Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sermon: Abide is a Verb

Based on John 15:9-17

Last night I officiated at what may have been one of the most fun weddings I’ve ever been to. I do say this about almost every wedding…I must like them more than I think I do! What made it fun was not the perfect conditions…the ceremony was outside under a mostly cloudy sky with a slight breeze and temperatures in the upper fifties. It wasn’t the perfection of the setting, which was very beautiful, if a bit chilly. What made it so much fun was the unfailing good nature of the bridal party, their families, and friends.
We could have all been miserable last night. We could have rushed through the ceremony, left out the readings and the homily, and hurried everyone outside for the ceremony and then back in for the reception. We could have done all of those things, and we did do some of them: we “made haste slowly” to get people outside and then back indoors. But the bride and her friends were cheerful and made the best of things, and she was determined to enjoy every minute—and her enthusiasm was infectious! At a time when we could have been huddling against the cold and counting the moments until it was all over, there was a sense of comfort and relaxation. Something marvelous was happening, and we got to witness it, and the cold didn’t matter too much for the length of the ceremony.
In deference to the cold, I did cut the homily a bit short. I couldn’t resist, however, including some words from a favorite movie of the bride’s: “Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today. Marriage, that blessed arrangement…treasure your love, and love, true love, will follow you forever.” Sound familiar? They are from “The Princess Bride,” a silly and altogether wonderful movie. I used it in part for the sheer silliness of it—I knew the wedding party would laugh—but I also used it to talk about some important words in there: marriage, love, and forever.
I had a professor at Duke who insisted that none of us have any idea what we’re really getting into when we marry someone else. To begin with, we’re usually on our best behavior while we’re dating. We want to be our best selves for the one we love, and so we are careful about what we say and how we behave. We hide our bad habits, and earnestly try to break them, but inevitably after the wedding, some of those less-pleasing habits creep back. Familiarity becomes tolerance, and while we love one another no less, we sometimes wish things could be like they once were. As the song says, “You don’t bring me flowers, and you don’t sing me love songs anymore.”
One of the commonly used scripture passages for a wedding—although not one we used last night—is 1st Corinthians 13, the “love passage.” It concludes with these words: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” Abide is one of those old-fashioned words that we use in church and don’t always understand. I would put it on the same list as Doxology and Psalter, Benediction and hallowed. It’s got a strange sound to it, and the only places I can remember ever hearing it are in church, either as part of a scripture reading or in hymns. “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
But what does it mean, to abide? The hymn makes it sound like it has to do with rescue or with saving someone; the writer, Henry Lyte, was dying of tuberculosis and wrote it for his last Sunday in the pulpit before a planned trip to Italy for his health. That thought was probably in his mind.
Many Bible verses make it sound like it means to stay or to rest: Psalm 91 refers to those who “abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” “faith, hope, and love, these three abide,” is Paul’s contribution, and then there’s today’s passage from John. Of the 49 times the word abide appears in the NRSV, 6 of them are in John 15, and 23 are in writings attributed to John…it seems “abide” is a very important word, whatever it means.
I looked it up, and found that abide means: to remain, stay, dwell; to continue in a particular condition, attitude, relationship, etc.; to tolerate or to endure; to wait; to accept; to suffer for; to submit to; to act in accord with; to be faithful to. I was partly right, at least, but none of this really clarifies for me what Jesus was commanding us to do when he says, “abide in my love.” Does it mean to suffer, for Jesus certainly suffered for his love for us? Does it mean to rest? To remain? To tolerate? To continue, or remain faithful to? Perhaps all these things and more…
We are now in the third week of our study, Irresistible Invitation. In this week’s readings, Maxie Dunnam invites us to think about what it means for us to be alive in abide in Christ’s love. This is one of the truths of our faith that is at once simple and complicated, rich with meaning and yet something even the youngest of us can do. This act of living in Christ, of abiding in Jesus’ love, is profoundly scriptural and yet doesn’t require advanced study of the Bible to become a part of our lives. Instead it is a part and function of our relationship with God. Our church’s mission statement is “to know Christ and to make him known”…it describes living in relationship with Christ, and inviting others to do the same; yet, like marriage, a relationship with Jesus Christ is a process. Like marriage, when we start our faith journey with Jesus we don’t really have any idea what we’re getting into.
