Abide in Me
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” John 15:1-8
We give voice to our deepest needs and longings in all the ways available to us. We do it through words and gestures, literature, poetry, music, and art. One recurring human expression is the longing and desire, search and quest for love.
Except for those who have given up or despaired of the possibility – we all want to be loved. And we don’t want to be loved generally, but we want to be loved specifically and personally.
Think about your own life for a moment. Has not the pursuit of love – the seeking after the response of love – consumed a significant measure of your mental, emotional and physical energy at one or a number of points in your life?
But our quest for love can get complicated given a number of factors. Given our self-hating possibilities, given our insecurities and our fears relative to our being loveable, given our fragile egos and our fears of rejection. Yes, our search for love can often become complicated and fraught with distress.
Our self-hating possibilities can lead us to look for love in all the wrong places. Look at the phenomenon of abusive relationships. In these relationships one’s self-hatred is served and confirmed by the abuse of the other.
Our insecurities and fears about our being loveable can move us to connect with people who keep us wondering and guessing about ourselves – people who, while they may not treat us with hateful contempt, withhold those signs and gestures that would undermine our insecurities and quiet our fears.
Our fear of rejection can be so great that we can be moved to test it beyond reason. You know – the best defense is a good offense. We pre-emptively reject love. We push away love even when it is offered. We do this as a defense against the rejection that we know can only ever be just around the corner.
Too often religion has played into this psycho-spiritual disturbance. Religion can be used to undermine self-esteem, and undermine a sense of our intrinsic goodness, dignity and worth.
Authentic Christian faith, however, is predicated on the very opposite of this. We were fashioned in the image of God and remain children of God who will never be abandoned by our Father’s love. Does not the whole story begin with an affirmation of our intrinsic goodness? “He looked upon what He had made and said that it was good”. Nothing can alter that – even our worst thoughts, words or deeds.
As Saint Paul firmly declares in his letter to the Romans, “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Unfortunately, among those groups which appropriate the name Christian, some focus on what they refer to as our “depravity”. Some enjoy using the label “intrinsically disordered” to describe certain people. Some so focus on the reality of sin, to the marginalization or near exclusion of grace.
The most important words in these groups are words like judgment, condemnation and damnation. And spirituality is reduced to the work you do or the praying you do to make yourself worthy of God and deserving of God’s Love rather than the lived experience of being one with God in a bond that cannot be broken.
The message of the gospel has been so deformed in these religious environments as to be unrecognizable as the gospel and certainly not easily recognizable as anything like Good News.
I believe that in these circles, the desire is to generate and sustain an experience of anxiety in people relative to their being loveable and to their goodness serves a malevolent and manipulative purpose. It is so easy to re-enforce and capitalize on the deep-seated self-doubt that lives within people toward the end of controlling people. They easily give over to others the power to pronounce them and others good or bad.
Into this psychological and religious conundrum comes this morning’s news. And it is news that, for the best of reasons, we call Good News. The Good News comes in the form of an invitation, that once given, will never be withdrawn.
In his first letter, John, says to all who will listen, “Sisters and brothers, know and believe the Love that God has for us.”
John assures us that these are not empty words. For God has put his money where his mouth is. Look to the cross and see the self-emptying, the self- giving, the no-holes barred wanton generosity of God – the sacrifice of self for the wellbeing and the life of all.
John also affirms that God’s love is never a response to our efforts to make ourselves worthy and deserving of love. In his letter to the Ephesians Saint Paul affirms that “in Christ Jesus we who once were far away (because of sin) have been brought near (to the throne of grace).” And again, in his letter to the Romans, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God loves sinners. God loves sinners with no conditions and with no limits. As God’s love is unconditional, so too is his forgiveness unconditional, so too is His acceptance unconditional. And to any who might question this, John says that the God who has revealed himself in Jesus IS Love.
God loves because it is his nature. God loves, forgives and always holds us close. It is who God is. For God IS love. God, simply put, cannot help himself. Not to love with abandon would be to compromise his integrity and his very identity. It would be to not be God.
We are invited to take the leap of faith. Curiously, the leap of faith is NOT about believing in God. The most important leap of faith is to believe that God believes in us. When we take this leap there begins a dance and experience of intimacy that is the fruit of Love given, Love received, and Love responded to.
There is a wonderful word used in the gospel of John that is intended to speak to, to give expression to, and to convey the mystery of this incredible and transforming intimacy. The gospel writer puts this word into the mouth of Jesus, as Jesus anticipates his betrayal, crucifixion and death. The word is, “Abide”. Jesus makes use of this word again and again during the last supper discourse to drive home an important truth.
If we go with the word and live into it, it says, you live in Me and I live in you. Just as I live in the Father and the Father lives in me. There is always an immediacy of rapport and contact. There is always a presence, even if there is not a feeling. This mystical communion is the ground and wellspring of ALL that can ever be for us.
Early in my life, the nuns taught me something very important. I believe what they taught has well served my life in the spirit. The nuns taught us, “Allow yourself to enjoy the abiding presence of God within you – savor it even in those moments and at those times that you might not feel it”. Nothing else is necessary.
The sap that flows thru us is the very life of God. The sap that flows through the branches is the sap that is the life in the vine.
In earlier days we called it sanctifying grace. Living into the mystery of sanctifying grace, of this mutual abiding in the love of God does two things.
First, it frees us from fear. For there is no fear in love. God’s perfect love castes out fear. To live in fear of judgment, condemnation and damnation is not to know and believe that awesome truth that God loves us.
Secondly, it impels us to love as we have been loved. “Bear much fruit and become my disciples.” By loving with the same recklessness with which we have been loved. By going where others might be afraid to go. By risking even everything, in certain faith, that THE ALL that has been given, will always be more than sufficient, more than enough.
Father Frank Alagna
May 2, 2021