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The Abiding Life

May 4, 2015

“The Abiding Life” John 15:1-11 © 5.3.15 Easter 5B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

All of us have characteristic ways of speaking and writing. Perhaps we pronounce a word distinctively. My mother, for example, never said “mountain.” It was always “mounting.” Some people like to use big words, while others are satisfied with simple ones. Our accents give away where we’re from. Even if classes have largely removed the regional character from our speech, we may lapse into the diction of our childhood on occasion. We might use particular phrases that are unique. My daddy, when I misbehaved, would say: “Boy, you better straighten up or I’ll be on you like white on rice.” His other favorite was “like a duck on a June bug.” I have never heard anybody else talk like that. You may have noticed that I favor alliterative pairs in sermons and prayers, such as “the left out and the looked-down on, the poor and the put-upon,” and so on. I’m also one of those who tends to use a $10 word when a 50 cent one would do.

The biblical writers were no different. They had their favorite ways of speaking, particular themes to which they kept coming back, characteristic words that appear over and over in their writing. That’s how we can tell whether a biblical book that claims to be by Paul or Isaiah or Mark was really written by him or by someone penning the work in his name. We look at style, vocabulary, and topics, allowing for differences in audience and situation. We can know if a later writer added some sentences or maybe, in the case of Mark, provided what was considered a more satisfactory ending.

The group of writers associated with the gospel of John, known as the “Johannine school,” also had its unmistakable way of putting things. For example, the gospel and the first two epistles of John repeatedly use the word “abide,” which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament other than in one verse in 1 Corinthians 13. The translations tend to obscure the use of the word in John, substituting for the sake of variety other terms like “dwell,” “stay” or “remain” for the Greek verb. But it’s there from chapter 1, where the disciples ask Jesus where he “abides” to chapter 21, in which Jesus tells Peter not to worry whether another disciple “abides” until our Lord comes again.

“Abide” is a rich, old-fashioned word from early in the development of our language that we don’t use very much anymore, like its noun form “abode.” But let me suggest it may be time to recover it as a description of what we are called to do as believers. We are invited to experience a connected life. An enduring life. A lasting life. An abiding life.

What does such a life look like? Well, let me say before we explore the question that I can’t do justice to it. Not simply due to my limited time, but because I don’t understand so much of what’s going on in the text. It requires me to get out of my head a great deal more than I’m able to.

There’s a common saying about the gospel of John that it’s so shallow a child can wade in it and so deep an elephant could drown in it. This morning I’m going to stay in the kiddie pool and leave it to those more spiritual and mystical than I to dive in with the adults and explore concepts like mutual indwelling. That’s the term for Jesus abiding in us and we in him.

So with that disclaimer, let’s dip our collective toe in the shallow end and see what refreshment for our lives is waiting there.

As we prepare to step in, we notice that Jesus calls himself the true vine, God the Father the vinegrower, and the disciples—that’s you and me—the branches. This is one of the great “I Am” sayings, that like the word “abide,” is unique to John. And Jesus is not just any vine, but a grapevine.

Our Lord was using a common Jewish image. Israel was God’s vine. And Wisdom says of herself in one of the works of the sages: “Like the vine I bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit” (Sirach 24:16-17).

There’s a reason that the vine was such a popular metaphor. Grapes had been cultivated in the Near East since 5000 BC. The ancient Sumerian alphabet character for life was a grape leaf. Even the biological name of the grape is “vitis,” related to the Latin word for “life,” from which we get “vital” and “vitality.” Jesus is telling us he is life itself, the source of our nourishment and growth.

The disciples would not have been surprised by what our Lord said next. The abiding life is a fruitful life, first of all, and to produce abundantly, the grapevine must be pruned. I’ve read that “pruning makes the vine hardier and stronger, it removes unwanted excess vegetation” and produces a balanced vine (http://www.grapegrowingguide.com/grape-pruning.html). The heavier the pruning, the better the crop. Said one expert: “When pruning grapes, you’ll want to cut off as much of the old wood as possible. This will encourage the growth of new wood, which is where the fruit is produced”  (http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/grapes/prune-grape-vine.htm).

We’re not told the tools and the schedule God uses for pruning his branches—again, that’s us. But we can guess from knowing the fruit he wants us to produce, namely, love. The kind of serving love Jesus showed his disciples when he washed their feet. Love that’s made into the exquisite, mature wine of Christian fellowship, in which all are valued and all serve mutually. Love that glorifies God and points the world to Jesus. So, if God wants love as our fruit, he will work in our lives to get rid of the old dead wood and tangled branches of fear, anxiety, hatred, prejudice, and self-serving. The text implies that the main way he will do this is by our attention to the teaching of Jesus. Our Lord says we are already pruned or cleansed by the word he has spoken. Travel or humble service are also tools God uses, as we expand our horizons or go beyond our comfort zones to help someone in need. It may even be he will wield his pruning saw through hard experiences as individuals or as a church that make us question our priorities and goals, that make us change and grow in spite of ourselves. Whatever it is that redirects our energy toward compassion and care, that’s the pruning God does.

One commentator sums up: “If we ‘go wild,’ we will grow willy-nilly, and are unlikely to put much of our energy into producing the fruits of his kingdom. But following Jesus means being trained, directed, led to grow in righteousness. We pray that the energy which might be wasted in quarreling, in anxiety, might be used instead to grow charity, kindness, forgiveness, justice, peace” (Paul Bellan-Boyer, http://citycalledheaven.org/2012/04/i-am-vine.html).

