One of the things you have to face when you go off to train for Ministry is the prospect of learning Biblical Hebrew and what`s called New Testament Greek. I was never very good at either, which is why I rarely if ever refer to such things on a Sunday morning. Besides, I`ve often thought that getting all technical about the specific meaning of ancient languages … although in the hands of an expert it can be very illuminating … it can also appear a bit pretentious; a bit too clever by half.
But having said all that I want to make a bit of an exception this morning. Not because I`m feeling especially self-confident but because in our Gospel Reading today I came across one of the few Greek words I recognised from my studies- and I could remember what it meant. (John 15.1-8) In Verse Five. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me (that`s the word) and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing”. And I remembered that the root of the word we translate `Abide` is the Greek word `meno`. And yes, I felt quite proud of myself!
So, I sat there with that Gospel Reading and pondered these words of Jesus “Abide in me” and I don`t know about you but essentially I am struck just by the real intimacy of this language…. The deeply relational terms which Jesus uses to describe the life of faith. The former Archbishop William Temple described it like this. He says `Jesus asks not conformity to some Code of Law …….but the maintenance of `Communion` with him. I rather like that and I wondered if we sometimes use that word `Communion` perhaps too easily and miss the impact of its depth. The depth of what`s going on here this morning for instance.
But the big question which surrounds Jesus` call is what it might mean for us to `abide` in him? I mean, we understandably ask what this `abiding` might look like in our lived experience? And so I went a dust covered book – a dictionary of New Testament words no less and I looked up that word meno… to `abide`.
Now I say again, there are folk far better qualified than me to talk about this kind of stuff but what I discovered … and this was actually what I was looking for… was some of the different `nuances` that might lie behind what Jesus was getting at when he says `meno`; when he asks to us `Abide` in him.
So for example we learn that the word em-meno means `to abide IN or KEEP to something`; rather like a promise or agreement. It`s about loyalty.
If you say `para-meno` it means `to stand firm or to endure`; it has overtones of faithfulness to someone.
If you say `peri-meno` it gives the sense of `waiting for someone`. Like when Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.4) It`s about anticipation.
If you say `pros-meno` it means `to stay on` like where the crowds stay with Jesus because they want to hear more. (Mk. 8.2) And it carries a hint of staying on in spite of opposition or unfavourable conditions.
Now, the version of `meno` that`s used in our reading this morning is `menone`. – it`s got `n.e`. on the end. And this was really interesting because you might want to think that the translators of our version of the Bible have missed something….. because `meno-ne` literally reads not `abide in me … ` But “Those abid-ing` …in me….” It`s a small difference but if you see what I mean the emphasis is on something continuous or on-going. `Those abiding in me and I in them bear much fruit`.
So at this point I hope I haven`t lost you but the thing to grasp is that in this quite moving address to the disciples (and us) Jesus appears to be saying that is that fruitfulness in the Christian life (if we`re going to experience it really making a difference) is the direct result not of cleverness or of keeping our noses clean, of keeping the rules or of doing, knowing and saying the right things…. No, it all springs just from intimacy with him: `abiding in him`.
And from those variations on that word `meno` we discover that `abiding` means living out a certain steadfastness, loyalty and endurance in this relationship with him. `Abiding` means learning to patiently wait on him; to feed on his every word and to know that only he can make sense of what life is about. Or as St. Peter told him ` ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. (John 6.68) I say again, it`s not a one-off thing. It`s an `abid-ing`. A continuous and often renewed resolve to stick close to the Master when we`re assailed from within and without.
But there are two other observations we need to make. The first is that Jesus says, `Abide in me as I abide in you`. It`s important to remember that what comes first is HIS steadfastness and loyalty to us. What comes first is HIS continued endurance in spite of our folly; HIS continued patience and fidelity; His `abiding` in us.
And secondly, I can`t see this in the Greek but for me `abiding` has something to do with `dwelling` doesn`t it?… It`s our old fashioned way of talking about `where you live`, isn`t it? It`s the place we call home. Which makes me wonder whether the real challenge that most of us actually face is learning to be `at home` with Christ? It seems to me that it`s far too often the case that whenever language like this is used that implies intimacy or closeness with the Lord our immediate reaction is the rather negative one…. `Oh, I`m not worthy`…. Oh, isn`t that a bit presumptuous?`…. `Oh, that`s far too pally-pally`…. And of course it would be if it weren`t for the fact that this depth of relationship is offered and promised and assumed by everything that Christ says and does. He doesn`t mice his words, he says `Abide in me as I abide in you`.
Perhaps you`ll know what I mean when I say that in my Grandparents` house they had a lovely Living Room …..but it was hardly ever used. It was just the way things were in those days. It did get used… but that was when someone special came. But friends, neighbours, people they were `at home` with … they all came into the kitchen. So there`s a picture to conjure with: Being fruitful in the Christian life (if we`re going to experience it really making a difference) begins when you metaphorically let Christ into the kitchen; when allow him to bless you with his `abiding` presence … His steadfast loyalty, patience and fidelity… when you`re `at home` with him.. And what he says to us individually he says to us as a body; as the Church. The fruitfulness, the difference flows from a continuing `abiding in him`; responding and each day continuing to shape our lives around our often flickering but nonetheless heart-felt desire to be `in Communion` with him.