15 July – Abide

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Pentecost 8

1 John 3:18-24
Psalm 85
Mark 6:13-29

In a sentence
Our calling is to live in the moment given to us to live

‘All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.’

The notion of ‘abiding’ is an important one in the writings of John. When the disciples of John the Baptist (a different John, we also met in our readings today!) first meet Jesus, they ask him, ‘where do you abide?’ (John 1.38f; translated in NRSV as ‘where are you staying?’). We meet the notion more strongly in John’s gospel when we hear Jesus speak of the relationship between himself as being like that between a vine and the branches (John 15.1-8; see also John 17.20-24). The Greek word can be translated a whole range of ways: remain, stay, abide, live, dwell, and so on, carrying a strong sense of ‘where we are’. In the letters of John, the word appears a couple of dozen times – several of which we’ve heard this morning.

Yet this abiding in God, or God abiding with us, is not simply a nice idea, intended perhaps to evoke a sense of cosiness with God. Most of the things which matter in scriptural descriptions of the relationships which stand between ourselves and our gods are a matter of polemic – of argument and contrast: not this, but that; not here but there; not this way, but that way. It is the same with the notion of abiding: abide here, not somewhere else. Or, let this one abide in you, and not some other.

There are many places where we might abide. Among these the geographical options are the least interesting. Much more important is how we are living wherever we happen to be. This is, at one level, a matter of morals – what we do and don’t do to ourselves or each other. There is certainly a strong commandment to be heard in our reading this morning: ‘love one another’. John gives some basic shape this: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ But the idea of abiding is not the same as the moral commandment. It is where we ‘abide’ that determines what we do, even what we are able to do.

Many abiding places present themselves to us. The past is one tempting place to live: nostalgia for a time when things seemed simpler. Perhaps they were simpler, perhaps not, but the point is not whether it was better back then but whether we seek to be there again at the expense of living here, in the now.

The future is another tempting abode: we put off making the most of where we are now, even perhaps denying justice to ourselves or others now, because of where we think this sacrifice will get us somewhere in the future. This is the logic of communism, of capitalism and of colonialism in their worst forms: it will all be for the best in the end, even if it might require an enormous amount of injustice or suffering along the way.

Whether it is nostalgia or a vision of where we imagine we are heading, where we actually are here and now is reduced to something we simply have to endure, either because the best is now behind us, or we must wait for it to come. Our abiding place – the place where we will be (or were) safe – is not here but behind us as we wind down to death or still in front of us, as we wait for life to begin.

Or, if not in another time, we might desire to abide in an identity other than the one which is really ours – denying, or at least lamenting, the religious or cultural or gender or age or economic identity we actually have. Here we would be different, would have more, would be related to different people, would be more valued than we are. This is not to deny the importance of self-improvement or the cry for justice, or that there is much wrong when those cries are not answered by people who have the power to make a difference.

But for the moment we should not be distracted by what are, for most of us, extreme or theoretical cases, as important as they are as demands God makes of us. Just as important, in general terms, are those limiting experiences when we are not acknowledged for what we think we are worth, for the effort we have put in, when things just seem unfair, when we find ourselves resenting that more of the cost of something has fallen to us rather than someone else.

In a penetrating statement about the nature of sin, Rowan Williams has remarked that, ‘our failures are all about our fearful longing to be somewhere else.’[1] We might say, our failures are about not wanting to be abiding here, now, under these conditions, in this set of relationships.

Where we would abide, where we would live, is the place where we would feel safest, where we would feel at most able to be ourselves. Yet life is not simply a matter of safety; it is also a matter of truth. Truth and life meet in our vocation, or calling – God’s calling to us that we be what and where and when we are. We abide in God (and God abides in us) when we live in the world in which God has placed us.

This dynamic is active at every level of our lives. It has to do with being with the people to whom we actually are married, or with whom we actually do work, or next to whom we actually live, or with whom we share an identity as members of a church congregation or denomination – and not those we might like to have in those various roles. Who wants to abide with the cranky or noisy neighbour, the unfaithful spouse, the self-righteous pew-sitter? Which nation wants to be in the political context of massive human displacement, bringing refugees who need more that we’re prepared to give and for whom we haven’t budgeted, who are different from us, whom we don’t understand?

Our not wanting to be in such places – to recall the 23rd Psalm – is a longing for green pastures and still waters without the need of walking through dark valleys. It is a longing for the spreading of an abundant table without the presence of enemies. The desire is understandable but it is also a denial that God can be found in such troubled places, and indeed has been found there. For John insists on identifying the crucified Jesus with the divine Son not simply because it is good theology but because it is good anthropology – not only because it gets God right but because it gets us right. The divine Son takes up and lives not in all places and all times but just one – a place and time as real as our own, shot through with the dark valleys and the enmity, the threats and dangers, which every time and place hold. This Jesus does, even to the point of death on a cross. It is for this reason that he is exalted – not the ‘sacrifice’ he makes but the life he lives in unswerving commitment to the one who commanded that God be honoured in such a time and place (cf. Philippians 2).

It is this possibility which John says is called forth from us, if we abide in this Jesus and he abides in us. This is not a mere ‘calling’ to do what is difficult; it gives value to the lives we are actually given to live, in the places and times we are given to live them. To live in Christ, and for Christ to live in us, is to be present to where we are, is for that place to be the place where God meets us, the only place we can be whole.

The moment in which we live demands that it be taken seriously, in the love of those with whom it is given to us to abide, for it is the only moment we are given, the only place where God can meet us: the kingdom come, the will of God on earth. The moment, and our life with God, requires that we be respond to the demands of the present. This is the work of our lives: to be where and when we are, without fear, and in love, abiding in the God who chooses to abide in us.

By the grace of God, may we find in our here-and-now our abiding place, our habitation, our home, a dwelling place with God all the days of our lives.


[1] Rowan Williams (2003), Christ on trial: how the gospel unsettles our judgement, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans p.133.