One of the many things I miss as we continue to live in the shadow of a pandemic is singing together. Don’t get me wrong I still belt out songs on the regular whether I know the words or tune or not. But it has been awhile since I sang with others. My Mom has sung in choirs for most of her life and on this Mother’s day I think of all the songs she has sung in churches as I grew up. I always like trying to pick out her voice from all the others during an anthem. I’m so thankful that with the choir program we are using to record our hymns that I get to sing with her. I am sure that many of you who sing in choirs know what I mean when I say I miss singing together. One of the songs that I often sang with others was the hymn Abide with Me by Henry Francis Lyte. It’s one of those fairly well known classic hymns that carries with it both a hint of melancholy and assurance. I mean truly, the words are filled with sadness and pain but also the knowledge that through our deepest darkness God abides with us. I would argue that one of the reasons why this is a classic hymn is because it mimics some of those heartfelt laments found in the Psalms. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.” The author and Anglican minister, Rev. Lyte, suffered poor health most of his life and at age 54 he developed tuberculosis and died. But for 27 years prior to his death he would often read or sing Abide With Me to parishioners who were enduring hardship or death. It was a sort of personal prayer that he would share. It was sung publicly for the first time at Rev. Lyte’s funeral. The hymn is loosely based on Luke 24:29 when Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and they ask Jesus to stay with them or abide with them. But I could not help hearing that song as I encountered the gospel passage for this morning.
This is a continuation of last week’s passage and part of a greater piece called Jesus’ Farewell discourse. It is a large section in John that takes place on the night of the last supper. In our text Jesus transitions from the image of the vine that we heard last week and is expanding the meaning of love and abiding that he hinted at earlier in the passage. Jesus says, “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.” Last week we compared grafting with abiding but this week we look at what “to abide” really means.
Truthfully, the word abide is perhaps one of those slightly archaic church words that most of us don’t use in common speech. It’s like the words bestow or exalt or liturgy- we all have a vague understanding of what the word means because we’ve grown up with them but if you’re new to the church the words seem old fashioned or strange or completely unknown. To me, abide is one of those words.
Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the passage doesn’t use the word “abide” but instead says, “make yourself at home in my love.” And that’s not a bad understanding of the word abide but is that all that the word means? To make yourself at home. I mean, when I “make myself at home” it usually means that I dismiss any formal social etiquette. It means I take my shoes off and put my feet up and relax. To abide certainly means to get comfortable and cozy in God’s love but it doesn’t mean get lazy or complacent. What does it mean to abide in love?
The Greek word for abide is meno and it means “to remain” or “to stay”. For example, much earlier in John when Jesus is just starting to gather the disciples, two of them ask Jesus “where are you staying?” and the word they use is meno. To abide, to remain or to stay; or it can mean to reside or to occupy or to live. Imagine instead of abide Jesus said, “as the Father has loved me, so I have love you; occupy in my love.” It draws on some of that radical language of the Occupy Movement.
If we understand the word abide in that way then we need to move on to the question what does it mean to abide in Christ’s love? Theologian Emily Askew points out that, “Love in this passage is not a psychological state, nor is it anywhere described as an internal quality. Love is an action—a really difficult action. The definition of love here is a radical willingness to die—not for your child or spouse, but for a fellow follower of Christ.” To occupy Jesus’ love is not for the faint of heart, its not even for the romantic heart. To live Jesus’ love is not for the passive heart, despite the fact that the heart is an involuntary muscle. To reside in Jesus’ love is a continuous process in which those branches we referred to last week bear fruit. Here Jesus ties his previous statement of being the vine and we the branches with this image of abiding in love.
Abide also means to remain stable or in a fixed state much like an interwoven vine of grapes. I think this is why Jesus attaches this abiding imagery to the vine and branches metaphor because to abide is a calling. A calling that keeps us connected and dependent on one another. Or more precisely we are connected to God through Christ but in order for this connection to have meaning, it must be reciprocal and that is manifested through our dependence upon each other. Jesus explains this by redefining his relationship with his disciples as his friends. If we are going to abide, or occupy, or reside, or live in Christ’s love it must be displayed through friendship.
Jesus unpacks this language of abiding by saying, “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.” The disciples are no longer servants or even students of Jesus’ teaching but friends with Jesus. This of course pulled me into another well known classic hymn, “What a Friend we Have in Jesus” which was written by Joseph Scriven who also suffered much in his life including the death of his fiance the day before they were to be married, estrangement from his family over religious difference, and his own severe illness. He wrote the poem while he was living in Bewdley, Ontario near Port Hope after he received word that his mother was ill. He wrote it in a letter to her to try and bring her comfort despite their fractured relationship. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear, what a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.”
The Gospel passage finishes with Jesus stating, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” To abide in Jesus’ love means friendship. I know this is oversimplifying a very complicated theology, I know I am running the risk of sentimentalizing something very deep, but just think, if every person you encountered, you encountered as a friend, not a stranger, what that would do to the world. I know some of you well enough to know that some of you can strike up a conversation with anyone and in that brief moment a friendship develops even if you never end up knowing their name. I know some of you well enough to know that you are more like me, you keep your guard up and don’t want to engage in conversations. So, I know that for some of us this idea of seeing everyone as your friend is a lot harder to do! But to abide, to occupy, to live in Jesus’ love means a manifested friendship. Because no matter how fast the eventide falls, no matter how deep the darkness gets, no matter how helpless we become, God abides- occupies, resides, lives- with us. Amen