But if we don’t fully comprehend who Jesus Christ is and what it means to have a relationship, we do have some idea. And here is where we come back to this business of abiding. Our relationship with Jesus is something like a marriage. It is an intimate friendship, a deliberate opening of our lives to someone else. It rarely turns out to be exactly what we thought it would be, and it is in some ways better than we dreamed. Abiding in Christ, living in Christ, may be simple in concept, but there is a richness, a depth to it, as we grow and mature and deepen that intimate friendship.
To abide in Christ, to be alive in Christ, is not a passive process. We do not simply meet Jesus, decide to be his friend, and then sit back and let Jesus do all the work. That’s no way to run a friendship! As odd as it may seem, Jesus loves us because of who we are, each of us unique in his eyes. God loves us whether or not we love God back…and so we are chosen, each of us picked out by God as a beloved child…a brother or sister of Jesus Christ.
In order for us to have and enjoy any relationship, we have to participate in it to some degree, and that is what God asks of us…to participate in this intimate friendship with Jesus Christ. The emphasis in today’s text is on God’s love for us and our love for one another, which we live out as an expression of our relationship with God. In part, yes, it is about how we do our part to share in this relationship…the actions of abiding, we might call them: prayer, worship, Bible study, acts of service and mercy, giving. But what Maxie Dunnam points out in this week’s readings of Irresistible Invitation is that our relationship with Jesus Christ also points out God’s deep and abiding love for us, a love which has no end, and for which God is willing to pay the cost.
Philip Yancey, who wrote What’s So Amazing About Grace and The Jesus I Never Knew, wrote about this:
“Not long ago I received in the mail a postcard from a friend that had on it only six words, “I am the one Jesus loves.” I smiled when I saw the return address, for my strange friend excels at these pious slogans. When I called him, though, he told me the slogan came from the author and speaker Brennan Manning. At a seminar, Manning referred to Jesus’ closest friend on earth, the disciple named John, identified in the Gospels as “the one Jesus loved.” Manning said, “If John were to be asked, ‘What is your primary identity in life? he would not reply, ‘I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four Gospels,’ but rather, ‘I am the one Jesus loves.’”
This is the most important thing we want you to hear in church. Eric and I sometimes comment that we really only have two children’s sermons and chapel talks. One is “God loves you,” and the other is “God loves everyone.” This is Jesus’ message to us in today’s passage from John. God loves you, and everyone. And because God loves everyone, we too are called (and commanded) to love one another: not just the “one another” who sits near you in church or Sunday School or with whom you work. But all the “one anothers,” who like you are beloved of God.
Marriage isn’t easy. It can be wonderful, and is wonderful in spite of the pain and worry life brings to all of us. It takes some work…we have to abide in it, abide with our spouse, not only when abiding means being faithful to or remaining but even tolerating. We have to stay with a marriage to see how it’s going to turn out, and our prayer is always that it turns out well, that both partners find joy in loving and honoring one another. The same professor who said we have no idea what we’re really doing when we say our marriage vows also says that the purpose of marriage is so that we would be better together than apart.
This is the case in our friendship with Jesus as well: we are better together than we are apart. Our lives and relationships improve when we are aware of God’s love for us and others, but also, somehow, I have to believe that God gets something good out of it as well. This is what we are made for, to not only be loved by God, but to know that we are loved. It’s what Eric and I want the children to know, and something we want each of you to know as well: You are loved by God. You are the one Jesus loves.
There is excitement and empowerment when we understand God’s love for us as more than just an abstraction, when it becomes real in our hearts and minds. It encourages us to be more than we could have been otherwise, to love more and to love one another with the love so freely and richly given to us. It inspires us to obedience, not because we are compelled but because when we are in love, we want to do what the other asks of us. In a perfect world, every relationship would be like this; in our imperfect world human love sometimes fails us but the love of God in Christ will never fail us.
We are taught as young Christians to pattern our lives after Jesus’ life. To do so invites us into a relationship of abiding love, one that invites us to obedience and rewards us with the joy of knowing God, of knowing that we are loved. Brennan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest who, on a walking tour of a rural parish, sees an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying. Impressed, the priest says to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment, and then smiles, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.”
Oh, yes, God is very fond of you, too. May you always know God’s presence, God’s grace, and most of all, the deep and abiding love God has for you.

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