“Abide in Love”
Sunday, April 20, 2008
John 15: 7-17
The focus of the Gospel of John is distinctly different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. One of the basic messages which Matthew, Mark and Luke all emphasize is love of neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself. The first three Gospels put the emphasis on love of neighbor.
But you won’t find much of an emphasis on love of neighbor in the Gospel or Epistles of John. You just won’t. The emphasis in these writings is on loving one another within the congregation – abiding in love.
The Greek word mevnw means “to abide” or “to remain” or “to stay.” The word mevnw is used three times in the Gospel of Matthew, two times in the Gospel of Mark, six times in the Gospel of Luke. How many times do you think it is used in the Gospel of John? 34 times.
The Greek word mevnw appears one time in the Epistle to the Romans, one time in Philippians, one time in First Timothy, three times in Second Timothy. In the First Epistle of John? 18 times.
The passion of the Gospel and Epistles of John was how to abide in love, how to be a loving congregation, how to stay in love with each other.
The Gospel and Epistles of John are a counterbalance to the majority voice of the New Testament which puts the emphasis on loving the neighbors outside our doors. John says it is also important that we love one another inside the church.
There is an ancient legend that says that when the Apostle John was a very old man, he would say nothing except to repeat over and over again, “My little children, love one another.”[i]
Why does John put all this emphasis on Christians loving one another? Why focus on this when so much of the rest of the New Testament is focused on love of neighbor? Well, we usually don’t spend a lot of time and energy talking about non-issues in our lives.
The congregation that considered the Apostle John to be their patron saint and founder was having a hard time abiding in love. Between the time the Gospel of John was written, about 90 C.E., and the time the First Epistle of John was written, about 100 CE, the congregation underwent a schism. It split and splintered into at least two parts and maybe more.
The divisions within the congregation were theological, having to do with differing beliefs about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and they were also economic and practical. The more affluent members of the congregation were upset in part because of an expectation that they share some of their wealth with the poorer members.[ii]
One of the glues that had held the congregation together had been their shared commitment to Judaism – they were Jews who followed Jesus rather than Christians who happened to be Jewish. When the synagogue expelled them, they lost one of their most important human sources of solidarity. Without this common bound, their theological differences, their diversities of class, economics, education, and everything else began to pull them apart.
As my friend Gil Rendle says to me often, “Diversity is harder.” Diversity may be better, but it is harder.
When a people are diverse, it takes more attention and time and work to abide in love. The Gospel and Epistles of John are a reminder that it is not enough for a congregation of Christians to work at loving the neighbors outside our doors, we also need to work at loving one another. Congregations who don’t work at their relationships are no more likely to stay in love than partners and couples who don’t work at their relationships. Love is magical but it isn’t magic.
How do congregations abide in love? This is the question that most concerns John.
Jesus provides us with a formula for abiding in love in John chapter 15, verse 7. Let me repeat the verse. Jesus says to his disciples: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” This is the formula for abiding in love, and it has three parts.
First, Jesus says congregations abide in love by abiding in him. “If you abide in me…” he says. Jesus Christ is the a priori of every Christian congregation. This may seem obvious but it really isn’t as obvious as it seems.
It is very easy in church to confuse the a priori and the a posteriori.
We are a reconciling congregation. It is one of the reasons some people choose to be a part of Foundry church. But I am very clear that we are a reconciling congregation because of Christ. We are not a reconciling congregation in spite of Christ or independently of Christ. We are a reconciling congregation because we abide in Christ and to abide in Christ means to be a reconciling congregation.
Christ is the a priori and being a reconciling congregation is the a posteriori.
We are a congregation with a commitment to the care and nurture of the earth. Different people get to ecological concerns in different ways. The church gets there through Christ. To abide in Christ means to care for the earth that Jesus’ heavenly parent created.
For us, Christ is the a priori and Earth Sunday is the a posteriori. We are glad to work hand in hand with those who get there another way, but for us Christ is the way to Earth Day.
We are a congregation with a commitment to mission and to ministries of compassion and social justice. But I hope we are clear that Christ is the cause and mission is the consequence.
There will come a day when we will not be distinguished by being a congregation committed to fully including and honoring gay and lesbian Christians in our life together because all but the most parochial churches will be there. This is not our core identity. Our core identity is that we abide in Christ. We are a reconciling congregation because we are Christ followers.
No particular mission is sacred. There is no mission that we would not discontinue tomorrow if the need for it did not exist or if it were something we are not gifted to do. To abide in Christ is always to be engaged in mission, but no particular mission is sacred. No particular ministry is sacred.
Our love for one another as a congregation is not based on agreement on any issue or concern. It is based on a shared commitment that our lives be formed and shaped by the love of God as we have seen it manifested in Jesus Christ.