But not only is the abiding life a fruitful life, it’s a joyful one. Jesus told his disciples: “I have said these things to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

We use that word “joy” all the time. We “enjoy” everything from a meal to a sermon, from a conversation to a walk by a lake, meaning that such experiences give joy to us. It even figures in military language. “No joy” is a code meaning “I have been unsuccessful” or “I have no information.” And we no doubt use “joy” as a synonym for “happiness.”

But joy is not the same as happiness. We can have joy even if we’re not happy, such as when we’re suffering. Frederick Buechner said: “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it” (Wishful Thinking).

Joy can sustain us, as someone has observed, through “any spiritual or moral or physical devastation” (Alice Walker). We can be joyful even though there’s no possibility of happiness. Joy is the assurance, the confidence, the intuition that there is Someone who is not subject to the changing fortunes of life, who is in fact ultimately in control of everything, and nothing can defeat his purpose. Joy is not a feeling we can conjure or command; it comes as a gift from our Lord, who is the Source of all joy by his Spirit. As the writer Margaret Feinberg has said, “Joy is the hearty echo of God’s great love for us” (various online sources). The great French philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had a similar thought: “Joy is the infallible sign of the Presence of God” (http://www.joy4u.org/Quotes/JoyQuotes.htm).

Dr. Steve Hayner, former president of Columbia Seminary, was widely known to the school’s faculty, staff, and students as an example of joy up to the very end of his life. When he died in February, he was surrounded by his family, The last scripture he heard before he passed away was “Abide in me as I abide in you.” His eulogist noted: “Not only did Steve typically sign every email or letter: ‘Joyfully, Steve,’ his entire being and countenance effused JOY. An abiding, loving, testifying, infectious JOY. Even while lying in bed in the last days of his life, Steve was offering benedictions and blessing those around him. In the completion of Steve’s earthly journey, we can confidently say that what we saw and knew in Steve was, “Joy Made Complete.” This process of being filled with joy was one that Steve worked at—as those closest to him know best. Steve abided in Christ because he desired to be filled with joy!” (Tim Hartman, “Joy Made Complete,” Vantage, Winter 2015: 10).

How amazing! Would that the same be said of all of us when our lives on this earth are over!

But joy is not only the secret to personal peace. Some have said it’s the key to human harmony. Friedrich Schiller, for example. His 1785 poem “Ode to Joy” was set to music by Beethoven in the well-known choral finale of his 9th Symphony: “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity, Daughter from Elysium, we enter, burning with fervor, heavenly being, your sanctuary! Your magic brings together what fashion has sternly divided. All men shall become brothers, wherever your gentle wings hover. Every creature drinks in joy at nature’s breast; Good and Bad alike follow her trail of roses. She gives us kisses and wine, a true friend, even in death….”

The early 20th century German theologian Eberhard Arnold wrote: “It is a simple thing: joy in everything that lives. Anyone who can rejoice in life, in other people, in the fellowship of church community—anyone who feels joy in the mutual relationships of trust and inner fellowship—such a person experiences what love is. Anyone who cannot feel joy cannot live.… Only where there is joy do love and justice dwell. We need the spirit of joy to overcome the gloomy spirit of covetousness, the spirit of unjust mammon and its deadly hate. We can only have such joy if we have faith, and if we believe that the earth has a future” (http://www.plough.com/en/daily-dig/odd/april/daily-dig-for-april-29).

So the abiding life is a fruitful and joyful life. But finally, the abiding life is a dynamic life. It’s experienced as we go on our way. In the gospel of John, Jesus teaches his disciples about the vine and branches as they move from the Upper Room to the Garden. We know they’re walking because Jesus has said just before the morning’s text: “Rise, let us be on our way.”

It sounds paradoxical, but if we are to stay with Jesus, we have to go. Because Jesus is always on the move out in the world God loves. We rise from worship, the intimate conversation with Jesus, the leaning on him in peace in community with others, to move out to the places where people suffer, where our Lord was tortured and died. As someone has put it: “…the worshiping community gathered around Christ is nourished by Christ. It is the very energy of God that flows through the community…. And the branches, thus nourished, produce fruit. Fruit for the life of the world, for the ongoing becoming of the universe, for the becoming of human community. That the Word made flesh in Christ may again be made flesh in the world” (Susan Palo Cherwien, The Christian Century, April 29, 2015: 20).

Two wonderful hymns remind us of the challenge and invitation of Jesus to go out in the world connected to him, bearing fruit. Here is one by Fred Kaan, set to a Jamaican folk melody in our hymnal: “Let us talents and tongues employ, reaching out with a shout of joy: bread is broken, the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard. Christ is able to make us one, at the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and in deed express. Jesus calls us in, sends us out, bearing fruit in a world of doubt, gives us love to tell, bread to share, God (Immanuel) everywhere! Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the Word around: loaves abound!” The other, full of images from John like light and joy, comes from Argentina, and was originally in Spanish. The English version says: “May the God of hope go with us every day, filling all our lives with love and joy and peace. May the God of justice speed us on our way, bringing light and hope to every land and race. Praying, let us work for peace, singing, share our joy with all, working for a world that’s new, faithful when we hear God’s call” (Alvin Schutmaat, 1984).

Pope Francis, in a 2013 exhortation, called on believers to be renewed and share the gospel with joy: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ…. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!

“[I]f we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (http://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium_en.pdf)

A life of sharing. A life of joy. A fruitful life of love. The abiding life.

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2 Comments
  1. Love this, Tom. Great reminder and challenge for me today. Thank you for sharing.

    • Tom Cheatham permalink

      I am thrilled and honored by your appreciative comment. I first saw the wonderful quote from you that I used in the sermon in an issue of Columbia Seminary Vantage, in which the eulogist for Steve Hayner spoke about Dr. Hayner’s joy. Then I found it all over the Internet! Thanks for your insight!

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