Benediction Online

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Consciously abiding

1 John 4:7-21John 15:1-8

Spiritual language is quite different from technical language. We can’t talk about a deep and ongoing connection with God in the same way that we might talk about how to change the toner cartridge in a printer. When we change a toner cartridge we need the manual to say very clearly what to do. We don’t want rich, heavily textured language which carries several shades of meaning. All we want to do is change the cartridge as quickly as possible.

Spiritual language is quite different. Our conscious connection with spirituality depends to a large extent on metaphor and symbol. The metaphors we use are enormously important because they carry layers and nuances of meaning which then influence how we think, how we connect with Spirit and how we behave. In this morning’s gospel Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine. Jesus was speaking with people very familiar with vines and vineyards so it had immediate resonance.

Like us, they understood that withered branches need to be cut off and in fact vines have to be regularly pruned in order to fruit more abundantly. But Jesus is not using technical language here. He is not giving them a lesson in viticulture. He is drawing on a long Biblical tradition in which the community of Israel was picture as vine and vineyard. He was taking a spiritual concept that they already resonated with and applying it to their new life in Christ.

How are we to understand this today?  If we are branches or we perhaps we collectively are a branch of the vine, what does it mean to be pruned? Jesus is talking about the process by which we are shaped, by which we mature in our faith. It has been called sanctification – being made holy. Pruning can be painful. It is very clear in Jesus’ teachings that when we are truly following him there will be times of difficulty and pain because we are called to give up our lives. We are called to let go of our egos’ grasping behavior and to offer ourselves and our bodies - that means every aspect of our physical and spiritual lives - to God as a living sacrifice.

To sacrifice often means to give up, but in ancient times the main purpose of making a sacrifice was to thank God and to be reconciled with God. So our living sacrifice is not a giving up but a giving to – giving ourselves to God in thanksgiving and uniting ourselves with Jesus’ sacrifice. But what was Jesus’ sacrifice? It was God’s self-giving – God herself being the sacrifice for the reconciliation between God and human. This turned the whole notion of sacrifice on its head.  Instead of food provided by humans and offered to God then eaten in a meal of reconciliation;  Jesus is food offered by God to symbolize reconciliation with humans.

When we gather for the Eucharistic meal together we are celebrating God’s gift, to us and participating in that sacrificial meal where we symbolically take God into ourselves, so that we may become a part of God. We become part of the vine which is Christ and then we abide in him as he does in us.

In using the metaphor of the vine, Jesus is talking about incredible mutuality with God. We touched on this last week when Jesus said “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is not just an informational knowing, this is a deep intimate knowing and today that goes even further – “abide in me as I abide in you”.
Isn’t this amazing! It’s mind blowing that we are called not just to be friends with Jesus the Christ, which would be a big deal in itself, but to intimately know and abide in him.

I found directions on the internet for grafting grapevines. That’s when you take a short piece of vine, which must have at least two buds, and attach it to a rooted vine in such a way that the two will grow together. The directions for grafting grapevines say “You will want to check that your rootstock is compatible with what you will be grafting.If a graft is not compatible with the rootstock it will simply wither and die.  In order to successfully abide in the vine we have to become similar to the vine and start to grow as if we had always been there. That is the process of sanctification; we are being made more and more like the one in whom we abide, in whom we live and move and have our being. But notice that this is not a passive situation. 

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This means we have to do something. We have to actively abide. To abide is to continue, to remain or to dwell. How do we do that actively?
The sociologist Robert Wuthnow, commenting on the changes in American religion since the 1950s points out that we used to focus our spiritual life around the dwelling place of God signified by the local church or synagogue. But as society has become more and more mobile our central metaphor has changed from dwelling to seeking. Now we more often think of ourselves as spiritual seekers. This can easily lead to picking and choosing a bit of this and a bit of that without ever delving into the depths of the knowledge of God. So he suggests that spiritual practice is a helpful metaphor for the future. This has both the stability of dwelling and the activeness of seeking.

Our practice then as Christians is to abide in Christ. This is a choice which we will need to make again and again. As the reading from the first letter of John suggests, the way we do this is through love. Jesus gave us the two great commandments; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31). This is not an easy love. This is a demanding love which means that we have to let go of our own lives, just as Jesus did. If we choose to abide in the vine of Christ then we can expect to be pruned and cultivated, nurtured and loved as we become more and more like him.

As we consciously practice abiding in Christ so Christ abides in us. And in that mutual abiding the two become alike. People who live together a long time start to think alike and do things alike and even to look alike. Some people even begin to look like their dogs!  How much better that we should start to look like Christ than like a Shih Tzu!

Practicing abiding in Christ means internally and intentionally turning to God and aligning ourselves with gospel values. It means noticing when we are judging our neighbor and praying for them instead. It means noticing when we are bad-tempered and irritable and turning instead to God’s love. It means noticing when we are worrying rather than trusting, when we are fearful instead of loving, and turning once again to the knowledge of God’s complete and total love for us. It means allowing God’s love to fill us and cast out fear and anger and judgmentalism. And it means expanding our capacity to love.

A vine feeds its branches with sap. We are fed with the life of the Holy Spirit who is the embodiment of love and we are asked to reveal that love in the world. To reveal in this sense does not mean to point to but to make real, to bring into being.  We are called to continually expand our ability to embody love until wherever we go and whatever we do and say we are so filled with divine love that those around us cannot help but find themselves connected with the unconditional and extravagant love of God. For to abide in the vine means to practice becoming more and more like the Christ-filled beings we were created to be. So let us practice abiding in Christ and revealing the love of God to the world.


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