1 John 4:7-19
It is an old-fashioned word, abide. It’s an old-fashioned word with multiple meanings, the oldest and perhaps least common being the one we encounter in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John.
Jesus has, somewhat shockingly, washed his disciples’ feet, and then they have all shared a sad last supper together. Judas, the betrayer, has left the upper room to finish what he started, and the remaining eleven disciples are both confused and distressed. As they will soon learn, Jesus, too, is distressed and distraught.
The disciples are distressed because Jesus keeps talking about leaving them. Jesus is distressed because he doesn’t want to leave them, and because he knows the leaving will be agonizing for them and excruciating for him.
And so he launches into a long speech, followed by a long prayer, hoping they will remember his last words to them, praying his words will give them the strength to carry on through the coming days.
And still he speaks in parable and metaphor.
Jesus’ so-called final discourse starts partway through the 13th chapter of John and goes all the way through the end of the 17th chapter. I commend it to you. Yes, it is somewhat verbose and at points a little hard to follow, but it also gets to the heart of Christian spirituality: that it is about relationship, our primary relationship with God, Jesus, and Spirit and, flowing out of that, our connection to one another, all people, and all creation.
Which brings us to the word abide.
Abide in me as I abide in you, Jesus says. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches.
The vine and branches metaphor was a smart one for Jesus to use with his disciples, because they knew from vineyards. If they did not know a vinegrower, they probably knew someone who did. If they had never worked in a vineyard, they probably knew someone who had. They well understood that the vine is where the nutrients are concentrated, and that a branch separated from the vine will produce no grapes.
In the same way, Toby found a wonderful metaphor to use for us. Even our children understand that electric lights must be plugged into a power source. Otherwise, we will all remain in the dark.
But even the best metaphors fall short, at least in this case. Because branches have little control over whether they stay connected to the vine; that has more to do with how much rain has fallen, how well the vinegrower has tended the vineyard, how healthy the vine is. In the same way, a string of lights cannot plug itself in.
And yet Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
Well, the dictionary offers a few different meanings of the word abide—some for a transitive verb, as in, I can’t abide this situation one more minute, and two other meanings for the intransitive verb. The first definition is “to remain stable or fixed in a state,” as in “a love that abided with her all her days,” or “to continue in a place” or a being, as in “Abide in me as I abide in you.”
As in, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
In other words, the act of abiding is not passive; it requires a conscious choice to be in a place or a situation and to then stay in that place. We know this from our own relationships: If our friendships, marriages, and communities are to grow and remain life-giving, we must continue to invest in them. We must give ourselves over to them. We must choose to stay actively connected.
In the same way, our relationship with the Holy, our grounding in the God who is love, is not a one and done. It is choice to stay, a decision to keep doing our part, a resolve to go all in. It is a choice we make again and again. It is a choice we are given every morning:
Will I continue in love, or will I abide in the hateful division that characterizes so much of our politics, social media, and systemic racism?
Will I continue to dwell in God, or will I search for meaning and purpose in everything but the Spirit?
Will I make a conscious decision to immerse myself in natural beauty, to get lost in music, to reach out to a friend who will make me laugh, or will I spend my time and energy on things that do nothing to feed my soul and sustain my spirit?
Will I continue to abide in Jesus—will I stay plugged in, will I remain connected—or will I show up in prayer or worship or community or service only every now and then?
We might think it doesn’t make a difference.
After all, God is not going anywhere. God’s love is faithful, and God’s grace will never fail. When we reject God and then come crawling back ashamed and half-dead, God will run out into the road to embrace us and then throw the biggest party we’ve ever seen. When we stray from the fold or get otherwise lost, the Good Shepherd Jesus will leave everything else to come looking for us.
God abides in us and with us. Jesus chooses, again and again, to continue dwelling in us. So what difference does it make whether we abide in them? What does it matter whether or not we keep choosing to go all in on love?
Come on, we might think, it’s not as if we’re going to go to hell! We don’t have anything to worry about. God is love, remember?
Indeed, God is love. We are able to love because God first loved us. And the love we have received requires that we love one another.
And Jesus is the true vine and without him we, the branches, can do nothing. To receive all the goodness we need to thrive and live fruitful lives, we need to stay actively connected to the source of life abundant and the hope of a new world.
And when we do, we will produce fruit. We will bear the fruits of the Spirit: love in action, which is community and care and justice; joy, which enlivens; peace, which opens our hearts; patience, which makes way for transformation; kindness, which softens hearts and changes lives; generosity, which makes possible what seemed impossible; faithfulness, the choice to keep trusting in God’s goodness; gentleness, by which many a wound has been healed; and self-control, which I take to mean the a concern for others’ needs as well as our own.
And so it is that our abiding, the consistent and persistent choice to stay connected to God’s love in Jesus—or, when we’ve disconnected, to come back and re-connect with our whole hearts—heals and transforms us. And what transforms us heals and changes the world.
I realize that this whole “abide in me” thing might still feel a little fuzzy. I understand that staying connected—to anyone and anything—has never been harder than during these past almost 14 months. Pandemic separation has required us to be more intentional in our relationships; we now appreciate that maintaining healthy and vital relationships takes time and effort. We need to stay plugged in.
We have come to know, more than ever before, that we can’t go it alone on this journey of life. We know what happens when we try to make it without the loving support, the helping hands, the caring challenge and, yes, even the annoying imperfections of one another. Staying connected, choosing to abide, is the only way.
We are here on a Sunday morning because, as much as we know we need to stay connected to God, it’s hard to do that day in and day out, especially by ourselves. And so we come here—even when “here” is online and we’re each in our own homes—because we know that God’s love is in every person, that God’s love is embodied in us and among us, that God’s love is in the music and the prayers and the messages and even the technology, that God’s love is in the bread and the wine. We are here because we need to be reminded that we are loved. We are here because we need to celebrate that love and worship the Lover. We are here because we need to abide in that love.
So let us use our newly strengthened relationship muscles to abide in Jesus. Let us choose and then re-choose every day to abide in love.
In this is healing. In this is hope. In this is new life. In this is peace and justice.
In the words of the late Father Pedro Arrupe:
“Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”