Once, when we were looking at a house in a new town where we were moving, Melanie and I noticed the difference between the small, mowed grassy area behind the house and the plat drawing. The backyard was minimal and surrounded on three sides with thick brambles, vines, and seedlings. The plat showed a level half acre. We bought the house and began to work on cutting back the thicket. It wasn’t a wooded area or anything intentional. At some point, someone clear cut the lot, planted grass in the immediate area around the house, and left everything else to nature. The wild followed its course.
Gradually, we cut back the thicket, and as we did, we found a single oak tree growing strong and straight. When we were first looking at the house, we couldn’t even see the tree. The thicket was a monolith of tangled vines. As we cut more and more back, we came to a spot where the vines went way up high. At first, they were indistinguishable from the tree. As we cut the vines back, we could see a healthy tree underneath.
When we read John 15, we do ourselves a disservice if we distinguish between our reading (15.9-17) and the rest of the chapter, both before and after. Vines figure prominently in the beginning (15.1-8). John’s Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower” (15.1). By seeing Jesus in this analogy, we can learn a bit about how to live and what he means when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15.9). Reading the whole thing allows us to learn more about what it means to abide in love.
To abide means to remain or continue or stay. It also means to reside somewhere. The Greek verb used four times in our reading, and translated as “abide,” is μενω. That verb, in various forms, occurs 105 times in the Bible and can be translated as continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, and abide. Jesus is saying to continue, dwell, endure, be present, remain, stand, and abide in love.
We make his love central to who we are. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we try to be honest in our dealings, reflect Jesus’ grace in our interactions with others, and share God’s love with the world. That’s why we include everyone in our family of faith and why “thoughts and prayers” feel like they fall short when there has been a mass shooting or natural disaster. Abiding in love means doing something.
The opening of John 15 situates Jesus as the true vine and God our creator as the vine-grower. This part of his speech emphasizes belief, dependence, and endurance. Jesus is a vine and he wants us to believe in him. God tends and nurtures that vine and we depend on God and endure in our faith. As I learned when cutting back the vines in my backyard, vines entangle everything. Likewise, we need to be entangled in Christ. When we are, we become entangled in God’s love.
Then, God’s love dwells in us, endures in us, and is present in us. Paul Tillich describes how God dwells (or abides) in us and we become God’s dwelling place. This is the same thing as us abiding in love. Love becomes where we live. Tillich writes,
God and love are not two realities; they are one. God’s Being is the being of love and God’s infinite power of Being is the infinite power of love. Therefore, [one] who professes devotion to God may abide in God if [that one] abides in love…[i]
It seems so simple. To follow Christ, we must live in love, be present in love, and make our home in love. Yet, the depth of God’s love is too great to make defining it so simple.
Many years ago, we were attending a party with some friends, and I met a friend-of-a-friend who professed a sort of Unitarianism. This friend-of-a-friend wanted to debate religion with me—not discuss, but debate. She said, “Every time you say ‘God,’ I could replace that with ‘love’ and have the same thing.”
No. The love she described fit exactly into the box she created. That love cost her nothing. It demanded nothing from her and asked for nothing in return. God’s love is richer because it costs us something. The popular way of saying it is: We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used a more eloquent expression: “cheap grace.” That’s how he described the kind of grace or love my friend-of-a-friend talked about. He writes,
Cheap grace is that grace which we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.[ii]
If we skip the first part of John 15 and go straight to trying to figure out how to abide in God’s love, we miss the negation of 15.6. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
We have a little fire pit on our deck and had a nice fire last night. Once the coals were hot, I tossed twigs and sticks into the fire, and they were incinerated. Jesus isn’t threatening his followers. This isn’t about hell or some form of damnation. It’s about the sense of dislocation and isolation from missing the richness of God’s unconditional, agape love.
Following Christ and abiding in love is more than just replacing the word “God” with the word “love.” Living in love is changing into the likeness of Christ. We don’t end our faith journey in the baptismal waters, regardless of whether we were baptized as babies or made a decision to be baptized as an adult. We keep growing.
Abiding in love is repentance, community, confession, and discipleship. God’s love isn’t an obligation. We all have a choice. We can set the difficult lessons of Christ aside and try to figure life out on our own. We have that freedom. Every one of us has that choice. We can always make things harder for ourselves than they need to be. We don’t have to. But we can.
My friend-of-a-friend described a god who fit her worldview perfectly. She isn’t unique. We all face the temptation to recreate God in our own image. Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[iii]
At our old house, eventually we cleared the thicket covering our backyard. We planted grass and enjoyed the lawn for years. At one point, I had ended up with an old cross. I set it in the back of the yard, against the brambles. The brown cross against the green background looked striking. In just a few weeks, the vines overtook the cross. Those little things we do that serve to separate us from God are always lingering, just waiting to pull us away from following Christ. They are always tempting us to make God in our own image.
Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
Jesus was talking about doing something. Abiding in love as what makes us serve ice cream on Wednesdays and host PACEM in the winter. Abiding in love is the reason we support the Venable backpack program and Dr. Jules in Haiti. Abiding in love is why we study our Bibles and try to grow in our faith. Abiding in love is why we are here today. We are all on a faith journey because we have to do it every day. Remember that you choose where you put your feet on this journey. You choose where you step. Take each step and make your path in the love of Christ and the presence of God.
[i] Paul Tillich, The New Being (London: SCM Press, 1956), 26.
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 30.
[iii] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor, 1995), 22.