“I am the vine and you are the branches.” This passage from John 15 was read to me at my baptism. I stood in a white robe, waist deep in water, in a pool at the front of the church building - a short, nervous 13 year old - and said into the mic that I loved Jesus and wanted to be baptized. And my mother stood in the congregation, holding open the bible and read to me these verses as a charge. “Your life comes from Jesus, hang onto Jesus, abide in him and his joy will be in you.” I can still hear her voice saying those words. Hang onto Jesus.
That's a wonderful charge, and in the moment, standing there at my baptism, I was feeling that abiding like nobody's business. I was hanging on to Jesus, and everyone could see that. But when that moment fades, and real life creeps in, the question becomes, How do I do this? This intimidating thing of “hanging onto the vine”? How do I abide in Christ? Is it about what I do? What I think, or believe, about God? Is it about how I feel? Is that it, do I need to “feel” God or “feel close to God” in order to know that I am truly abiding in Christ? I wanted this; I want this. This joy that is promised, God’s life in me. That closeness with God. But what am I supposed to do to get it, or keep it? Or keep from losing it?
Hang on tight and don’t let go, I suppose.
But this pesky word, “Abide” kind of mucks things up. It’s not really a “give it all your effort,” “do your best” kind of word. “I was abiding so hard.” It is clearly NOT striving. And abiding is definitely not hanging on really tightly.
It is more the opposite. It is relaxing your grip, opening up, dwelling, hanging out. It is more like letting the life of God that is in you, that claims you, live through you. Abide. It is John’s whole theme – trusting, letting your life come from the Life.
We abide because God abides. God abides. All through scripture, this word is mostly God’s word. God remains. God hangs out in and through it all. Underneath everything and binding it all together is this Word; God’s creative energy that spoke the whole world into being now speaks through love. We find ourselves in God, who abides, because God is love. We can because God is.
So how do we abide, then? How do we live in God’s love? Not by ourselves, that’s for certain. If these passages say anything to us today, it is that it is impossible to abide in Christ alone. If the fruit of this abiding is love, it means that when we abide in Christ, we will find ourselves living in love, loving others, receiving others, remaining with others, standing by others and finding others doing that for us as well. There is no individual discipleship, no personal, isolated relationship with God. Abiding in God means love. Loving, being loved, love. And that requires other people. God’s love is embodied in us, between us; it uses our voices, and our arms and our eyes.
We’ve been talking about encounters with the Risen One. We’ve been sharing stories of resurrection. Mary, Thomas, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our own lives when we see life come out of death, hope emerge from despair, the places of God’s presence. But where do we most often meet the Risen One? When we love, when we are loved. We meet Jesus in the places we are with and for one another in love.
And despite what we most often believe and how we most often relate, there is no fear in love. None at all. Perfect love casts out fear. If love is our salvation, fear is our damnation. Love is the currency, the energy, of life – love fuels life, deepens life, builds life, grows life. But fear is the currency and energy of death, fear motivates and propels us to shut others down, close them out, fear breaks down relationships and dismantles trust, in fear we keep ourselves isolated, falsely “protected” from hurt, insulated in unforgiveness. Where fear is stoked, it sucks up all the oxygen and stifles love.
The opposite of love is not really hate. We don’t really hate one another, at least not most of the time. We fear one another. We fear what the other can take from us, require of us, do to us, stop us from doing. We fear each other.
But there is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear, so love is stronger than fear. Love forgives and mends and sets us free.
I attended the Westminster Town Hall Forum and couple of weeks ago, to listen to a psychologist speak, a world expert on forgiveness. He said he was frustrated some time ago because faith traditions always speak about the need to forgive and how good it is to do, but they don’t tell us HOW to forgive. They don’t often help us to do it. They just tell is TO do it. And people get so stuck in unforgiveness. So very stuck. So he has dedicated 20 years of research and work to teaching people how to forgive, to measuring scientifically the effect it has on people’s bodies and minds and relationships. And do you know what his team has found is at the very root of all forgiveness?
Abiding in God’s love.
Of course, they wouldn’t say it quite that way in the laboratory. Instead they would talk about finding that place of peace within, about living from that place; but the way you get there? Love. He walked us through an example. Think of someone you adore, he said. Get a good picture of them in your head. Remember what it feels like to be so loved by them, so known and valued. How they delight in you. Let your heart even get warm right now as you think of this person. Hold that feeling within you. Now open your eyes, he said. Five minutes of this every day is more effective than psychotherapy in helping people to forgive.
Abiding in love unclenches our heart, drives out fear, and frees us – ever so much more - to forgive and to live out of love, because all forgiveness, all love and mercy and with-each-other-ness come from God’s own love.
“No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another God lives in us and God’s love is completed in us.”
How do we see God’s love? In the love of others.
How do we see God’s love? When we love others.
It’s not an abstract, spiritual and distant thing. It is a concrete, real, tangible thing.
Holding my son in the dark when he has a nightmare, helping him to change the story and reminding him of his own strength...in my words and my arms, he feels God’s love. And so do I, in the aching pain of loving him. God’s love is completed in us.
The two word email from my sister in my moment of frustration, the email that says nothing, really, but means everything- she sees me and laughs with me and I am not alone. When she sees me, Jesus sees me, and in one bright moment I feel God’s love.
The instant when my arrogance crumbles, and I can apologize for being wrong, because as important as it is to me to be right – and that is often far too important to me –this person in front of me whom I love is actually truly more important to me than myself. And by dropping my guard I realize that underneath of this fight is the desire to be close, to be heard, to be known, together we feel God’s love in our own broken and faltering love.
The friend whose terrible suffering was secret, distant, and who only now is opening up to tell me what she has been through, and I feel crushed for her, so sad, completely helpless to fix any of it and at a loss for the right words, but I can listen, and I can bear it with her. And we are for each other the presence of God.
When we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is completed in us.
Have you seen the Risen One? He is right here, meeting us in the love between you and me, in the space here that exists between us, and the Spirit that connects us, sharing the hope and joy and pain and life that we share.
So Abide in this love. Relax into this love. Remain in this love.
And when you can’t, when you are dry and alone, parched and empty, when you wonder, Where is God?, it’s not up to you to go and find God. It’s not up to you to hang on really tightly and muster up some kind of doubtless faith or spiritual certainty or religious or moral tenacity.
If you want to see God’s love, then love somebody. Say something, do something, for somebody else. See them. Hear them. Join them. It’s a concrete action and real window, that opens your eyes and heart. Love someone. Do it and you will find yourself held by it. Live like it’s true and its truth will live in you.
Because it is not really about what we do - it’s not even our love, after all. We’re just sharing it, swimming in it, breathing it and passing it around; we are just abiding in the love that sustains us, the love that is life, the life of the world.
So don’t be afraid. Jesus is here. Open your hands, relax your grip, and let the life of God that is in you, that claims you, live through you.