Once upon a time, there were a group of cooks who never ate. They met together to cook. They made the most incredible dishes - adding just the right spices and holding the pan over the heat just so. But each week after they finished cooking their masterpieces, they tossed them into the trash bins and returned home. They missed the point.
Once upon a time, there was a Chicago Cubs fan club. They all had the Cubbies shirts and hats. They knew all of the players’ names and statistics. They had autographed balls and photos. Their fan club met every week, but they never talked about baseball. They never watched any Cubs games, and they never visited Wrigley Field. They missed the point.
Once upon a time, there was an artists’ guild that didn’t do art. Artists from around the city met together to talk about the art of art. They discussed brush strokes and the tools for chiseling marble. They had heated debates about the best kind of paper to use when painting with water colors. However, the curious thing was that none of these artists ever did any art. They missed the point.
Once upon a time, there was a book club that met every week even though nobody ever read the books. They would talk about this and that and have a cup of coffee, while the books sat on the coffee table unopened - with fresh, uncracked spines. They missed the point.
Once upon a time, there was a church that talked about God’s love. They sang about God’s love. They loved when the pastors talked about God’s love. But they were too busy with soccer games and music recitals and watching movies and paying bills to actually know their neighbors - much less to love them. They were tired all the time and often grumpy, and the idea of making space for others in their lives just made them feel sad and guilty. They were great at talking about love, but not so good about actually loving. They missed the point.
Once upon a time, there was a pastor who preached great sermons about God’s love. He dreamt up great programs to help people engage God’s love and to do the practical work of love. He studied the theology and psychology of love. He wrote inspiring essays and blogs and poems about love. But when it came down it, he didn’t have the time or energy to love actual flesh-and-blood people, and he didn’t feel much of God’s love in his daily life. He missed the point.
When it is time to preach, pastors usually choose a text that they think will be good for their people. But every now and then, we pastors just choose a text that we think will be good for us. This text today is for me.
Jesus pleads with his disciples to “remain” in him and to “remain” in his love. Christians have stuck with the old English word “abiding” for this concept. We hardly ever use this word outside church circles, but we might say on occasion, “Welcome to my humble abode.” An abode is a dwelling, a home. Abiding is making your home somewhere. The Message version nails this phrase:
“Make yourself at home in my love.”
I’ve been a pastor for eleven years, and “abiding” has always been a weakness for me. I’m just barely smart enough and educated enough to fake God’s blessing. When it comes to getting things done in ministry, I tend to rely on my own capacity rather than on God. I’m also interested in a thousand different things, so I end up living a life of scattered busy-ness and trying to keep everything together, on my own strength.
This is not the recipe for a truly successful spiritual leader. Today, I just want to walk you through how God has been speaking to me. When I preach, I usually ask questions to try to understand the text, so I’ll just talk about those questions, and maybe God will work on you too.
One of the first questions I ask is, “What is the bad news here?”
This text has two kinds of bad news.
First, God is a cutter. When we talk about God’s love, we can get this very mushy picture of God as a hopeless romantic who wouldn’t hurt a flea. But that’s not the picture from this text. Here God has a spine and a pair of hedge trimmers along with some matches, and he’s not afraid to use them. God cuts off any branches that don’t bear fruit, and he even prunes the branches that do fruit.
It seems that God isn’t very concerned with the comfort of our lives. On the other hand, God is very concerned with the quality of our lives. Put Biblically: God prunes us for greater fruitfulness. Put bluntly: God would rather hurt us and make us better than leave us the same. God is willing to cut away even good things so that the best things can grow.
Second piece of bad news: Love is hard. The greatest love is laying down our lives for our friends. That kind of sucks. Love should feel great, right? And sometimes it does. But other times love is really inconvenient and even painful. We’re remembering that this is Jesus talking, right? Jesus who was so full of love that he went to the cross. Jesus who showed his disciples his love by washing their feet and then dying on the cross. Love is unselfish, and our selves tend to not like that.
OK, so how about some good news?
This passage has two pieces of soaring good news.
