Sunday, 3 May 2015

Easter 5: Abiding in God

“Abide in me, as I abide in you,” says Jesus to his disciples.

Abide” is an interesting word, and not one we use much these days in normal conversation. We don’t tend to say of someone that they abide in No 23; we say they live there. A South African former boss of mine when I was first ordained used to say that so and so was staying at such and such an address. It confused me no end. To me, “stay” meant “visit”. We stay in a hotel on holiday; we don’t live there. It was a long time before I realised that this was the South African way of saying that this was their permanent home. Words that seem to be part of the same language often change their meanings subtly from one culture to another. We think we understand each other, but we don’t.

Whatever word we use for it, though, we know what it means to be at home somewhere, and what it feels like not to. If you’ve moved house, you’ll know it can take a while before the new place feels like home. Young people leaving to set up on their own often talk for a long time about going “home” to see their parents. It takes time to feel “at home” somewhere else, to get to the point where we feel we have a right to be there, and can treat it as our own. There comes a point though, when the peculiarities of the place become a familiar and comforting backdrop to our lives - the sound of the front door opening, the stairs that creak when you walk on them, the gurgle of the plumbing.

You have to “abide” to get to that point, to wait, to stick with it. The Greek word translated as “abide” is “meno” - indirectly, via the Latin, it gives us the word “remain” and that’s what it means. It can mean to stay behind when everyone else has gone. Remains are things that are still there when everything else has been taken away.

I’m labouring the point because it’s important that we understand what Jesus is saying here. “Abide in me, as I abide in you”. He’s not talking of a quick visit, getting together with him once a week for an hour on Sundays, then going our separate ways, but of a relationship that is permanent and stable, where he is woven into our lives and we are woven into his.

One of the local projects we support with our giving at church is Sevenoaks family Contact Centre. It enables separated parents who for some reason can’t have access to their children without supervision to meet with them and play with them, alongside others in a comfortable environment. It is a very valuable project, and it makes a huge difference to the lives of the families who use it; helping them to stay in contact. But I am sure they would say that it’s not the same as being together all the time. Children and parents know they are just visiting each other, not living together.

It seems to me that it is very easy for our relationship with God to be like this. This building, this hour on a Sunday, can become a sort of holy Contact Centre, a place where we visit God, and allow him to visit us, under carefully controlled circumstances , where the words and the music have been mostly chosen by others, and we just say our “Amen” to them. At the end of the hour we go back to the place where we really live, as if God has been left behind. But Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  But what might it look like to abide in him? Abiding with others we share our home with means knowing them, talking to them, so prayer and Bible reading have got to be in there if we are going to abide in Christ. We share meals with those we live with too, so the Eucharist should feature as well. But our second reading today hints that it isn’t just these things that matter.  

“God is love”, says John,” and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”  There’s that word “abide” again. If you want to abide in God you have to love, says John, because that’s where God is. That small act of kindness, that decision to build people up instead of pulling them down with vicious gossip, responding to the needs around us rather than turning away, that’s where God is, that’s where we find him at home. If we want abide with him, we need to learn to abide in those places too, to make love a habit, a part of our natural environment. 

I often say to couples at their marriage service that I hope they will eventually look at each other and say “that’s not the person I married”, not because somethings gone wrong but because the love they share has changed them,  so they have become bigger and better versions of themselves. Abiding in love, whatever form that love takes, changes us for the better. Abiding in God’s love is no different. Over time, bit by bit, it transforms us.

I hosted a visit to church on Friday for a class of seven year olds from Seal School. As usual, they discovered all sorts of things about the church, and had a lot to say for themselves. But there is one little boy in the class who has special needs. This little lad often sees the world in a completely different way to everyone else, and it’s not always easy to know what is going on in his mind. As he left church at the end of the visit, he turned to me with a thoughtful expression on his face. I wondered what  he was going to say. “You know,” he said, you’re beginning to look a bit like God”. Before you think that makes me sound really big headed, I should explain that he probably just meant that I was looking very, very old…and I was dressed in a white robe on that occasion. But I loved the phrase anyway and it gave me a lot to think about. Wouldn’t it be good if people could look at us and think that we really were “beginning to look a bit like God”, not physically, but that we were more loving, more forgiving, more joyful, more disturbed by injustice, more courageous about doing something about it than we had been. Well, if that is going to happen, it will only be because we are abiding in love , and therefore abiding in God, close enough to him, aware enough of him to make a difference.

Abiding in God makes our lives richer and deeper, of course, but its not just an exercise in self-improvement to give us a nice warm glow . It’s far more important than that. It is what gives us the resilience we need to cope with the disasters the world throws at us. Jesus speaks of the branches that aren’t joined to the vine withering and dying – if we think we can cope with life all by ourselves we are going to find ourselves without the strength we need when we need it. We’ve been reminded of that need this week as we have seen the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, striking out of the blue, ripping lives apart.

Abiding in God also gives us the capacity to seize opportunities when they come along too.
The first reading today - that encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian – doesn’t look as if there is much abiding happening in it. The Ethiopian is on the road in his chariot – the fastest thing on wheels in those days – and Philip seems to have been transported to the spot by the Spirit, which is presumably even faster – no one was hanging around.  As far as we know they never meet again afterwards. But both of them were ready for that  moment when it came, and that’s because they had been abiding in God for a long time beforehand. The Ethiopian was steeped in the scriptures. He knew his stuff. He just needed someone to tell him about Jesus for everything to fall into place. Philip had spent three years following Jesus, literally abiding with him. So when this moment came he knew deep down, instinctively, that there was no need to worry about any rules about who was acceptable and who wasn’t. As a eunuch this man wouldn’t have been allowed into the Temple at Jerusalem – he would have been seen as unclean - but Philip knew that this wouldn’t have mattered to Jesus. The man’s needs were more important than any rules, however ancient they were. And what happened in that brief meeting not only changed the Ethiopian but also changed a whole nation. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it was this man who brought Christian faith to their country, and there’s no reason to doubt them, because it’s one of the oldest churches in the world.

Abide in me, says Jesus. Stick around. Stay with God, be at home in him. That’s the message of these passages. Pray. Read the Bible, not just when we come together, but for ourselves. Most of all, love. Love generously. Love often. Love until love becomes such a habit that we hardly have to think of it. If we do this, we will be ready for disaster and opportunity when they come. We will be blessed, and others will be blessed through us, and maybe we will even find ourselves “beginning to look a bit like God.”

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