April 22, 2018
William G. Carter
William G. Carter
"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
‘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.”
To live with scripture is to pay attention to the power of words. In our own time and place, that’s easier said than done. We are deluged with words. There are speedy words like “accelerate,” and slow words like “turtle.” There are rich words like “Cadillac,” and modest words like “Ford.” There are young words like “Instagram” and there are old words like “lavender.” There are even made-up words like “Dilly dilly” and “Bada boom bada boom.”
So what are we to make of a word like “abide”? It sounds like an old word, older than my grandmother who died at 102. She wore lavender, by the way. “Abide” is not a common word, not any more. No one says, “I rented a condo at the Jersey shore and I’m going down there for a week to abide.” No, it’s a verb that most people would store on a shelf in the attic, right up there with “sojourn” and “tarry.”
So it may strike us as unusual that this is one of Gospel of John's favorite words. He uses it again and again. The verb pops up as early as the first chapter. Some upcountry folks see Jesus and ask, "Rabbi, where are you abiding?" (1:38) Some translate that, "staying." Others translate it "remaining." That’s fascinating, given that John says, “He pitched his tent” (1:33) and presumably kept moving.
“Rabbi, where are you abiding?” they ask. And John writes, “So they came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day” (1:39). 33 times in the Fourth Gospel, 18 times in John’s first letter, it’s the same word. It is his favorite word.
Dale Bruner says this is a relationship word. Abiding signifies more than a visit for tea. It’s different from bunking on the couch. It signifies something deeper than a sleepover with friends. Bruner says to abide with Jesus is “make our home” with him. And specifically in this section of John’s Gospel, to make our home in Christ’s love. To stay there. To remain in that. To dwell there. .
In a restless world of distractions and enticements, what would it look like to stay in Christ's love? When there is another 5K to run, another chore to do, a family gathering to enjoy, anotheractivity to run to?
Sometimes I have the conversation with parents with young suburban children. They will say something like, "We love the church, we want to get out kids there, but there's so much going on elsewhere. We don’t know what to do." We can talk about priorities, about putting God first, about any number of things, and any advice lasts as far as the parking lot. In a hyperactive culture like this, what would it look like to abide anywhere, much less in a church pew?
And please notice, Jesus does not say, “Abide in my congregation,” but “abide in my love.” That’s easier said than done. It might be more difficult than
A couple of weeks ago, I had a difficult exchange with a man in the community, a member of another congregation. I’m not going to get into details. Suffice it to say it was a clear difference of opinion. Each of us believed he was right, and this guy was convinced I was wrong. I received nasty, contentious emails. Finally, I had to just let it go. There are some battles that are simply not worth fighting.
As I reflected on the matter, it struck me that the whole thing was a distraction from the love of Christ, a love so deep that it covers even the people who are envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude, insisting on their own way. The more I fussed about that small conflict, the more I could sense it was blotting out any love I had - for him, for anybody.
On human level, I could say "the matter is not worth it." On a clinical level, I could say "He hasa lot of issues." But on a Christian level, I had to let it go and hand it over to God, and wish this man well. He has his own journey to undertake; I have mine, you have yours.
What would it look like, to abide in the love of Christ?
First, it looks like staying. Staying there, not to scurry around, not to look for some other source of solace, but to remain. That's what the word "abide" really means.
I wonder how many human relationships blow apart simply because one person or the other does not stay. Somebody flits emotionally from branch to branch. Or daydream about other fish in the sea. Or for those disenchanted with their circumstance, to proclaim with manufactured righteousness, "The grass is greener on the other side of the fence." People who say that overlook the fundamental truth that it's still grass. It's only grass. It’s not carpet, it's grass. Even for those with big aspirations, it's only more grass.
There is a tendency to overinflate our relationships, to expect too much from them, to demand that the person, or the job, or the church should meet all of our unchecked, unwarranted needs, and then to blow it up with dynamite when it doesn't fit our requirements. That’s not staying. That's something else.
Like the woman who was talking about her marriage, not talking, really, but complaining. It turns out Mr. Right wasn't so perfect after all. Why did she think he would be? “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe if I had a firefighter to rescue me out of a burning building. Or someone to ride along on the roller coast. Or at least somebody who didn’t bore me.” So we had a conversation about it. Was it possible for her to live with a mere human being?
And if we cultivate such discontent with our human relationships, is it any wonder that we have discontent in our primary spiritual relationship? The sassy kid said to his youth group advisor, "I think I will try Buddhism. Jesus just isn't doing it for me." It was the last straw in a long conversation, so the youth worker sassed him right back, “Tony, why do you think it's all about you?"
Tony said, “What do you mean? Of course it’s about me.” And this very gracious youth worker said, “In that case, let me tell you about you. You never come to worship two weeks in a row,much less one week out of four. We never see you at a Bible study, you never show up when the rest of the gang is engaged in a service project, never volunteer to help anybody out. What do you think Christ is, your own personal faucet that you can tap for living water whenever you're in need or in the mood?" Pretty direct, but it was the appropriate word.
Then she got to the heart of it all. “Tony,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something out of love: Jesus is risen. He is present. He continues to wait for you to stay with him.”
The spiritual life, the Easter life, is one of staying with Christ. We won't see him, we can't know him, until we stay with him and abide in his love. So it’s more than merely remaining with Jesus, it’s sinking in. It’s putting down roots in his grace. And it’s praying through our dissatisfactions until we are consumed by his sufficiency.
To draw on John's language, abiding in Christ and his love is to sink into the two gifts of his incarnation: grace and truth. "The law came through Moses," says the Gospel, "but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ."
The law is good. God speaks. The words are a gift. They are Torah to teach us how to walk, how to work, even how to rest. God’s Words are a gift.
But when the Light comes into the darkness, we see who we really are. In the face of holy brilliance, we discover our own shadows. When we are smug about all our activity, we avoid the truth that comes when we must receive and not produce. People like me are especially so full of words that we are afraid of what might bubble up in the silences. To face all of this is to sink into the truth, to face the truth that no matter how competent and put-together we want others to think we are, there are fractures and shadows.
We are incomplete without the Love that can heal, hold, and re-commission us, the love that binds us to both friend and stranger. And in that truth, Christ reveals the grace. The heart of the Gospel is that the cleansing power of love will stay with us as we are, promising to scrub away the dirt between our toes and the grime within our hearts, a Love that renews us again and again so that we might love others.
This is the end of it all: to sink into the love of Christ so that we find ourselves by loving others. What Jesus reveals about God is that love is expansive, not restrictive. Love abounds and doesn’t reduce. The more deeply we love, the more we are able to love. If we could abide in such love, it would be enough. Enough for us, enough for others.
Abide – the Greek word is “meno.” Someone told me that is the root word for “mansion” or “manse.” It’s a place to dwell, a place to be at home.
It reminds me of a little pamphlet somebody gave me in college. Maybe some of you have seen it somewhere in your journey. It was called, “My Heart, Christ’s Home.” When I was nineteen, it was a helpful tract, offering a guided tour of how Christ can come into all the rooms of the place where you dwell.
These days, however, I have come to sense the title of the little pamphlet may be too small, too individualistic. So let’s flip it and see how big it is: “Christ’s Heart, My Home” – and your home, his heart is the true home for others. In fact, it can be the home, God willing, even for our enemies: Christ’s Heart.
So the Spirit of God invites us today sink into that, to stay with that. And as we do, we discover all over again that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16).