Chaplain Mel Baars
May 6, 2012
“Live in me”
In today’s gospel passage, we are reminded that no man is an island. Branches disconnected from the vine die almost immediately. Without the life blood provided by the vine, branches turn quickly into firewood, only really good for making s’mores at a bonfire. In some ways, it’s a harsh passage with branches being removed because they don’t bear fruit and even fruit bearing branches being cut back to the quick. Just a few chapters earlier, we are reminded of something similar when Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).” We are still in the Easter season, and we have already forgotten Easter’s promise—that life follows death. There is no real life without death.
In John’s discourses, these words about vines and branches, about abiding in him and allowing him to abide in them, in us, are some of Jesus’ last words with his disciples before his death. Jesus is like an old matriarch trying to impart last bits of wisdom and knowledge to the loved ones who have congregated around her deathbed. He is hoping to offer something which might make their journeys a little more bearable. After all, this is the night of the Last Supper, just after Jesus has broken bread and shared the cup. The end is near, and Jesus knows that they are not ready. They are not fully prepared to weather the gathering storm. They don’t yet realize how much they need each other, how much they will depend on one another in the coming days.
The verb “to abide” has been almost completely lost in our modern dialect. In fact, I think I really only knew this word at all through an old hymn by Henry Francis Lyte, “Abide with Me,” written just days before he died of tuberculosis. If you grew up around hymns, you have certainly heard this one. Other than this, though, you would be hard pressed to find the word used with any regularity. According to my “Mac Dictionary App,” definitely an authority on the etymological intricacies of the English language, the word “abide” is considered to be archaic, retired. It means, simply, to live or dwell. Other sources, perhaps bearing a little more weight, say that “to abide” has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, and saying with. As one pastor puts it, “No wonder the term is rare. What it means is rare, in this or any time.”
Abiding requires a mutual engagement that can be challenging to say the least. It is a choice that must be made by all concerned parties. It is not something that happens in one direction. Abiding requires an investment of ourselves into another which means it also comes with a cost. As much as abiding may lead to deeper love, heartache and suffering are byproducts of abiding, too. Just hours after Jesus invites his disciples to abide with him, they witness his death on the cross. Abiding may be at the heart of every relationship-- with God and with each other-- but it is not always easy, not for the faint of heart.
John’s gospel is full of abiding, from its first to its last chapters, but today our passage combines two important ideas, our need for God and our need for one another, both of which are imperative for living faithful lives. Without God’s love, we are nothing. Without the investment of the vine in us and our willingness to receive the lifeblood flowing from it, we can’t survive very long. And, yet one of the only true ways to practice abiding is to keep God’s commandments. Jesus points this out saying, love one another as I have loved you, helping us to remember just what commandment he is referring to. Abiding in God and God in us, loving one another in the same way Jesus has loved us, these two ideas go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I was feeling particularly tired and loved out. Among the variety of tasks I have as a chaplain, loving people, whether soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, or civilians, is at the top of my duty list. Of course, we are all called to practice this commandment, as we have just been reminded, but as a chaplain, or even as a commander or a leader of anyone, even just one, this particular duty seems to be at the heart of the job requirements. All week, as I have felt the weight of my own fatigue and, because of it, proceeded to map out stealth routes to the gym and to my office that might ensure undetected movement throughout camp, I have realized the limits of the love I have to offer.
It wasn’t until spending time with this passage and working on this sermon that I realized there was a way to replenish all that had been depleted over these long weeks. Branches disconnected from the vine swiftly die and living out the commandment to love one another becomes impossible. There is a reason that these two ideas are wedded here. Love of one another cannot exist without God’s love flowing at its center. It’s not that God’s love had somehow stopped flowing in my direction. I think I just forgot how much I needed it, and not just as some concept floating around somewhere in my brain.
As much as we may know in our heads the abiding quality of God’s love and faithfulness, if the disciples are any indication, we are constantly losing sight of what God’s true abiding looks like in our lives, day to day, as we face challenges and trials which threaten to undo us. We may know we need the vine, but we don’t always know how to plug into it, or even how to stay connected once we have found it.
Jesus gives us the answer when he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” But, what does this really mean. Maybe this is the reason that there are times when I find myself gravitating to Eugene H. Peterson’s The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Sometimes hearing scripture said in a new way, helps me grasp things a little better. In Peterson’s translation, Jesus says, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.”
Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. I can’t help but remember one of the many times I asked Jesus to come and make a home in my heart. I was six and in the car going to our family’s thanksgiving meal about an hour from home. I had been lucky to get a seat in the car with my aunt and some of my cousins. This promised to be a more exciting ride than the humdrum experience of car travel with my parents and younger brother.
In my extended family, God always seems to be a part of the conversation. My aunt, ever vigilant at fulfilling her responsibilities as my God mother, asked me, as we drove away from town, whether or not I had asked Jesus to come and live in my heart. There was a special prayer that I needed to pray which would ensure that Jesus was home in my heart, and she was even willing to help me pray it if I hadn’t yet. I was, then, an Episcopalian. Of course, I hadn’t said the special prayer. That’s not how we did things. We said other prayers. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t just tell the truth, admit that I had never said the prayer. But even then, I think I realized with or without the prayer, Jesus was already there. Jesus was a part of me long before I had the wherewithal to recognize him. He asks us to live in him just as he is already living in us. Just in case though, I turned my head toward the window, and muttered under my breath, “Jesus, please come into my heart.” I wanted to cover all my bases. Looking back, I probably would have been better off asking forgiveness for my dishonesty.
All these years, I have remembered this incident as a one of the many times my relatives have tried to get me saved, since, for some reason, the first few times didn’t seem to stick. Reading Peterson’s rendering of this verse, I now understand the idea of making a home in Jesus as Jesus making home in me not as much about salvation as it is about finding a sense of solid ground in this life which is continually characterized by transition, upheaval, and change. Friendships come and go while scenery is always shifting. Death takes away those we love dearly. Much of what we think we can count on as permanent proves to be fleeting. Those of us in the military who live by three year Permanent Change of duty Stations, especially know that making a home in one place for any real length of time is not really possible. With deployments as frequent as they have been over these last ten years, making a home with family members, even, is often strained. In the midst of the chaos, abiding with God and one another is how we find our peace.
To abide, to make a home, is not just a where word, a word that indicates a place, but it is also a when word. Abiding, making a home, is happening all the time, no matter where we are or with whom we find ourselves. Abiding is about sharing our lives with one another. This is what we discover when we practice true abiding. As we look around our units, as we go to meals at the DFAC, even as we miss family and friends who are far away right now, we recognize that home is possible, even here.
Around the same time the first books of the New Testament were being written, Pliny the Elder coined the popular adage… “Home is where the heart is.” Matthew and Luke said it a little differently, “For where your treasure is, there also, will be your heart.” And, John, with his own twist, “Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain intimately at home in my love.”
This is the very best way to live. Really, there is no other way. Amen.
1 Dean Lueking. “Abide in me... (John 15:1-8).” The Christian Century.” 16 APR 1997, p. 387
2 Eugene H. Peterson’s “John 15:9.” The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO, 2002