Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
On Friday night and into the wee hours of Saturday morning, our youth group with Amy, our wonderful new youth minister, participated in Nightwatch, an overnight retreat program in NYC, at the Cathedral Church of St. John, the Divine. How many of you have ever been to St. John? How many have ever been to a large cathedral? These cathedrals were built in Europe and the U.S. from the early Middle Ages up until the early 20th century. St. John’s was begun in the 1890’s and reflects a time when God was considered transcendent, something to be aspired to, otherworldly, but amazing and awesome. Church buildings built in the 20th century, particularly since in the end of the Second World War, tend to be less vast, not nearly so tall, and focused on what we would call immanence, or grounded in the real presence of God among us. Now this week, Jesus uses the curious word with many connotations – abide or abiding. But what does abiding mean, in the context of how we not only build our sacred spaces but, in the way that we think about God’s presence in our lives?
David Vryhof, a monk in the Society of the Saint John the Evangelist, writes, “Why is it that we do not always experience abundant life? Perhaps it is because we do not know how to abide, how to live in union with Jesus, so that his life becomes our life, his strength our strength, his love our love.
Abiding, really, is both God as transcendent other, the One who made heaven and earth and all that is in it; the timeless One who spun the cosmos into creative motion and who made us His children and His people. But in Jesus Christ God has made Himself known to us intimately, lovingly, relationally: He is immanent, presence, God with us. God is the creative force in the universe to whom we listen, whose commands we are compelled to obey. God in Christ is abiding because His commands are commands of love; God in Christ wants to be with us so much that He came among us and loved us into new life. In Christ, the transcendent God is made immanent. In Him who died for us and lives through us in Resurrection, God desires to abide with us, reside with us, and inhabit our very souls with His healing and ever-present love.
During this past Nightwatch, we had a point in the program that is my favorite, something I have now done three times. Near the end of the evening, and it is near midnight, mind you, so we are all a little punchy, when we are asked to take a candle and to go up to the cavernous nave/sanctuary of St. John, which is the length of two football fields, and find a quiet place on our own to sit. And all the lights are out so we have only the light of our little candles. And I found my own little space in their huge choir loft, by myself, alone, even though there were dozens and dozens of others sitting silently (mostly, they were young people, after all). And as I looked down at the flame on my little candle, I felt that abiding presence of God, in that little flame that mirrored the poor faith that is in my little heart, one that seeks to know God more fully. And I felt God’s glorious presence as I craned my neck to look into the darkness of the vaulted ceilings above the choir loft, large enough in the middle to hold the statue of liberty, we were told.
The verse from Matthew came to me, as Jesus said to His disciples, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” It occurred to me that though Jesus’ command to love is perhaps the hardest thing he could have asked us to do, it is a burden that he promises to shoulder with us. It is a task that He calls us to in the name of love. Jesus does not command us to sit up straight, chew with our mouths closed, make more money, be a movie star … He commands us to love one another, to be willing to lay down our lives, in the purest sense, for the other. To be willing to lay down our prejudices, our preconceived ideas, our need to be in control or right, our work as the center of our lives … are we willing to lay down some of what we think makes us, well, us, in order to open ourselves up to each other.
We often search scripture for relevance; what does it mean to my life? Jesus’ disciples were people like you and me. A tax man, a bevy of fisherman, a merchant, a carpenter…they lived with poverty, the struggle of family, of occupation, of human frailty and doubt. Jesus spoke to them on the night before He died, as he might you and me, telling them that the greatest commandment is this: to love each other, as He has loved us, as He loves God the Father. He tells them that he knows that they are afraid, alone, struggling, impossibly overmatched for enemies bent on their destruction. Have we ever felt anything like that? And he offers us the great gift of His abiding, indwelling, all consuming love. He offers to be the light in the cathedral that is our large, loving, hopeful hearts – for those are the hearts that he would possess, even if those cathedral places of our spirits might be feeling a bit empty these days. Jesus knows us and wishes to be with us completely, even though we are not perfect. Perfect or not, we belong to Him. Flawed though we may be, we are His people and he would live with us.
When was the last time you held a candle (or something like it) in your hand and asked Jesus to abide in you and with you? Ask and really know that God is there to answer you? Or if you had serious doubts, you asked anyway? Late last Friday night, it was the actually the first time in a long time for me. Prayer and seeking Christ’s presence is always our first step. Reading scripture, particularly the New Testament, and understanding that Jesus is actually talking to us, not just His disciples. Finally, Jesus calls us into loving relationship with all people, to obey his call to love, come what may. We know we have work to do. We know the work may be difficult. We know that Jesus loves us and abides with us. What else do we truly need to know?