Abide in my love

May 10, 2015

Bible Text: John 15:9-17 |

Last week when Cynthia was teaching on the parable of the True Vine, she commented that, within that brief parable, Jesus repeated the command “to abide” in him nine times. “Nine times,” she said, “it must be pretty difficult to abide in Jesus if he has to repeat it nine times!”

Pretty difficult – or – absolutely important.

And today we see it again:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

Such strange and beguiling language. But what does it mean to abide in his love, and how is it related to keeping his commandments? because at some level it sounds like the worst of bad parenting:

Now children, if you want me to love you, you must do exactly as I say. Obey all my commandments.

Good lord, how dreadful. Imagine if our relationship with God were one based rigidly on strict obedience, like a child who can only maintain her parents’ favor simply by following all their grown-up rules.

But that is not, at all, the tone or the message that Jesus is using here. I don’t believe he’s dangling out some celestial, divine reward for all the good little boys and girls who obey him without question, fault or doubt. He’s describing something far more elemental and true.

Abiding in Jesus’ love and obeying his commandments are one in the same. For it reflects an alignment of heart and purpose. It is a participation in the divine life that Jesus also shares with his Father in heaven.

What we’re shooting for in this life is just that, that we would love what Jesus loves, that we would value what Jesus values. Our obedience is not fueled by some kind of trembling fear, but by a shared heart.

I was raised in a family that loved backpacking. When I was little, too young to hike, I’d watch my parents head off every summer for trips into the high sierras. They’d leave, filled with excitement, and return just as enthusiastic. When I was about ten, I was finally old enough to carry a pack and I got to join them, and to discover for myself the extraordinary beauty of rugged granite peaks and high mountain meadows with their meandering streams. Over the years I grew to love those mountains just like my parents did.

Abide in my love. Share what I love. Dwell in my love… that your joy may be complete.

The life of faith is the slow discovery of the heart of God and its innate resonance with the deepest beatings of our own heart. And when they are beating together, in peaceful rhythm, the tempo that binds them together is love, the divine love that is the center of this creation and of our very being. It is the discovery of this love – our entrance into it and participation within it – that is our purpose and our calling and our joy.

Consider the earliest days of our lives, beyond our own memories, when we were first forming in our mothers’ wombs. The beating of her heart was the rhythm of our world. And our own little hearts began to beat alongside hers. When we were born, we encountered more of her love, not only through her physical nourishment, but through her embrace and delight. Our eyes locked onto her eyes and immediately perceived them as windows into another soul, a soul which was adoring us. And she tickled us and caressed us. And we knew that we were another’s pleasure, and that she gave us pleasure as well. We learned to smile by mimicking her smile. We were formed in love, and it is such motherly, divine love that remains our truest and most elemental calling.

There are researchers who have been studying the science of love. Their data of what is happening physically in our bodies coordinates with what we know intuitively by experience. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at UNC, Chapel Hill, specializes in this science – not simply romantic love, but all experiences of love. She describes what happens physically when people share a positive emotion: “The levels of certain biochemicals in their bodies rise in unison, and there’s a similarity in the neural firings too….[We are discovering] “that a single positive emotion can roll like a wave through two brains and bodies at once.”[1] When we’re in the midst of stimulating and enjoyable conversation, “there’s a cascade of biochemicals running through [our] bodies” and our brains activity becomes highly similar. Uri Hasson, a researcher at Princeton claims that “speaking and listening are not two separate acts. Rather, communication is a single act performed by two brains.”[2]

This is all to say, that our bodies are designed to love one another – that love is elemental to our very make-up. When we are loving, there is actually a physical parallel to what we’ve commonly perceived as Jesus simply speaking in metaphors: “Abide in my love…. as I abide in [the Father’s] love” (John 15:9-10). I suspect that science is only on the cusp of discovering that in loving and being loved, our souls and bodies are joining together. The work of the scientists and the theologians is merging in their discovery that we creatures are participants in the heart of God which is always a union of love.

