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Abide in Me

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

The last time I presented, I didn’t have a perpetual-motion thirteen-month-old, so this is going to be short, sweet, and to the point.

I think the invitation to us from today’s texts is to be grounded and anchored in Christ’s love for us. To not resist Christ’s love for us.

John’s letter tells us that God is love and God revealed God’s love among us in this way: God became incarnate in Christ Jesus—God came into the world so that we might live through Him. Jesus puts it more firmly with an instruction, a command: “Abide in me as I abide in you… I am the vine, you are the branches.”

I grew up hearing this passage and in the tradition I grew up in, the emphasis was a sort of threat: “whoever does not abide in me is thrown awayand burned.” So you better abide in Jesus! Or else!

But I know Jesus better now and I read texts more closely now and the thing that strikes me the most here is not the consequences of a branch that is cut off from its life-source—because I think that’s really what’s going on with the “thrown away and burned” warning: if the branch dies, if the life isn’t flowing into it anymore, the next natural thing is to remove that branch and use it for fuel instead. It’s not a threat, it’s an agricultural life-cycle thing. There is a warning in it, but the nature of a warning is to prevent something, not to threaten someone. I think this should be read less as an “or else!” and more as a “so be careful not to get disconnected from Jesus” and certainly don’t try to disconnect yourself.

I say that because people tend to find it incredibly difficult to receive and accept God’s love. God’s love is an absolute quantity: you cannot be good enough to get more of it and you cannot be bad enough to lose any of it. You have all of God’s love—it’s not earned, it cannot be lost, and you have it without any conditions. Your belovedness is simply the reality—Your belovedness is as core to your real existence as your blood and brain and bones. And we don’t like that.

We don’t like that because we know ourselves and we know the things we’ve done and left undone. We know the things we’ve said and thought. We know how mediocre we are—just normal people. We know our weaknesses and failings and pride and jealousies and the list goes on. So even if we are aware of God’s love, even if we have a sense of its beauty and breadth, we flinch in its presence. It may be that it feels presumptuous, entitled, somehow rude to just accept God’s love and relax into it—that maybe we’re treating it cheaply, taking it for granted. Or perhaps we just don’t believe that God’s love is as whole and unconditional as God says it is. It doesn’t help that many of us have experienced lacks of love or fickle “love” from people who were supposed to love us, like parents or spouses. And it doesn’t help that there are whole branches of the Christian family who would rather people think of themselves as worthless than as beloved. I think those branches are desperately and dangerously wrong.

And there’s an interesting sort of pride at play there—in that “worthlessness” theology and in us when we hem and haw about being loved. When we pull away from God’s love, when we resist it or fight God on it, we’re telling God that we are right and God is wrong. When we bring “worthy” and “unworthy” into the equation, we’re telling God that God’s thought process is off and that God’s way of evaluating is wrong.

You are loved whether you think you’re worthy or not. God doesn’t calculate worthiness—worth doesn’t come it to it at all for God. It’s like asking if a knowledge of Spanish will help you solve 2+2. They have nothing to do with each other. Again, you are loved whether you think you should be or not.

So just stop. Stop telling God that God is wrong. Stop fighting God on this one basic thing. Let yourself be loved. Abide in Christ and don’t pull away from God’s love for you.

Now, that’s all well and good to say, but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do especially if you can’t recall feeling God’s love for you, if you don’t have experiential knowledge of God’s love. This is where the work comes in. There are two concrete things I would suggest:

  1. Explore God’s love in the Bible. You could start by reading the Gospels to see how Jesus speaks to and interacts with folks. Take in what Jesus says about the reason for his incarnation and his death and resurrection and what the Kingdom of God is like.
  2. Talk to God about all this: express your questions, doubts, concerns, hesitations, and hopes. Ask God to help you feel his love for you. Talk with God about why that feels difficult or silly. And make sure you leave some “empty” space in your time of prayer for God to respond to you. If you have questions about praying like this or expecting God to respond, I’d love to talk about it.

I want to share a metaphor to encourage us as we each work to trust in God’s love and to abide in Christ. It’s similar to the vine and branches metaphor Jesus uses, but I’m pretty sure since none of us work in vineyards, that you might see more of these in your everyday life: it’s a cantilevered building. I’ve included a picture in your sermon text—it’s from Penn State, so some of you might’ve seen this building in real life:

Much like a branch grows off of a vine, a cantilever is a “unsupported” overhang. But really, it’s not unsupported, it’s strongly anchored at one end, like the branch is anchored in the vine. There are cantilevers everywhere: the awning of the Kind Café, the second-level overhand on 111 N. Market St just two door up the road, balconies on apartment buildings, the little hanging racks for bags of chips and candy at the gas station, our arms are kind of like cantilevers—my hand isn’t falling down because it’s anchored back here at the shoulder! A branch is anchored to the vine and can stretch out beyond it.

I like this metaphor because, while a cantilever is anchored, it also invites us to stand out on the “unsupported” edge. That is exactly the life of faith and the journey of accepting God’s love and letting it be our lifeblood. Our faith in Christ ought to be grounded in reason and experience—like the Ethiopian eunuch’s faith—but life with Christ also sends us out past where reason can take us: we have to learn to trust God. Like Phillip: the Angel of the Lord basically says ‘leave where you are and head out on a dangerous wilderness road. I’m not going to tell you why yet.’ Phillip says yes to that because he is anchored in God, he trusts God, so he feels safe to go out into the unknown.

It is the same for us, we have reason here: the text tells us that God loves us. We can anchor in that and lean out toward trusting that it’s true and letting it shape us. We can start by imagining how good and life-giving and freeing it could be to feel secure in God’s love—all the good fruit that could grow from that kind of nutrients. All the goodness of a branch firmly anchored in its vine.

You may not feel God’s love right now. You may genuinely struggle not to fight him on it right now. It’s okay—God and God’s love aren’t going anywhere. Even if you accept it, it’s the work of a lifetime to rest in it and trust God to be constant and secure. So cantilever: be anchored in what you can reason and experience and keep leaning out into what you can’t.

You are made in the image of God. You are fully known, fully loved, and fully wanted by God. God’s love for you is not earned and it cannot be lost. You are loved.

I hope you remember that each time you see a balcony or a diving board or a person swinging their arms.

Amen

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