There are many things we might wonder about in today’s Gospel. I’ve found myself wondering about two in particular, and these serve as the backbone for the sermon. First, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” What does ‘abide’ mean? What does it look like? Second, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about?
“Abide.” If we’d read a little further in the Gospel we’d have heard “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v.10). And then “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v.12). It sounds like “abide” points to life in a community that includes Jesus and the disciples and—as we’ll see—the Father and the Spirit, which is so characterized by love that the author of the epistle can say flatly “God is love.”
The epistle—the Dummy’s guide to the Gospel—focuses on this love. What does it want to say? First, that the starting point is God’s love for us. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That’s the starting point, the starting point of our history, the starting point for each day. Each day I awake to the world in which God showed his love by sending Jesus to give us life.
This is where the author focuses; he could equally have focused on God’s love shown in creation. And this love is so immediate that it’s easy not to notice it. Let’s try this: please shut your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing: inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling. Every breath: pure gift. Now open your eyes. There’s light, another great gift. We exist in a world saturated with God’s generosity, God’s love.
“Beloved, let us love one another,” because that’s the response that fits with our reality. Anything else is a fruitless and usually painful exercise in forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Just past the end of our Gospel reading Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” And this reminds us that Jesus’ life is our clearest picture of what love looks like. Recall Jesus’ self-description that we heard last week: Jesus the Good Shepherd, tender with the sheep, but not pretending that the wolves are other than wolves. The good news: we don’t have to stay wolves.
“Beloved, let us love one another.” Why do we find that so difficult? We live in a world saturated with God’s love, but it’s also a world in rebellion against God, so it’s very hard not to learn from a very early age that it’s everyone for themselves. Money, power, status: whatever I think I need to stay safe: I’m going to hold that tight. That limits the love I can risk.
It’s something like that story of the guy hiking in the mountains. His foot slips and he goes off the edge of the trail, just managing to grab a root to halt what would be a very long descent. He cries for help. A voice that could only be divine responds “I’m here and will help you…Let go of the root.” The guy thinks for a long moment and then responds “Is anyone else up there?”
We’re fearful folk, living in a world that encourages us to tell ourselves stories that don’t start with God and don’t end with God. As long as I’m holding onto that root—whatever it is that I think assures my security—my hand can’t reach out to my neighbor. Happily, working at “love one another” makes it easier to remember to tell ourselves stories that are true.
Before I move on, here’s another take on love from Thomas Merton: “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
“Abide in me as I abide in you.”
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about? At the start of our reading we hear “I am the true vine.” Throughout the Old Testament the vine is a symbol for Israel, perhaps most importantly in Isaiah’s parable:
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And a few verses later:
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Justice and righteousness: Isaiah’s shorthand for a healthy community, a community—recalling Jesus’ summary of the law—characterized by love of God and neighbor. Since Jesus is constantly playing off images in his Scripture (our “Old Testament”) I think this is what the fruit is about: a community of love. A community, therefore, with open borders, receiving with open arms folk like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip received in the reading from Acts.
Philip, by the way, is the Deacon Philip, not the Apostle Philip (see Acts 8:1). Deacons often do far more than their job description would suggest. And this portrait of Philip, opening his heart and Scripture to this Ethiopian isn’t a bad portrait of a deacon whose presence we miss today. There will, God willing, be time to give him a well-earned “thank you.” And there’s time to follow his example, opening our hearts to our neighbors. But back to the Epistle…
Love of God and neighbor. It’s so easy—fatally easy—to think that these are two separate issues. But if there’s anything our reading from the epistle wants to say, it’s that there’s no space between these two loves. Loving God and not loving the neighbor? Not simply a bad idea, but simply impossible. Or, more precisely, if I love god and don’t love my neighbor, it’s not Jesus’ God that I’m loving.
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.”
“Beloved, let us love one another.”
The world is such that it’s easy to forget that we’re in a story that begins and ends with God’s love. Forgetful, our memories need all the help they can get. This is why the Book of Common Prayer starts with the Daily Office, an extended exercise in jogging our memory. And towards the end of that section… Please grab a copy and turn to page 136. Pages 137-140 contain short forms for the morning, noon, early evening, and the close of the day. In the coming week, notice when it’s hard to remember. See if any of these forms might be useful.