That is the language that Thomas Aquinas used to peer into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Attached to the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Aquinas perceived the Trinity as Lover, Beloved, and Divine Love itself.

And so, at the heart of Jesus’ commandments, is this pervasive and defining invitation to love as Jesus loves. And let us be clear, this is no fleeting emotion; nor is it all about sex or romantic relationships (although that can certainly be an expression of it). Love is participation in the divine communion within God’s creation and with the Creator itself.

Love of this sort is unconditional and inclusive; it does not depend on whether someone deserves it or not. It is not restricted to friends and family, but extends out to all living beings, including our enemies.

Such love is nurtured in prayer, then lived out in our relationships, which is why the Christian life has always been understood as a rhythm of solitude and community. In prayer I open myself up to the Holy Spirit to love my neighbor. I then engage in relationship with my neighbor – in active loving. And when I am hurt, or when I revert to fear or selfishness or anxiety, I return to prayer and the redirecting of my spirit to God’s spirit of love.

For it is in prayer and meditation that we return to the attentiveness that it is Christ through whom all things are being bound by love. That is why so many of the prayers and collects of the church conclude with the language, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”, for Christ is the union of God and humanity; Christ is reconciling all things and making all things whole.

And something else must happen along the way if we are to grow in such love. We must lay down the shame and fear of inadequacy to which we cling so closely; we must lay them down and submit them to the greater truth that we ourselves are also the beloved, to discover the freedom to love ourselves as God loves us. We have been made clean. Our sins are forgiven. We are free, and it is only within such freedom that we will grow in love.

There’s a final aspect of Jesus’ teaching here that I want us to spend time with this morning. “I have called you friends,” Jesus said, “because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15).

“I have made known to you everything.” We see within the divine Trinity a nature of full-knowing – no closed doors. And when God made Gods-self one with us through Christ, Jesus passed on this kind of full-disclosure. In the end, there are no secrets. We are Jesus’ friends, friends to whom he reveals his heart and his soul and purpose – fully.

So if we are to follow in Christ’s footsteps and mission, we need to pay some serious attention to the secrets we hold, particularly our secrets that are rooted in shame. Secrets are always barriers to relationship. They alienate us from one another. This is especially true in families, but also true in the church and all our relationships. Those outside the secret may not even know that the secret exists, but they can feel the estrangement it causes which, in turn, fuels whatever doubts or insecurities already exist in the relationship.

During my years as a priest I’ve discovered that I can often identify people who are in AA or other twelve step programs, not because of subtle signs of their addiction, but – quite conversely – because they are so relaxed in spirit and forthcoming about who they are. It doesn’t mean they’re out baring their soul to every stranger, but that they’re no longer hiding or putting on false pretenses or deflecting attention to others’ weaknesses. They’re usually very comfortable people to be with. Their experience of walking through the twelve steps means that, within a safe environment, they have admitted their powerlessness over their addiction, they’ve made a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves and admitted to God, to themselves and to another human being the exact nature of their wrongs (Steps 1, 4, 5). There is something extraordinarily freeing about no longer hiding behind the shame of our secrets.

People in AA or other such groups often report that the way they experience community there is so much more real than what they experience in church. No one is hiding; everyone is known. Our shame – whether real or imagined – is often our biggest barrier to knowing love, aand to giving love. It constricts us and keeps whispering in our ears, “If they knew this about you, they would despise you.” And so we hide, and in the hiding we present a false and distorted version of ourselves.

But Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. And he insists, “I love you. And I am calling others to love you, too. Abide in my love, not in your shame. I have done away with your shame forever.”

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:10).

[1] Barbara Fredrickson, “The One You’re With: Barbara Fredicson on why we should rethink love”, an interview by Angela Winter in The Sun, July 2014, Issue 463, p. 6

[2] Ibid, p. 7

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