‘Abide in my love’ says Jesus to his disciples on the night before he dies. Last week we heard the passage before this, when Jesus used the image of himself as the vine, and us as branches grafted into it, with God’s life flowing through the whole. Now he goes on to talk about what that life, lived close to God, is like. It’s a life, he says, that is marked most of all by love. We don’t just abide in God, we abide in love, because love is God’s deepest nature. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you: abide in my love’.
That little word ‘abide’ is a powerful one. It means to stay put, to stick with, to remain. An abode is an old-fashioned word for a home, a place we live in, not just visit. We have ‘abiding’ memories of things, memories which endure. And there may be things we ‘can’t abide’, things we recoil from. Jesus doesn’t just tell his followers to love here. He tells them to ‘abide in love’ to stick with it, to keep on loving, until love is second nature, a basic attitude.
It’s one thing to do something kind now and then when we happen to feel like it or when we think someone might be watching. It’s quite another to keep on seeking the best for someone when it’s inconvenient or costly, day after day, week after week, year after year. We’ll usually only do that for people who are very special to us, our ‘loved ones’ as we call them. And that’s what Jesus calls his disciples – and us - here. The translation says ‘I have called you friends’ but ‘loved ones’ is really more accurate. ‘Friend’ can mean anything from a casual acquaintance to a bosom buddy, but to call someone a ‘loved one’ implies that our lives are bound together, that we couldn’t forget each other even if we tried. ‘I would walk 500 miles’ sang the Proclaimers. Who would you walk 500 miles for? Who would you let your life be turned upside down for? Who would you not be able to sleep for worrying about? Who would make your own heart swell with pride because of something they’d achieved? Those people are our ‘loved ones’. We breathe more easily when we know that they are ok.
And in this Gospel passage, that’s what Jesus calls us, his ‘loved ones’, the ones he’d do anything for, even lay down his life, the ones he can’t forget or walk away from. He sticks with us, remains with us, let’s his life be bound up with ours. Our sorrows are his sorrows. Our joys are his joys. And as we abide in that love, letting it sink in, learning to trust it, we should start to find that our own lives and attitudes come to be shaped by it, so that we naturally want to share it with others.
What does that look like in practice when we do that? Perhaps our first reading can give us an illustration. It’s the tail end of a much longer story from the earliest days of the Church. Jesus’ first followers were Jewish, of course, like Jesus, but they’d begun to embrace his message that the Kingdom of God was open on equal terms to everyone, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, saint or sinner, male or female. On the Day of Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, his followers had spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem, speaking of Jesus in languages they didn’t know, but which the crowd, from every corner of the world, could understand. God was at home – abiding - everywhere, with every person, whatever their culture or native language.
But it was one thing to preach that, and another thing to live it. Inclusivity is easy until we have to include someone who presses all the wrong buttons for us, who feels that bit too different, alien, ‘other’. The beginning of Acts 10 tells the story of St Peter praying on the rooftop of a house in Joppa where he’s staying. As he prays, he has a vision of something like a sheet, lowered from heaven, filled with all sorts of animals his faith forbade him to eat - pigs, shellfish and the rest - things that felt viscerally yucky to him, because he’d been schooled to call them unclean. And there they all are, squirming away on this sheet. And then Peter hears a voice from heaven, the voice of God, saying ‘Kill and eat these, Peter’. ‘ But I can’t!’ says Peter. ‘Why not?’ says God. ‘Because you’ve told us not to!’ ‘’Hmm’ says God, ‘but this is me speaking to you, and telling you different…’
While Peter tries to get his head around that, some messengers arrive, sent by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, a Gentile, a member of the occupying army. He’d heard about Jesus and the message he had preached, and he wanted Peter to come and tell him more. But Peter knew what that meant. If you went to visit someone, they would be sure to offer you something to eat. Hospitality was a sacred duty. But the equivalent duty of the guest was to accept what you were given, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be kosher, in keeping with those Jewish food laws he’d been brought up with. It might be any of those things he’d in that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals. Even to go into this Gentile house would have made him unclean in many people’s eyes. What should he do?
It was hard, strange, disturbing, but Peter went anyway - into another culture, another world. He chose to ‘abide in love’, to stick with his conviction that God’s call was for all people, rather than recoil and run away from it, to trust that God had this situation in hand, that he knew what he was doing, that somehow, it would be ok. And so he discovered that Cornelius, and all those Gentiles he’d been so wary of, were also God’s ‘loved ones’ just like him. God was already in residence, abiding with them through his Holy Spirit, so Peter could abide with them too.
Diversity and the challenges it brings are often in the news these days. However inclusive we like to think we are, all of us can discover that we have unconscious biases, deep-rooted, unthinking prejudices about people based on a whole host of things that are just part of who they are – race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, social class. Inclusivity is fine in theory, but then we come up against that one issue, that one person, which triggers something deep in us that makes us want to avoid them. But when that feeling sweeps over us, God calls us to abide in love, to stay where we are, to breathe in and out, to look, listen and wait, because if we do we’ll discover that the God who is present everywhere is present in those people who seem strange to us too – and maybe they will be equally surprised and delighted to find the same about us.
That’s an especially important message for the beginning of Christian Aid week, when we’re reminded that we are all one family, whether we know it or not, whether it feels comfortable or not. Jesus calls us to ‘abide in love’, to stick with it and make it a habit, so that little by little, strangers – however strange they are -become ‘loved ones’, and we come to recognise that they are part of the one vine, sharing with us in the life and goodness of God. Amen