Abide in me, Jesus says. What does Jesus mean when he says that, I wonder? The picture Jesus gives his disciples to help us understand is a vine with branches. We are the branches, and that is what Jesus says abiding looks like: branches on a vine. So one grape says to the other grape: “You know, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be in this jam.” The other grape replies: “You know I’ve about had it with you. All day long with you it’s wine, wine, wine.” (I know, I know...I'm 'pressing.')
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says.
That we are the branches tells us that Jesus is our source and our center - and we talked about friendships centered on Jesus last week. But the image of branches is also somewhat confusing because branches do not decide to be centered on a vine - that branches are at all rests solely on the action of the vine - the vine acts and makes it so.
If a branch could un-choose her connection to the vine, not only would that branch not be a branch, the branch wouldn’t be anything else, either. She simply would not be. Everything it means to be a branch comes from being grown out of and connected to the vine - the good work of the vine. Branches are not independent agents apart from this work.
So instead of “What does it mean to abide?” maybe the question is “If we are like branches, and branches are automatically dependents of the vine - always abiding - why is abiding something Jesus has to tell us to do?” And maybe the most honest question behind both of the others is, “What is the point of abiding?”
As a beginning of the answer to that last question especially, we need to back up a bit to the chapter just before this morning’s lesson, where there’s an important back-story that today’s lesson picks up.
In chapter 14 of John’s gospel, we find Jesus telling his disciples that he is about to leave his disciples. Jesus is about to die. Jesus explains that, by the departure he will achieve through his death, he goes to prepare a dwelling place for his friends - “in my Father’s house there are many mansions (we might also use the word “rooms” or “dwelling places” here)” and the word used for dwelling places shares a root-word with our word “abide” in John 15.
Jesus goes on in chapter 14 to explain that the “room” he is preparing for his friends - which again is a twin for our word “abide” - is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus leaves them in order to send his Holy Spirit. To those who love and obey Jesus’ teaching, we’re told, Jesus promises his Holy Spirit to the end that “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” So “dwelling place” - which, to beat home the point, shares a root-word with “abide” - is about receiving the Spirit and having the fullness of God come make a home in the life of the one who receives it. The dwelling place made possible by the Spirit is also about our being made able to find our home in God.
It’s important, I think, that after saying all this Jesus gives his disciples his peace and tells them that, knowing these things, they do not need to be afraid.
So in chapter 14 we learn that Jesus goes to prepare a dwelling place for us, and just because he goes off to prepare it does not mean we have to go off to find it. Jesus isn’t just talking about heavenly rewards when we die. Jesus will send his Spirit to his friends, and God will make his home with them. The word for what’s being prepared is dwelling places, but the effect here is a mutual indwelling. God’s home with us and our home with God. In chapter 14, abiding is about the mutual indwelling of God and God’s friends.
And we’ve heard this kind of talk before. We hear it in our eucharistic prayers, when we pray that “he may dwell in us, and we in him.” Holy Communion is meant to be a living picture of God in us and we in God. And this is what it means to abide.
Among other things, abiding is a great relief. If abiding is about God in us and we in him, then when we abide, we are free to give up our repeated, lame, and tiring attempts to impress God, as if we could do anything good apart from him. If we do as we’ve been told to do in the gospel this morning - if we keep our home with him, abide in him - we will not have anything with which to impress God for which we will not also be moved to thank God.
And again, we’ve heard this before: in the words we say each week at the early service: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”
And abiding like this makes a certain kind of intuitive sense. When we welcome someone into our house, for example, and tell them to “make themselves at home” - a crude picture of what we’re calling “abiding” this morning - we are giving both parties a mutual permission not to impress one another. So I tell you to help yourself to the fridge, by which you understand that I won’t be serving you - if you want it, you get it - and also that I forego the right to complain when you take the last of my favorite beer.
There’s a tender side to this, too. Rebekah has long counted it the sign of a true friendship when a friend says, “Sure, come on over. There will be laundry on the sofa but what the heck, you’re family.”
When God pitched his tent and made himself at home with us, he certainly did not come to impress us. Isaiah tells us he was despised and rejected, that we esteemed him not. Christ’s coming among us was the beginning of the oblation - the pouring out - of himself, stooping in love, in the end washing the feet of his friends, like a slave, before his betrayal, rejection, and death.
Still, it is one thing to know this and another to live it, to enjoy freedom from the temptation - almost like instinct - to continue putting on a good show for God. “Lord, did you see that? Huh? Huh? Not so shabby - I mean, you know, for me, all things considered, if I do say so myself.”
But the mistake of our attempts to impress God is that we imagine a distance between ourselves and God that God in Christ has bridged. God is not simply interested in you; God lives inside you! Animates you! Makes his home in you. Not perfectly, certainly, but that’s the opportunity. But so often we’re all: “Yo God, did you see how I edged and manicured the lawn? Those vacuum marks are fresh.” And God is all: “mi casa es su casa.”
Now, hold on here. Does this mean that how we live our lives with God is unimportant? This question is not unlike St Paul’s question to the Romans: Should we therefore sin that grace may abound? Knowing that God doesn’t care about my laundry, should I just wear the dirty underpants? And the answer is the same as St Paul’s: Heck no!
But do you see - can you appreciate - the miracle that has been opened?
The conversation now when it happens, you and God at the table, will not be about dirty dishes or all the chores you’ve complete or smudges on the windows; it will be about the things that dear friends who have given up impressing one another talk about. Matters that matter. Come on over, appearances be darned, because there are things beneath appearances that I long to share with you. So we knock on the door or call too late. God answers the door with a yawn and a stretch. And we say, “Your presence does not simply comfort me; your presence is a challenge to me in all the best ways and toward the very best of who I had hoped to become.” Like Simon Peter, we say “You alone have the words of eternal life.” And he says to us in reply: “Make yourself at home.”
The Spirit of God making it possible for him to dwell in us and we in him.
Long before Occupy Wall Street, there was what might be called the original Occupy movement. It went something like this: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Word became flesh and literally “pitched his tent” in our camp. God made a home with humankind. We are blessed by God’s presence.
God’s abiding presence, his Holy Spirit, poured out on his people, we people, the People of God.
The lessons today teach us that, just as Easter came along unexpectedly and shouted, “Wait, wait, the cross looks like the end but this is not the end,” now we pick up the scent of Pentecost, just a few weeks off now, and it, too, is shouting: “Wait, wait, Easter looks like the end, but Easter is not the end! The power and life you saw in the risen Lord is power and life meant for you, too! Jesus himself will breathe his Spirit in you and God will make his home with you.
In your life, in my life, in the life of our church: if the Good News is that God wants to bunk up, then out, out! with everything else that gets in the way. Out with the idea that we’ve got to do this by ourselves or it doesn’t count. Out with shame. Out with fear. Out with backup plans and safety nets, like stockpiles of wealth and closets full of things we might need someday. Give them to the ones who need them now, because they need them now, and we need room.
And in this way we offer up our hands, our feet, our work, our lives, our bodies, souls, our minds, our strength, with the expectation that God in us will move them, move us, shape them, shape us, through the great and unexpected fact that God has made his home with us.
It is because this indwelling is God’s delight, purpose, and stated goal that we too seek to live lives whose delight, purpose, and stated goal is no less than this: that he abide in us, and we in him.
Sermon preached at St C's for Easter 5, May 6, 2012.