First, Jesus is leading us into the life we’ve always wanted: a life of love, joy, peace, and purpose. As hard as love is, our deepest longing is still to love and be loved. And this is the path to true joy. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (15:11). But even more, God created us and chose us to “bear much fruit” (15:5). God wants us to have a meaningful life full of purpose and results. God wants us to be successful in the deepest possible sense of success. God wants us to be people who are full of love and multiply love in those around us. And no matter what we think in any given moment, this is actually our heart cry. This is what we all want.
Second, piece of awesome good news. Our job is primarily just to “abide in Jesus,” to stay deeply connected to Jesus, to make ourselves at home in his love. Jesus is the life. We are the conduit, the outflow of his life. We don’t have to MAKE a good life happen. We just have to let Jesus’ life happen in us.
So on to the next question: What is God doing here?
We can get a feeling for this by looking at the context. This speech happens during Jesus’ last night with his disciples before he goes to the cross. In John 13-17, Jesus is preparing them for his departure. If you go back a few verses to John 14:22-23, I think you find the key to what God is doing in our passage.
One of Jesus’ disciples says, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”
Jesus answers, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
We’ve all asked that question, right? Why doesn’t Jesus just show himself to the whole world?
Jesus’ answer is simple but profound. God will show himself to the world by living in Jesus’ disciples. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit will make their home - or “abide” in God’s people. Love is the revelation of God in the world.
“[Make your home] in me, as I make my home in you. … As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Now [make your home] in my love. If you keep my commands, you will [make your home] in my love … My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
Our remaining - or abiding - or making our home in God’s love is the fundamental key to God’s entire mission in the world. On the night before Jesus goes to the cross, his one consistent message to his disciples is this. Everything hinges on making yourself at home in my love. Go deep in my love, and then you will love others deeply. Live in my house of love, and your lives will bear the fruit of love.
God’s entire mission - God’s whole plan for the universe - is built around our experience of God’s love for us and our love for others. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
The foundation of …
… is remaining in God’s love.
What is God doing in this text? Jesus is about to die, and he wants his disciples to have their foundation straight. The foundation for everything is living deeply in God’s love.
OK, last question for the text. What are people doing here?
In this text, people are mostly just doing three things.
1. Remaining in Jesus and Jesus’ love.
2. Loving each other.
3. Bearing much fruit.
But how do we bear fruit anyway? What does that even mean? How do we make that happen? Let’s look at a few examples:
- Welches fruit chews vs. strawberry: How do you make these?
- Grape Koolaid vs. grapes: How do you make these?
- Watermelon Jolly Ranchers vs. watermelon: How do you make these?
You can’t “make” real fruit. You can’t make it in a factory. You can’t make fruit by trying harder or by squeezing harder or by running faster or by working longer hours. Real fruit only comes into being because it is connected to a living, healthy plant. Real fruit is slow and beautiful and mysterious and delicious and good for us.
Our world offers us a lot of fake fruit - fake relationships, fake success, fake joy, fake meaning. And it almost satisfies; it hints at satisfying us, but we can never quite get the chemical taste out of our mouths. And it’s not real food; it’s not real fruit, so it leaves us lacking.
Jesus offers us red ripe juicy strawberries. Jesus offers us lush bunches of grapes. Jesus offers us cold watermelon on a hot summer day. Jesus offers us real fruit and real life and real love.
What is your life producing now?
Koolaid or grapes for fine wine? Plastic fruit chews or state fair strawberries? Fruit flavored sugar that rots your teeth or fruit so full of life that it runs down your chin onto your neck, down your hands and drips off your elbows?
Are you making yourself at home in God’s love?
Or are you worn out and beat down from trying to do it all yourself?
We’re going to have some quiet reflection time. Answer two questions.
- Where has your life mostly been over the past few months? Has it been mostly toward work, mostly toward abiding, or well-balanced?
- What are two things you want to do this week to move more toward abiding?
To get you started, I’ll tell you my two things to help me abide in God’s love more.
- I’m going to take a half day, every Monday morning just for abiding.
- I’m going to stop listening to podcasts when I go for walks. Instead, I going to try to pray and to listen to God.
- I'm not accepting extra commitments for writing and teaching for this year. (That's hard for me because I love those things, but I know it's what I need to do to abide.)
So where are you now? And what are you going to do about it?