Abide…it’s a funny, old-fashioned sounding word; perhaps it conjures up visions of funerals a century ago, based on the then popularity of the hymn Abide with me fast falls the eventide Sometimes people will say something like: “I cannot abide your bad temper any longer”, meaning, “I can’t stand or put up with it.” In any case, it’s not a word we use regularly, and yet, we hear it in this Gospel passage eight times; and we’ll hear it again in next week’s continuation of the passage another three times. So what does it mean, really, and why is it so important to Jesus?
Abide means to stay close to, be connected to; and slightly earlier in this Gospel Jesus talks about “In my Father’s house are many mansions” – that really dwelling places, or abiding places. An abiding place is where we live, where we are at home. So to abide in Christ is to be connected to, to dwell with, to be at home with Christ. And Jesus uses the image of the grape vine to illustrate how God’s People are to abide in him.
How does a grape vine grow? I think a lot of us have heard about vineyards needing the right kind of soil, light, and climate to grow grapes that will be good for wine-making; that is true, but grape vines are also pretty hardy, and under the right conditions can last anywhere from fifty to one hundred years. When I was a child a family friend had a concord grape vine growing up the corner of her porch; she did nothing special to it, and come August there were always enough grapes to eat and make jelly.
But if you are going to be serious about grape growing, you have to attend to them. The vines grow along a trellis or support, the main portion of the vine getting stronger and thicker season by season. Shoots and leaves branch off of the vine, and it from here that the grapes begin to grow in cluster. From time to time the vine has to be pruned back, cutting of the dead wood, stimulating growth along the length of the vine.
In many places around the Mediterranean, each family or household would have a grapevine as part of their everyday garden – whether or not it was a commercial enterprise for them. And in ancient Israel the grape vine was a very strong and important symbol; it represented God’s People, those whom the Lord led out of slavery in Egypt and planted in the soil of Canaan, who were to produce good spiritual fruit and crops from the abundance of God’s strength, support, and providential care as the vinegrower.
Over time, the image of the vine also became connected to the ministry of the Messiah that the People hoped and longed for. In fact, in Jesus’ day, above the entrance to the re-built Temple in Jerusalem, there was carved vine thick with grapes and overlaid with gold. The message was that the Temple was the place where the Messiah was to come, and bring to fruition all of God’s purposes for his people, who were themselves to bear the proper fruit.
Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower”; he is making it clear that he is the genuine one, the Messiah pictured as a vine, embodying the People Israel. He also says: “I am the vine, you are the branches”; the followers of Jesus are connected to him, rooted and grounded in him, of the same stock as Jesus, the part of the vine whose job it is to bear fruit, to produce the results of Jesus’ life, because that is the way a vine works. And that’s where abiding comes in.
Jesus tells us to abide in him – to stay close, connected, dwelling in him, making our home in him; that is the way we will bear the fruit of a Christian life. Even more than that, Jesus tells us to abide in him, just as he abides in us – a mutual indwelling between Christ and us. That is more than following a check list of dos and don’ts; it’s about spending time with the Lord in prayer and meditation; being aware of God’s presence all around us as well as within us; practicing gratitude; exercising love for neighbor as well as love or God; letting the words and stories of the Scriptures soak into us.
There are so many things in our world that pull us away from doing this. We all have responsibilities, worries, schedules that move themselves into the front and center of our focus – in fact, some of us have three or four things at any given time that are jumping up and down in front of us, clamoring for attention, claiming to be THE most important thing you have to do. This is what you might call “the tyranny of the urgent”, and it is never satisfied, never will be satisfied. So if you leave prayer and meditation for a time when your schedule calms down, or if you wait to read the Bible until your present crisis is over, or only give thought for your neighbor when you have the luxury of extra, those things will never happen; you will never develop a deep and abiding faith in God; you will be cut off from the strength and energy to do God’s work in God’s way.
Instead, abide in Christ by making your first conscious thought in the morning one of thanksgiving to God for the day ahead. One of the ways I do this with children is by teaching them to say/think/pray: Good morning, God; you’re great! We can do that each in our own way, and add our prayer for those closest to us, for whatever the day might bring to them and to us. We can ask to be faithful and true as a spouse, parent, child, sibling, co-worker – to be an agent and a vessel of God’s grace and blessing; and then throughout the day, see if we can catch moments of doing this, and offer a quick “thank you” to God. You can get the Bible, the Prayer Book, Forward Day by Day, and all manner of other Christian literature on-line, and on your smart-phone – and if you don’t have a smart phone a small Bible or devotional booklet is so easy to carry in your bag or in your car – and then discover how many different ways you can find a few minutes to pray, read, or meditate: waiting in the doctor’s office, on-line at Shop-Rite, when you’ve been put on hold on the telephone, waiting for your gas tank to get filled, riding the train or bus to work. Whatever you can do to direct your attention to God with love, gratitude, and dependence at various times throughout the day will get you in the habit of abiding in Christ; you will remember your connection to him, and it will leave you with an open heart so that Christ may abide in you.
And a final thought about this image of the vine and the branches and the vinegrower – that of being pruned. Just like a grape vine and so many other plants, when we are pruned back by God in some way, it is so that we can become for fruitful, more abundant – not just in our faith, but in the outcome of faith, what St. Paul names as love, joy, peace, forbearance/patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, as well as righteousness and justice. God does not prune back our spiritual dead-wood in some arbitrary way, but so that we will flourish, be more alive, and bring more of God’s blessing into the world.
Jesus calls us to abide in him, and to know that he abides is us; that is the way we grow in God.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, dwell in us, so that we may dwell in you and bear your fruit in your world, remembering always your love. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2015