Abide in me . . . (John 15:1-8)
by F. Dean Lueking
In 1998 F. Dean Lueking was teaching at the Lutheran seminary in Bratislava, Slovakia. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 16, 1997, p. 387, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Abide. It’s an old-fashioned word. Highway motel signs read "Stay here," not "Abide with us tonight." Baseball announcers don’t sum up an inning with "One hit, a walk and two abiding on base." Nor do Northwestern University football fans breathe easier because Gary Barnett is abiding as head coach. Of the 17 uses of abide listed in the Oxford dictionary, eight are obsolete. The word seems to belong to another time.
"To abide" has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with it. No wonder the term is rare. What it means is rare, in this or any time.
Its absence diminishes us. Friendships break off. So do treaties between nations. Business contracts become tissue thin. Marriage covenants, often begun at altars where this passage from John is heard, are broken in divorce. God alone knows the river of tears and dysfunction set in motion by the absence of abiding in marriage, the foundation of human community.
The Gospel lesson for the fifth Sunday of Easter takes us to the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Surrounding him were the 12 who would, each one, fail to abide with him in his greatest hour of need. Once again, "abide" seemed the last word to risk on Judas, Peter and the rest.
Jesus began his Upper Room discourse with the venerable image of the vine and branches, a favorite reference to Israel in the scriptures he knew. As the prophets so often lamented, Israel repeatedly failed to be fruitful branches that grow from the vine. The disciples would fail too. As do disciples now.
Abiding takes its strength from the Christ who went to the cross for all of us in our sins of perfidy. Now that he is risen, abiding rests on belonging -- he in us and we in him. Everything changes when abiding is not an abstract ideal but a response to his offer. Abide in me as I abide in you! First his grace, then our commitment. It is the ongoing Easter miracle that Jesus works us into the astonishing new creation ushered in by the raising of God’s Son. He abides, lasts, endures, continues, hangs in, holds on, to us and in us. He does so despite our forgetting that we have been baptized into his life. "Abide with me," we sing, and keep on singing, knowing that our flawed staying with him won’t stop his abiding in us.
Abide is a where word. We abide where the Lord gathers us, even two or three of us, in his name. More than most of us realize, the powerful currents of contemporary life, especially those that turn the grace of Christ into one more consumer item, make resilient commitment to him and each other an ever tougher call. Ask clergy and parishioners who have been together over time if abiding through thick and thin in congregations is getting any easier.
All the more reason, then, to anchor our abiding as the community of faith in the Easter gospel proclaimed and lived, and to draw deeply from the well of baptismal grace and the nurture of the Eucharist to meet the hunger for things lasting. Looking back on 42 years of pastoring in the same congregation, with a hundred or more new member classes behind me, I bear witness to the sufficiency of Christ to call and gather his own in our time. As essential as lively biblical, doctrinal and liturgical catechesis is the desire to connect with God and people in ways that have depth and can last. The miracle of it is that those connections take root, grow up and mature into fruitful living that binds people together across otherwise impassible boundaries.
Abide is a when word. It includes times when the presence of the indwelling Christ is known in the wondrous fullness of deep-down joy. That can range from the "Et Resurrexit" of Bach’s B Minor Mass to the hands-raised "Hallelujah" of a storefront revival, from the embrace of reconciled enemies to a glimpse of the world charged with the grandeur of God as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins caught it.
Along with these radiant moments comes the abiding that is neither towering nor spare but steadily evident in the humdrum and hand-over-hand routines of our waking hours. While it may look uneventful, it is anything but. To abide is to leaven the world with steadiness in one’s calling without sliding into the blight of taking health, sight, hearing, mind and belief for granted. It is remembering what Psalm 121 teaches us: the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
There are moments when abiding is sustained through times of numbing grief. Some months ago a young man was lost in Alaska during a terrible blizzard. His parents made the long trip to America’s northernmost town, searched in vain for his body, discovered the shelter that would have saved him, experienced the high of the four-hour funeral service and the low of leaving with wrenching questions left unanswered. They were bone-weary within and without as they started home.
During a midnight layover in the Seattle airport they saw a couple just arriving from China with two newly adopted infant girls. Despite their exhaustion, they offered words of welcome and good wishes to the couple, seeing in the arrival of those infants a sign of what they could see only by a faith that outlasts heartache: their son’s arrival into that life prepared by the Easter Lord. Such faithful seeing comes from faithful abiding.
In a world trying to make it on fitful sound bites and the faddishness of seasonal obsessions, is there a better gift we can offer than abiding, he in us and we in him?
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