Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26–40 | Psalm 22:25–31 | 1 John 4:7–21 | John 15:1–8
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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
This past year, for better or worse, we’ve had to get used to “staying put”. To staying at home most of the time, for our own sake, and for our neighbours too. For some of us, this has been a blessing: a chance to re-connect with those closest to us… a chance to rebuild our home-lives and hopefully make them stronger. For others, this year has been a whole lot more difficult… even heartbreaking. For starters, there are those of us forced to “stay put” all alone… who are facing much more isolation these days, and are understandably feeling cut off from their loved ones and their community. But there are also those who are finding themselves trapped in tense, broken, and unsafe situations, forced by the pandemic to ‘stay put’ in painful and destructive environments. Especially for those most vulnerable… children, women, and our elders… the dangers of facing domestic abuse during the pandemic has been rising. If you find yourself in need of help, please find the courage to let someone know. If you know of someone who might need help, please find the courage to reach out. But even without getting to the point of outright abuse, many are finding it very hard these days, for all sorts of reasons, to keep on ‘staying put’ together with those around them, and even quite solid relationships are under a great deal of strain.
And yet, in this very moment, when what we might dream of most is to run away… to escape the confines of ‘staying put’… we are being offered a hope that is firmly rooted in one place… or rather, in one Person. Someone who is calling each of us to abide in Him.
In our Gospel reading this morning, these are the words that Jesus Christ our Lord spoke to His disciples just before He would be betrayed by one of them, abandoned by all of them, and crucified for us all, bringing God’s great rescue mission to it’s ultimate focal point at the cross. “Abide in me”… remain in me, stay firmly rooted in me, Christ said as He prepared to give up His life to save our estranged world, as He gave Himself to be broken and offered up as a gift of love to reconcile us to God once and for all.
As the author of 1 John puts it, this is where God’s love is most clearly shown: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10). This is the heart of the Good News: that in Jesus, God has embraced us. That He has dealt with all our sins, and now draws us into His own blessed life.
And so, in response to all Christ has done, He invites us to do something that He sees as absolutely vital: He calls us to abide in Him. To ‘stay put’ in Him.
What exactly does this look like? How do we actually abide in Christ? As important as this question is, at this point I think it’s wise for us to resist the urge to oversimplify. To try to reduce a unique relationship to a few spiritual practices or formulas. That would be like asking “how do you raise a child?”, or “how do you build a friendship?”, and expecting a simple straightforward checklist to follow. Abiding in Jesus, sharing in the life of the Son of God, is not a method that we can figure out ahead of time, and then apply. It’s a connection, a communion that we are invited into.
That said, our second reading today, from the letter of 1 John, gives us some essential elements of what this connection looks like. According to 1 John chapter 4, there are three things about abiding in God that are all bound together: First off, abiding in God involves receiving God’s own Holy Spirit: “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). Sharing in the life of the Living God is not something that we can make happen all on our own. It’s the result of God graciously giving Himself to us, and dwelling in us. A gift we receive through placing our faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Which is the second facet of abiding in God: “And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (1 John 4:14-15). Sharing in the life of the Living God means placing our faith in God’s Son, trusting that in Jesus we are truly in touch with God’s own saving presence and power. That through the Son, the Father is drawing us into His divine family.
And finally, abiding in God takes on the shape of His self-giving love: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). This love is not simply some kind of spiritual experience or ideal, but a way of living that flows from God that’s meant to shape all our human relationships too. 1 John 4:19-21: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” The self-giving love of God embodied by Jesus Christ on the cross is meant to take tangible form in the lives of His disciples… in how we live each day, and how we relate to those around us, especially, how we relate to our brother and sisters, in God’s family.
These three elements, receiving God’s Spirit, believing in Jesus, God’s Son, and enacting God’s love, are all essential parts of abiding in God. Of answering the invitation to share in the life of His kingdom, even now, in our everyday world. A world that often does not understand it. A world where many may well reject it, but where many more are longing for it, thirsting for it. Our world, where the Living God is still actively at work reaching out, drawing in, abiding with… and sending.