One of the ways that congregations fall out of love is when cause and consequence get confused. It happens in congregations all the time. A minister leaves and people leave the congregation because they were not abiding in Christ; they were abiding only in the minister. A specific program comes to an end; people leave because they were abiding only in that program. The music changes in some way and people leave because they were abiding only in the music. We confuse the a priori and the a posteriori.
“Abide in me,” Christ says. If you want to abide in love, abide in me. Christ is the foundation. Christ is a priori. If it is only an issue or a program or a person that is our common bond, we will not abide in love as a people. So the first part of Jesus’ formula to abide in love is to make Christ the center. To abide in Christ.
The second part of Jesus’ formula in John 15:7 is this “If you abide in me,” he says, “and my words abide in you…”
In addition to Christ being the a priori, Christ’s words need to abide in us. We need to know what Christ says. Congregations that want to abide in love will study together. We need to be shaped and formed by the same teachings.
Someone started a conversation with Dee and me this week by saying: “I have a bone to pick with you. I can’t get the last hymn we sang last Sunday out of my head.” It worked. Hymns and songs are ways the words of Christ come to abide in us.
Sermons and liturgies we read together and prayers we pray together and books we study are all ways we open ourselves to allow the words of Christ to abide in us so that we come to share a common understanding of who Christ is and what Christ teaches and stands for.
The Confirmation Class and their mentors came over to our house this week for pizza and conversation. I was impressed by how the words of Christ have already begun to abide in our confirmands. Our parents and our Sunday school have done a good job. One of the questions I asked was for each confirmand and mentor to share one thing being a Christian meant, and I asked them to try not to repeat something someone had said before them. Everybody had a thoughtful and profound response. Somebody has been teaching our children and young people, so that the words of Christ abide in them.
Christ has content. It is not enough to abide in Christ, the words of Christ need to come to abide in us so we know who Christ is and what Christ means and what difference abiding in Christ makes in our lives and world. This is the second part of the formula.
The third part is very interesting. John 15:7 says: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” Ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you.
I haven’t read The Secret yet, although someone has given me a copy and several of you have recommended it to me and I will get to it. I need to tell you that when Jesus says in John 15:7 “Ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you,” the word “you” is plural. What he says is directed to the congregation, not so much to individuals.
He is saying that a congregation that abides in Christ and has the words of Christ abiding in it will have power and effectiveness in whatever mission and ministry it sets out to do. This is not about owning a sailboat or getting a promotion.
For a congregation to abide in love, it has to be effective. It has to make a difference in some way. Another way Jesus says it in John 15 is that those who abide in him bear fruit.
Love doesn’t last in congregations that are not effective in mission and ministry. Love doesn’t last in congregations that are not effective in passing on the faith to their youth and children. Love doesn’t last in congregations that are not effective in reaching out to and welcoming new people.
Without a missional focus and without engaging together to do it effectively, people eventually devour each other. They use each other up.
Here is where John joins Matthew, Mark and Luke. Love doesn’t last unless it produces fruit, unless the congregation joins together to make a difference about a shared passion.
Love without mission is mere sentimentality, while mission without love is mere busy-ness. Ineffective, powerless congregations cannot abide in love very long.
So there are three keys to a people abiding in love: abiding in Christ, the words of Christ abiding in us, and producing fruit, being effective.
I am in a sort of friendly debate with a non-churched friend of mine. He says faith is a way of trying to deny the pain and anxiety of death. I say back to him that faith is the decision to get out of bed in the morning. He says faith is the avoidance of death. I say faith is the decision to live.
But what John teaches us is that faith is really the possession of a people, not individuals. The basic unit of faith is the congregation, not you or me as individuals. We are not individuals with faith; we are a people of faith. When it comes to believing, all of Jesus’ “you’s” are plural.
One of my teachers was Ed Steimle, the preacher who spoke each Sunday on the Lutheran Hour. One Saturday before Easter, his wife of many years felt ill in the morning and by the end of the day she had died – like the snap of a finger.
The next morning, Easter morning, Ed Steimle went to church. He had never spent Easter anywhere else ever in his life. During the singing of the alleluias, he realized he couldn’t sing them. They stuck in his throat. They wouldn’t come out. He realized that he couldn’t believe in the resurrection that Easter. He realized he couldn’t believe in God.
Then, he said, sitting in that familiar church he suddenly realized he didn’t need to sing alleluias that Easter. He didn’t need to believe in the resurrection. He didn’t need to believe in God. He realized, he said, the congregation could believe for him. It was enough for him just to be there.
The basic unit of faith is the congregation, not you or me. Our faith will wane and waver. Some of us may have very little of it on good days. All of us will have days when we have little faith.
But the congregation will always believe. Our task is to abide in Christ…to abide with the people of Christ in whom the words of Christ abide.
Legend says that when he was a very old man and his congregation was struggling with its diversity, the Apostle John would say nothing to them except to repeat over and over again, “My little children, love one another, love one another.”