” That we hear, abide as tolerating something or someone, bearing patiently. Or “I will abide in the decision of the court.” to accept, or act in accordance with. We hear that on occasion, too. But that is not what Jesus means.
A third definition is, regarding a feeling or memory, to continue without fading or being lost. Synonyms include remain, survive, persist. “Persist in me as I persist in you.” The Message translation of the Bible reads, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.” That is getting towards it, but that doesn’t quite make my soul sing. “Live in me;” “persist in me” even in “persists” post-McConnell hallowing, doesn’t quite capture the depth of St. John’s abide.
The poetry of St. John’s gospel is the poetry of faith. It lifts us high, up from the firmament towards the heavenly hosts, using language and images to put into words the inexpressible, in ways that have survived the millennia. Poetry doesn’t always make a lot of sense, not in the front of the brain, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of the people.” but the best of religious texts rarely make lasting sense in a direct, logical way. They make sense in our hearts, in the center of gravity in our being. That’s where the Word persists, where it gets its purchase, and finds its way into us in a lasting way.
Jesus knows this, so He uses allegory, metaphor, symbolic language to express The Word, because The Word is not just words, it is a deeper-than-words meaning which is Him, and Him in us and us in Him. So, He tells us that to abide in Him is akin to the relationship between the fruit, the branch and the vine, all under the gentle hand (and razor-sharp pruning shears) of God. The branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine. Apart from the vine, it is fruitless, the branch; apart from Jesus, we are without fruit, our life is fruitless.
This is where we miss it sometimes as Christians. We have these towering verses, “In the beginning was the Word…” and we all know what it means, somewhere in our being, human beings are hardwired for understanding truth, beauty and goodness in all its abstractness, but how do we translate that to Tuesday morning? How does it help us with feeling trapped and frustrated while getting the children dressed and fed and off to wherever they need to be, or navigating a relationship with the neighbor with the branches (speaking of branches) hanging over onto your side of the fence? How does Jesus abide with you when you finally realize which of those things about your spouse that drive you crazy will never change, that’s just who they are; or the test results that weren’t what you hoped for, not by a long shot? Or that leering co-worker, greedy landlord, scary personage in a far-off capitol with their greedy and leering sycophants, how do we abide in anything the way things can get in this life?
Just remember, this is not supposed to be just some Sunday check in, or a once a week Holy TED talk. Our faith-lives are that, our lives guided by our faith; our whole lives. We don’t just abide while we are here at church, but the goal is to learn about it here, practice that here, like practice being the people we are supposed to be with each other, and then take it with you to your home, to your work, to your friends and family and the checker at the grocery store, and the ballot at your kitchen table. If we are not taking the Word in deep, and taking it out there even deeper, then we’re just clanging gongs here, wasting our time trying to feel better about ourselves. We are here to be our better selves, to learn to be the better selves that God made us to be. It is so easy to forget, easy to let the Word of God slip into habitual patterns, and trite cliché.
The Gospels are it, the Word of God in words, the original source document for the narrative and vocabulary of Christian faith. The poetry, the allegory and metaphor, it speaks directly to us, but it also sometimes needs interpretation. The first layer of interpretation is also biblical: the epistles. The epistles, letters in Greek, are the first interpretations of the Word, the words and ministry, the life and death, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The letters are about what they mean, they do not tell the story themselves. Paul’s letters actually preceded the Gospels, written from the oral tradition of the earliest church and Paul’s own witness and experience.
Today we hear one of the brass rings of all of the epistles, this little excerpt from the 1st letter of St. John; “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…” Attributed to St. John the Evangelist, no one really thinks he himself wrote it, but rather it was a disciple of the Johannine school, someone writing in the tradition of John to the community that grew up around that tradition. This whole letter is a treasure, and today’s especially so.
Today’s passage from 1 John opens up Jesus’ instruction to abide in Him. It is almost like spiritually engineering what it means to abide, how to be in abiding relationship with God in Christ as intimately as the fruit is with the branch and the branch is with the vine. The grape comes by living seamlessly, root all the way to cluster, one energy, one spirit flowing from part to part, connected in the most intimate of relationship. What flows from vine to branch to fruit that makes the whole whole and holy? Love.
“God is love…” You all know that statement. Well, this is where it comes from, 1st John, Chapter 4, the only place those words occur in scripture. “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” We abide, we continue without fading or being lost, in love. Love is the blood of Christian abiding, that which binds us one to another, and in that bond, in the connect of love itself, God is there.
“God is love…” We really can’t say anything more profound than that, but it just kinds of sits there, doesn’t it? It’s a bumper sticker at Sundance. But the implication of those words, their application, “…those who abide in love abide in God…” that is what got people in line to meet the lions, maybe not happy about it, but dedicated, and willing to follow through. Or maybe a better, or more contemporary visual is standing up to a line of riot police, think Gandhi’s satyagrahis on the Salt March or Dr. King on the Pettis Bridge , or liberating yourself from an oppressive, abusive person or force in your life, or bearing the burden of poverty while caring for, carrying others more vulnerable than yourself, and doing it all in love, not in contentment, but not in resentment either: in love. When that happens, when the kind of love that binds the root to the branch happens between and amongst humans, the force of a tsunami can be released. A 10.0 subduction zone event. Love, in the way that Jesus says and John interprets, is the force that not only gives life meaning, but is the meaning of life. God is love.