Sending who? Sending us. Sending those who abide in Him to share the life He gives us with the wider world. Far from an excuse to hide ourselves away from the messiness of life, ‘staying put’ in Jesus, abiding in Him, means taking part in His worldwide rescue mission. It means being led by His Spirit to do whatever God would have us do, even if it takes us in some surprising directions. It means growing deeper in our faith, and understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that we can help others understand it as well. And it means letting our lives be shaped by God’s self-giving love, reaching out to those who are cut off, hurting, estranged, confused, and alone, and caring for them in ways that bring God’s good kingdom to light.
In our reading today from the book of Acts we can see this kind of abiding in action in the story of St. Philip, known as the Evangelist.
There was another St. Philip among the earliest Christians: St. Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve chosen by Christ in the Gospels. He has his own unique story, but the St. Philip we hear of today was actually one of the first deacons: Christians set apart to serve the tangible needs of the poor in the early Church, like making sure food was being shared equally among widows from different backgrounds, so that the Apostles could focus on proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. Along with others like St. Stephen, St. Philip was called to active service… caring for the basic needs of the growing family of God.
And yet, as the book of Acts plays out in Chapters 6-8, the lines start to get blurry, and deacons like St. Philip and St. Steven take on significant roles in telling others about Jesus and what He has done. They too become witnesses, heralds of God’s good kingdom. Soon St. Stephen becomes an outspoken evangelist, which leads to him following Jesus faithfully to death, becoming the first person executed for sharing the Good News of Christ.
This leads to the early Church being persecuted in Jerusalem, and so they begin to scatter, which takes St. Philip to Samaria, to a community of distant relatives of the Jews, descended from the Northern tribes of Israel, but who had been estranged for centuries from their Jewish cousins for a whole host of reasons. For an idea of how divided the Jewish and Samaritan communities were, think of the tensions at work between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, around the time of the ‘Troubles’: with religion, race, and politics all wrapped up into one conflict, and boiling over at times into violence and bloodshed. They had a lot in common, and were close neighbours, but they were cut off from one another. Estranged, that is until St. Philip ends up on the scene, and begins to share the message of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah raised from the dead… and many Samaritans, begin to believe. They too were being drawn into this new community that was coming to life because of God’s kingdom at work. They too received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized into God’s family. United by their faith in Jesus, despite their long history of hatred and division, now Jewish and Samaritan believers were beginning to learn to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s reconciling love was taking shape, and changing their world.
Remember, none of this was part of St. Philip’s official ministry, but it came about because of his deep connection with the Living God. It was not his ‘job’ to spread the word of the Gospel, but still God’s Spirit drew him beyond his obligations to take part in sharing the Good News with those who needed it. He was actively abiding in God; open to the Spirit’s leading, driven by his faith in Christ, and eager to share God’s reconciling love with everyone.
Which leads us at last to today’s text: where St. Philip is sent by the Spirit, to travel down an empty road, where he meets an Ethiopian Eunuch. Twice we are told that the Holy Spirit prompts St. Philip to action, which leads to a conversation that seems like it was meant to be. St. Philip does not approach them with a pre-rehearsed evangelistic formula, or set of arguments, but with a genuine openness to the person God had led him to; coming alongside them and listening to them, then helping them understand the message of hope they were searching for, and were on the verge of finding. We’re told the eunuch believes St. Philip, and like the Samaritans before him, they’re also eager to be baptized, and brought into the family of God… receiving the Holy Spirit, and embraced in God’s love, which they then brought back to their own community, to share with others.
St. Philip’s story shows us that abiding in Jesus is not about sitting idle, or serving only our own interests… it’s about becoming saturated with the life of the Living God: firmly rooted by faith in Christ, the Risen Son of God; responsive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our daily lives; and empowered to put into action the reconciling, self-giving love of God, offered to us at the cross, and intended to be shared with all.
So may we all actively abide in Jesus, more and more each day. May we be led by His Spirit to take part in His kingdom at work. May we grow deeper in our faith, and confidence in our Risen Saviour. And may His love take root in us, transforming all that we do, so that the fruit of His reconciliation, healing, and hope can flow through us and out into our homes, our neighbourhoods, and our world. Amen.