Sermon for Easter 5B, preached on Sunday, April 29, 2018.
Isaiah saw a vision of the Word of the Lord touching his tongue but instead of burning him it cleansed him, taking all his sin and guilt away. Because he knew he was unclean, he cringed at the thought of God’s Word entering him. Jeremiah ate the Word of the Lord joyfully until it filled Him. Ezekiel received the Word of the Lord and with it came visions of glory terrifying and yet when he ate the scroll of God’s Word its taste was sweet. All of the prophets, great and small, found the Word of the Lord a two edged sword and some, like Jonah, ran rather than face up to it.
John begins the Gospel with the Word that was God but was made flesh for us and our salvation. The Word did not reveal the glory of God but was the glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. Now we heard this morning the promise of the Word to abide in us if we abide in Him and to make us into the fruitful vines who produce the good fruit of the kingdom.
The problem is, how do we abide in Christ so that He may abide in us? This has been the great divide among the people of God, especially since the Reformation. On the one hand, there are those who would spiritualize this and make it into a mental activity. To abide in Christ is to learn truths and give our consent to them. To abide in Christ means transcending the Word and meeting Christ on the higher plane of feelings, desire, experience, and emotion.
Today Christianity tends to proclaim a distant God who must be brought new by the prayers of His people or by worship. Even then, this is not a God who comes to us in earthly form but in vision, desire, and especially in moral behavior. Most Protestant Christians have lost the immediate sense of God’s presence that does not depend upon our call to Him or our feelings. Certainly we do not focus upon the holiness of God.
Our Lord, however, did not become incarnate in ideas or feelings. He came in flesh and blood. He is still present with us in earthly forms. The means of grace are not picture words for our eyes and minds but the flesh forms of a voice that speaks so we can hear it, recognize it, and follow it and the fleshly splash of water that signs what it is actually doing to cleanse us and the taste of bread and wine that feeds us more than they eye can see or the tongue taste.
To abide in Christ is not a mere mental activity nor is it an inspirational feeling meant to draw us out of ourselves. To abide in Christ is as concrete as being where His Word is preached and taught, where it enters our ears to inhabit our minds and own our lives. It is the voice of the Good Shepherd recognized and acknowledged by His sheep. It is the voice through which God works, just as when He spoke and all things came to be. To abide in Christ is to be near the Word, not as an individual privately pondering its meaning but as the assembly of those called, gathered, and enlightened by His everlasting Gospel.
Today we heard how Philip brought the Ethiopian eunuch to know Christ through the Word and how that Word immediately resulted not in good feelings but in the waters of baptism where the man was connected to Christ’s death and resurrection.
To abide in Christ is not to know your baptism as a memory. In fact you do not even need to recall it to know it. To abide in Christ is not simply to remember you are baptized. To abide in Christ is to wear the righteousness He placed upon you in your baptism and to seek by the aid of the Holy Spirit to become the people God has declared you to be. To abide in Christ is to live out your baptismal new life not as an idea or even a goal but as the new reality of who you are. To abide in Christ is live within the house of the Lord as a place as familiar to you as the place where you sleep for this is who you are as the children of God. And this new life extends to your family relationships and even to the neighbor you serve.
To abide in Christ is to eat the meal He has prepared in which He gives Himself to us to eat. This is not some re-enactment of what once took place in the Upper Room but a continuation of that miracle meal in which we feast upon Christ the victim at the bidding of Christ the host. Author Flannery O’Connor put it this way: "Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if all it is is a symbol, then to hell with it.'
If this eating and drinking are merely symbolic, then O’Connor is right. I don’t need to eat a symbolic meal. I need to eat the bread that feeds me till I want for nothing more. I need to drink what quenches my thirst for forgiveness and bestows full life to me. It is true that you will not gain any weight by eating symbolic food but neither will you live. You will slowly starve until all your strength is gone and your body has not more life in it. That is what Jesus is talking about. Abide in Me is the call to eat the food He has set apart and to drink the cup He offers, where we are fed, nourished, and confirmed in the power of His death and resurrection.
We talk about Church as if we did not need it or Christ never meant it to be all that important. We talk about Church as if it were all about preacher’s egos and collection plates filled with money. What happens here is deep and profound. God comes to us so that we may abide in Him and He in us, now through the ups and downs of this mortal life in a world that is not friendly to Him and also in the world to come where the only food we shall eat is His flesh and blood, in the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom without end. Here we meet God in flesh; ceremonies are not symbols but the reverence that comes from knowing the God who is with us.
Abide in Me is not something we can do apart from the places where Christ has placed Himself – the Word and the Sacraments. But by these means He does abide in us and we in Him. We are even now being made into the people He has declared us to be. We are even now being nurtured in the new life that death cannot overcome. We are even now learning to live the life where sin troubles us no more and love has its way with us forever.
Abiding in Christ is not some box we check off on our spiritual to do list. It is not a task assigned to us to figure out how to do it. To abide in Christ is to hear His Word preached and taught and not to despise this preaching but gladly hear it and live it out. To abide in Christ is to pass by the font where we were born anew and to rejoice that we are not our old selves any long but belong to Christ who purchased us with His own blood. To abide in Christ means to live out in our daily lives the cycle of confession and absolution in which grace constantly reclaims us from our failures before temptation and our fascination with sins we know are wrong. To abide in Christ means to kneel here and open our mouths to His flesh in bread and His blood in wine so that the new life created in us does not starve or weaken but grow regularly stronger until the day when nothing of our old selves remains.
We want to meet Christ on our terms, in what we find meaningful and helpful. That is the voice of sin that still tries to manipulate God. But, my brothers and sisters, Christ comes to us not as we define or hope or expect. He comes to us in the surprise of the means of grace, the Word that accomplishes His purpose and the Sacraments that bestow what they promise. Apart from this Word, God does not speak and apart from His Sacraments you have only symbols without any reality.
If abiding in Christ is left to me and my imagination, then to hell with it all. My mind is not holy and my heart is not pure. I need something more than inspiration. I need what only God can give. I need the Word that speaks life to the dead, the water that cleanses us from the dirt of our sin and the flesh and blood that feeds me eternal life. What about you?
Here is where we abide in Christ if we have a hope in hell of abiding with Him at home, at work, in the neighborhood, and in the world. I need someone to love me enough to prune away my branches and someone who loves me enough to tell me to shut up and listen. I need Christ who is present in His Word and in His sacraments. For if I cannot abide in Christ here through the means of grace, then I don’t have chance of abiding in Him anywhere else.