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Abiding In God Is Abiding In Love

The Rev. Sara Warfield



This gospel is what I refer to as a Yikes passage.


Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.


Yikes.


If you were raised in a more conservative church that interpreted the Bible in a more literal, black/white, wrong/right, hell/heaven kind of way—like many of us here—or if that’s the only kind of Christianity you’ve really seen represented in the world, then it’s understandable if your reaction to this passage is, “Yikes. There’s that judgy God again. The one who can’t wait to throw withered sinners into the fire.”


I get it. For a long time, my reaction to so much of the Bible was, “See, this God sucks.” I’d point to whatever scriptures told me I should “fear” God, and I’d be like, “Why would God want us to be afraid?” Wherever it said there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, I’d think, “Why is this God so intent on punishing us?”


Fear was the basis of my faith for a long time. When I was a kid, I would pray every night that God would forgive me for my sins. Even if I wasn’t really sure if I’d actually sinned much that day, I’d ask for forgiveness every night, just to cover my bases in case, well, “if I die before I wake…”


Eventually, I realized I didn’t want to believe in a God I was afraid of. I drifted away from my faith. More than that, I became scathingly critical of that faith. Because even though it didn’t feel right to me, even though I was pretty sure that a God who is love—which we also hear in today’s scriptures—wouldn’t be so gleeful to throw me in the fire to burn, I thought that was Christianity. Period.


I just accepted what I was taught: that Christianity’s God is mean. I gave all my power of belief over to that. It was either believe in and follow this mean God or reject this mean God. There were no other options.


But of course there are other options. Of course there’s not just one “right” way to read the Bible. And of course, as I mentioned before, our Bible does say, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”


It’s simply a matter of what we prioritize when we read the Bible. Do we want clear, though sometimes arbitrary, rules to follow in order to make sure we don’t go to hell when we die, or do we want to learn what God’s love means, here and now, in this life, in this world?


Because this Yikes Passage takes on a whole new meaning when you put it into a different context, a context of love. This gospel is part of what is known as the Farewell Discourse in John. These were the last conversations Jesus had with his disciples before he died. And in these conversations, Jesus makes it clear that he is going to die. The disciples are understandably devastated. They believe Jesus would change everything, overturn the status quo and free their people from Roman oppression. But not only that, Jesus is their friend. They love him. They don’t want to lose him.


Jesus recognizes this. Intertwined with his teachings are words of comfort. In the chapter just before, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” and “I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.” and “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.”


Even in today’s gospel, he is reassuring his disciples: Friends, I’m not going anywhere. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” You are an extension of me, and I am always with you.


You are an extension of me, and I am always with you in the fruit that you bear in your lives. He says to the disciples. He says to us.


What kind of fruit are we called to bear? I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this gospel was paired with 1 John in our lectionary:


In our gospel today, Jesus says, “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.”


And in the epistle we hear: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”


The vine in which we are to abide is love.


Now the word “abide” has many meanings: to wait steadfastly, to be willing to suffer on behalf of, to stand one’s ground in the face of something, to make one’s home in. I think they’re all applicable here.


Wait steadfastly in me, Jesus says. Be willing to suffer on my behalf. Stand your ground in me. Make your home in me. Which is to say: Wait steadfastly in love. Be willing to suffer on love’s behalf. Stand your ground in love. Make your home in love.



I want to mention something I read in a commentary this week. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it caught my attention. It said, “Bearing fruit is what branches do.” What the author meant was, bearing fruit is what God created branches to do. Now obviously we’re talking about fruit-bearing vines or trees. Other branches were created to bear different kinds of nuts and some were created just to bear leaves. That’s their purpose.


Branches abide in God’s love by living out their purpose, by embodying how God created them.


“I am the vine,” Jesus says. “And you are the branches.” We abide in God’s love by living out our purpose, by embodying how God created us. If we don’t live out our purpose, we wither.


In high school, there was a girl on my soccer team, Jeannette, who was phenomenal. She was a striker and just had a nose for the goal. She was fast, fearless. She was First-Team All-State as a sophomore and broke all kinds of scoring records for the school and the state.


The problem was, she didn’t like playing soccer. In fact, she hated it. She didn’t talk to anyone in the locker room before or after games and spent all of our away trips with her headphones on blasting music. Even though she was wildly successful on the field and seemed like a star, she was utterly unhappy. She quit soccer after her junior year, and I never saw her again.


But, you might argue, God created Jeannette to be good at soccer—isn’t that her purpose? I contend that we can be good at something, maybe even great at it, but that doesn’t make it our purpose. It might make for a well-paying job. It might impress the people around you. But purpose is more about love.


As Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”


If God is love, then “whoever does not abide in love is thrown away like a branch and withers.” God doesn’t make us wither, we make ourselves wither when we don’t pursue our lives with love. We might have all the natural talent or intelligence or ambition in the world, but without love, we eventually wither.


I don’t mean romantic love here. I hope that’s clear. I mean the kind of love that causes Celia to to hold a sign out on Stark at 257th, by herself, as traffic goes by, as she bears witness to labor strikes or the destruction in Gaza. I mean the kind of love with which Kirby guides his students at Clackamas Community College. I mean the kind of love that drives Roberta and her husband Larry to tend so tirelessly to our church building and grounds.


When we don’t have that kind of love in our lives, we wither.


So what inspires that kind of love in you? That’s your purpose. That’s what abiding in the vine means.

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