The whole nature of existence is relationship. Every thing, everyone starts in relationship with God the Creator; we are creatures, the created, we have a relationship with the Creator. The Christian understanding of existence is relational. Nothing exists on its one, we exist only in relationship with something else. The relationship that the Creator has with us, the created, is perfect, seamless, infinitely giving, vie to branch (at least from God’s end). Perfect relationship. Could we have a better definition of perfect relationship than love?.
Love is the highest order of relationship. Think of our very model of God, the Trinity: it is a vision of relationship. The God we worship is a relationship, is relationship. God is love. The Trinity is the being and becoming of three persons in such perfect loving relationship that they are one. Like an electron cloud, one folding into the next from which emerges the next back into the first and around and around, in and out, forever and ever. Endless theodrama. All in the perfect giving and receiving of love; abiding.
In Jesus, the floodgates opened, the levy broke in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the love of God poured forth into the world in a wholly new way. In His life and precious death, Jesus teaches, demonstrates, that all life flows from the heart of God in Love. And we know God, we exist in God, we Abide in God when we love. When we feel loved. Our lives truly begin when we first accept the love of God. We don’t even need to love God back, not directly. We need to feel God’s love, and through that and with that, we need to love others. The world. The earth we tread upon. The creatures we share it with. Other human beings, our brothers and sisters everywhere.
That is the application of the way, the truth and the life. Love one another. That is the answer to someone asking, “What does it mean to be Christian?” Love one another. That’s how we do it, how we are made worthy of the promises of Christ? Love one another. How we are moral, ethical human beings, how we are good friends, good parents, good neighbors, and not just in the Biblical sense, but how to be a neighbor, to share the world with the disparate people we share it with? Love one another.
Here’s the Tuesday morning brass tacks. Don’t worry about loving God. Worry about feeling loved by God. That is the first step. Like Simone Weil teaches, it is not so much that we say yes to God, we just need to stop saying no. You are loved by God. You. Specifically you. (And everyone else, but it is big love, enough to go around for everyone). That is the first step in participating in the life of God: allow yourself to be loved by God. Now how to do that is the subject of a separate 10 part sermon series. For now, try to relax into it; soak it in like you did the sun last week. God’s love always shines for you.
The second step is hard, too: love one another. That’s the primary practice of Christianity, because as Jesus tells us, in loving another, God exists in you. God so loved the world that Jesus, God came in to it. If you love, anyone, God comes into it, into your life, that relationship, the very world. It is that clear. That direct. God is even perfected, comes to full fruition in your act of love. That is the definition of “to abide.” To continue, not just exist, but continue in the movement of existence without being lost, without fading. In and with and by and through love we abide in God in God’s very self, a gift brought through Jesus and given by the Spirit.
That is easier for some of us than for others, and surely it is easier to love some people than it is to love others, but we are called to love everyone. That’s the “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” practice. The kind of love we are called to have for each must come from God, because look around; we can be a very, very hard species to love, both individually and as a whole. Love one another.
My therapist likes me to do experiments; to try something and reflect on it. I’m going to ask the same of you. A love experiment. Take a second and think of someone hard to love. Not public figure, someone, but someone you are in direct relationship with. Not an enemy, we’ll start basic, not someone dangerous to you, but just someone who maybe doesn’t bring a smile to your face when they walk in the door. Have an idea about someone? Now I want you to practice loving them. This week. One week only. Practice.
What does that mean to love someone? It means giving the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions. It means trying to see the world from their perspective, through their eyes. Trying to understand why they do what they do, and having a heaping helping of forgiveness in what you find. Not excuses, not tolerance of bad behavior, but forgiveness of the person. Love means caring about what happens to them, concern for their well being. And seeing them for who they are, as fully and possible.
The more I have gotten to know people, really gotten to see them, fully, the easier they are to love. Seeing not just the person they want the world to see, but the full them, the good, the bad and the ugly bits; that’s from where real love springs. In honesty. In the fullness of truth, of a true self revealed in her brokenness, in his fear, in their poverty of spirit. As well as in their joy, and the love they feel. That’s how God manages to love us. Knowing us fully, truly, love flows and God is there, here. That is grace.
So I ask you to try it out this week; practice loving someone. Don’t change your life, just try it out. Sound hard? To quote our friends in the recovery world, “Let go, Let God.” Really. As one commentator puts it, “Love is God’s gift, not a human achievement.” Don’t rely on yourself to love the hard to love, rely on God, who love you even, especially when you are hard to love. That is what it means to abide. Abide in that love. Abide in God and God will abide in you. AMEN