A number of years ago I officiated at the wedding of a young couple, and for the gospel reading at their marriage ceremony they chose the very passage we hear from John’s gospel this morning. Now I don’t usually prepare a formal homily or a sermon with a written text for occasions like that the way I do for Sunday mornings, and that wedding was no different in this regard. I sort of formulated some thoughts in my head about what I wanted to say, but when the time came, I just began to talk extemporaneously. My thought was to focus on the call of Jesus to abide in love, and what I really wanted to explore was the word “abide.” The wedding was different for me because it was not at the Church of the Advent in Hatboro. It was in another Episcopal parish in the city and just after the reading of the gospel and before the homily a bench was set front and center in the aisle for the bride and groom to sit on.
After everyone was settled…and brides of course usually have a lot to get settled, I began by saying what a joyous occasion it was, and how glad they were that all the people gathered there had come to share it with them. I then took note of the fact that they had been living together for quite a while, and asked them how long it had actually been. I gotta tell you, their eyes flew wide open so that they looked a lot like deer caught in the headlights. After they recovered a second or two, they told me how many years it had been. I noted that living together before marriage is a fairly common occurrence these days, and no one thinks much about it one way or the other anymore. What I wanted them to understand was that in the vows they were about to take, they were promising to stop living together and start abiding with one another…and I assured them there’s a big difference between the two.
And this morning I want to assure you of the same thing. While abiding with someone may include living with that person, it’s actually much, much more. In fact, living with someone can consist of little more than occupying the same space. All sorts of people live together. Sometimes they do it because they’re friends. They’ve not yet found a life partner and they don’t want to live alone so living with someone else is just more companionable and fun. Sometimes people do it to save money. Two or even three people sharing the rent and utilities can be a big boost to how far your income stretches, to how much you can save for other needs or for the future. In this case living together may not really involve any kind of relationship except the ability to coexist in the same space. Young people go off to college sometimes and find themselves with roommates who are basically strangers. That has actually shifted recently with colleges and universities allowing incoming students to self-select roommate status with each other, and the internet has certainly made it much easier for randomly assigned pairs to learn a great deal about one another before they ever meet. And sadly, sometimes people live together simply because they’ve forgotten how to abide with one another. The same issues can exist for communities of people as well.
So what is the difference between living together and actually abiding with someone? And how does the concept of abiding affect all of life, not just the relationship we may have with a person like a life partner or our fellow communicants in a church family? What does it look like when we abide in God’s love? The dictionary gives four definitions for the word “abide.”
- The first says that to abide is to remain in expectation, to wait. Abiding with God, and with one another in God’s love, means working to never take situations or people for granted and to be patient. Many a relationship has foundered because we forget to honor the mystery of someone else: a family member, a friend, a partner, the person in the pew behind us and even God. We grow impatient because we lose sight of the possibilities in the midst of the admitted ordinariness and predictability of day to day life. To abide in love means never to lose the capacity to wonder about another person or about God, to wonder what might come next.
- The second definition says that to abide means to pause, to delay, to stop. This is closely related to the waiting in the first definition but it’s much more. In our culture of instant gratification, in our throw-away society, in our valuing of time as commodity not to be wasted instead of a gift to be savored, you and I are often eager to move on. At the slightest hint that things are not going the way we thought they would, that the person we thought was “the one” turns out to be more complicated than we first realized or the church we belong to isn’t like we thought it was in the first flush of affiliating ourselves with it…at the first hint that God cannot be depended on to make us feel up and ready for whatever life brings at us, we often head for the door. Abiding means taking the time to sort things out, to act in ways that are thoughtful and considered, to give whatever is disappointing or not right a chance to change and mend.
- Another definition means to stay, to remain in place, to reside, to dwell. When we absent ourselves either physically or emotionally or spiritually, we short circuit the regenerative, the renewing power of abiding. Even if we live alone, there are relationships, both human and divine, that call for a willingness to abide. Being too quick to move on is a kind of running away that’s very easy in this age of mobility.
- And finally, to abide means to endure, to stand firm. I think this is very tied to what we value and why we value it. Sometimes it can be very difficult to discern what other people stand for. Sometimes it can be very difficult to know what we truly stand for.
And that’s exactly what Jesus is getting at in the gospel this morning. The only true anchor for his followers back then and for you and me today, is to believe and trust that God holds us in an abiding love that remains in expectation and is patient to a fault. God waits for us to flower into the fullness of who we’re created to be. And Jesus promises that we will not be abandoned, that God will always dwell with us in this life whether we can feel it or not because divine love is infinitely durable and steadfast.