Where do you live?

By Jim Vitale

Where do you live? How long have you been there? What’s it like?

Where I live, the walls are as thick as I can build them. They are mostly solid stone, except where there are holes straight through. I hold these walls up all by myself, and I spend most of my time running around keeping them upright.

Where I live, there’s a wall covered in sticky notes bearing all the thoughts I’ve ever thought. And hanging next to the wall is a big magnifying glass so I can scrutinize each and every one of them. I spend a lot of time there, too.

Where I live, there’s a TV that plays back all my most embarrassing and shameful moments in 4K ultra HD and Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound. I try to avoid watching it, but the power button on my remote is missing and the more I try to turn down the volume, the louder it gets.

Where I live, there’s a big, long to-do list full of things that absolutely need to get done or the world will literally end. Next to that there’s also a long list of names of people who, if I disappoint them, the world will literally end. The lists are so long I keep tripping over them.

It’s not the best place to live, I know, but it’s mine. And besides, I’ve lived there so long I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live someplace else. So I stay. And the walls get thicker and the sticky notes get more crowded and the TV gets louder and the lists get longer.

Where do you live?

The most important word in John’s gospel is probably the word “abide.” John uses that word 40 times throughout his gospel, eight of those times appear here in John 15:1-8. Whole books have been written on the theme of abiding in John’s gospel, and we could probably do a whole series on it. But today I want to focus specifically on what Jesus says in this reading. He says, “abide in me as I abide in you.”

That’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it? We’ve probably all heard this passage so many times that we don’t even think twice about it, but it’s a weird thing to say, “abide in me.” What does that really mean? Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus tells some religious leaders, “you do not have [the Father’s] word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.” For John, and for Jesus, there is an intimate connection between abiding and believing.

But here’s the thing, John did not think about believing the way you and I might think about it. In our modern society, belief has been boiled down to affirming whether something exists or not, whether something is real or not. When someone asks you if you believe in God, what they really want to know is do you agree that there exists some spiritual being who is in charge of everything. John, and most people in the ancient world, simply took that for granted. There was virtually no one alive in those days who didn’t believe in some god or other.

We boil down belief into a set of doctrinal statements. Some churches recite a creed on Sunday mornings—and this is a great example. We’ve come to think that “belief” is simply saying that you agree with everything that is in the creed. Don’t get me wrong, I like the creed—I need to be reminded of the doctrines we affirm—but John would never have considered that to be the heart of what it means to believe.

For John, and I think for Jesus, to believe is to trust. To believe is to have a relationship. If you believe in Jesus, you don’t just acknowledge that he exists, you don’t just recite a bunch of things you think are true about him, you enter into a relationship with him. You abide with him. Or better yet, you abide in him.

So to believe in Jesus, to be a follower of Jesus, is to abide in Jesus. John understood the Christian faith in relational terms. Jesus’ ministry is all about inviting people into a relationship with God the Father through the Son.

So what does it mean for us to abide in Jesus?

In John 15:1-8, Jesus uses the beautiful image of a vine and its branches. He says that the Father is like a vinegrower and Jesus is like his vine. The Father tends the vine with care and attention. And the branches that grow from the vine represent us, “the abiders,” those who have a relationship with Jesus.

Using this image, Jesus invites his disciples to abide in him the way a branch abides with a vine. And just as a branch cannot live unless it is attached to the vine, so the disciples can do nothing if they do not abide in Jesus. This could be read as a word of warning, but I think Jesus meant it to be a comfort. He declares, without exception, that he is the vine and the disciples are the branches. Their status as branches is not up for debate. That is what they are, and they are intimately connected to the vine, that is Jesus. The disciples are and will be sustained by Jesus just as branches are sustained by the vine. If you trace each branch back to its base, you find the vine. If you trace each disciple down to his or her core, you find Jesus.

That’s what it means to abide in Jesus. It means to find your whole identity in Jesus. It means to live a life such that it’s hard to determine where you stop and Jesus begins. To abide in Jesus is to place your whole self in his nourishing care. To abide in Jesus is to remember that the source and ground of all things is ultimately love and, because Jesus dwells in you and you dwell in him, that love is showered upon you every single moment of every single day.

I’ve been living in the house that Jim built and wondering if I’ll ever get to live somewhere else. My house is a mess and it’s driving me crazy. I really wish I could just move.

When I read today’s gospel reading, I remember that this house I am living in, with its stone walls and its endless lists and its distracting TV, is not actually my real house. It’s like the grungy shed I constructed in the backyard. It’s not always an easy walk, but I can walk back to my true home and abide there any time I want. And my true home is in Jesus, the source and ground of all that I am, the fountain of love and life who draws me in and calls me beloved, who expects nothing of me except that I abide in him and let him abide in me.

There’s a beautiful spiritual practice called contemplative prayer. The idea is that when you sit down to pray you do nothing but remind yourself that you bask in the loving presence of God. You don’t say anything. You don’t ask anything. You don’t confess anything. You quiet down, be still, and sit in God’s loving presence. There are no expectations, demands, or requirements. It’s just you and God in loving quiet. I think that is a great way to remind yourself what it means to abide in the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus: to sit quietly in each other’s presence, like a pair of lovers so familiar with each other that they need not say a word.

Contemplative prayer is a great way to remind yourself of your true home in Jesus. But of course you’re not going to live every day in that home. You won’t remember that Jesus is your true home every moment of every day. I certainly don’t. Most days I rattle around the house that Jim built. We will not abide completely and fully in Jesus until the day that he returns to be with us; but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is our true home. So no matter where you may live from day to day, my beloved friends, remember that your true home is and will always be in Jesus.

May you abide in him as he abides in you.

Amen.