I wonder what you might say if I asked you what were you were doing this afternoon? Going for a walk, watching sport on TV, gardening, visiting family or friends or maybe having a snooze perhaps? I doubt that many of you would say, ‘do you know what Andrew, I think I will do a bit of abiding.’
Yet the gospel reading is clear: Christians are supposed to spend some considerable time abiding. The trouble is that abiding is a funny old word. It is one of those words that in many ways is to difficult to define, so I would want to suggest three qualitative characteristics: Firstly, a sense of rest or even contemplation; resting in God and thinking about God. Secondly, a commitment to being bound up or caught up in, even luxuriating in, God’s story, hence the metaphor of the vine and thirdly, an openness to change; positive change. The consequence of all this abiding should be ‘that you bear much fruit and become my (Jesus’) disciples.’
I have already mentioned the word commitment, let me briefly return to it for abiding, it seems to me, must become an ongoing pattern of life. In other words it requires commitment. It requires a commitment to reading the bible, prayer, and sharing in the sacraments of the church. These are the nutrients by which we are fed as we live our lives, as it were, on the vine.
The fruit of our abiding is discipleship; lives lived demonstrably as people shaped and nurtured by the Jesus of the gospels; people who love God and love neighbour and, yes, people who behave in sometimes interesting ways.
A flavour of this is provided in the first couple of verses from the first reading: ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ The apostle Philip, as a result of his abiding in Jesus (remember the post resurrection meals) is, it seems, attuned to the voice of God and his calling on his life. What happens then is extraordinary. Philip meets an Ethiopian Eunuch, explains the scriptures to him, and baptises him. In doing so he breaks all religious protocol. The Ethiopian Eunuch has two problems: he is foreign, Ethiopian, and he is a eunuch. But Philip does far more than break the odd protocol or tradition, he actually contravenes the Law, for in Deuteronomy 23 verse 1 we read the bible’s funniest verse: ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.’ For Christians entering the assembly of the Lord, joining the church, being grafted into the vine takes place through the sacrament of baptism. So Philip disregards, totally and utterly, the word of the law and simply admits the Eunuch into the assembly of the law. Philip’s actions stand as a testimony to those who read the bible overly literally, fundamentally even.
I am sure that the pre-abiding Philip would never have baptised an Ethiopian, let alone an Ethiopian Eunuch. So my point is this : that all this abiding, or the fruit of the abiding that Jesus promises, might lead you to take risks, to take meet new people, maybe even scandalous people and play your part in grafting them into the vine. Abiding will refresh you, but it will refresh you to take risks. Abiding will nurture you, but only through cutting away some of your preferences, biases and walls of defence. At least that has been my experience, just as it was Philip’s experience.
Learning the art of abiding, luxuriating in and waiting on God, through prayer, reading the bible and partaking in the sacraments of the church will change you for the better. It will make you the sort of bears ‘good fruit,’ but it might also take you to some weird and wacky places; our equivalent of the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So my invitation or challenge to you is simple. Will you, as we seek to build God’s kingdom here in this place, in the words of the hymn, Abide with me?’