“Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. (John 6:56 NRSV) ”
Abide. It’s an old word in the English dictionary, and perhaps, it is not a word that we are accustomed to using – or at least not in the way that Jesus might mean in this evening’s Gospel lesson. It is a word that carries many different meanings and has been used in different ways over the evolution of the English language. In modern times, it is a verb that we might associate with accepting a decision or acquiescing to an act of a body, a culture. In similar fashion, we might also use it in the negative to say things that go against our code of being cannot be tolerated. I might say that I cannot abide in one behavior or another because it is such an affront to my being as an individual. It is rare that we would use the verb as a synonym for living or dwelling in a certain place or geography. If a person were to ask you, “Where do you abide?” or if someone were to tell you that she “abides in Dallas,” I am quite certain that I would look at them with a very funny look and think to myself that the person was from a different planet altogether. A person that speaks in such a manner we would probably think of as being a bit “off” or at least completely out of touch with contemporary society. The last and final meaning of the verb abide is to continue without fading or being lost. While not as archaic as using abide as a synonym for to live, it is definitely not a word that is in common usage in that sense. We would probably defer to a more common word like remain, last, or continue.
As I read the Gospel lesson over this past week, the verb lept off of the page for me, and I began wondering what might be the best understanding for this word abide within the context of John’s narrative and within the Bread of Life discourse. Though a straight translation of abide as to dwell or to live works with the reading, I am not certain that such a straight forward translation really gets at the heart of the truth behind Jesus’ words. In lieu of taking only a single definition of abide for the full meaning in the context of the lesson, I landed on the combination of two of the definitions. I get the sense that what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that He is not only going to dwell in us but also that he is not going to forget us. Jesus is going to dwell in us in a way that will not be lost or will not fade if we are able to accept Jesus’ words. The key to this abiding is that we welcome Jesus into our lives – that we take the same stance as Peter and share that with others as we move and live and have our being. Like the disciples in the text, we have the choice to accept or reject Jesus. If we are able to find it in our hearts to accept Jesus as the Bread of Life, Jesus is telling us that he is going to remain with us without fading. If, however, we reject Jesus in the way that some of the disciples do, then we are not giving Jesus the ability to abide – to remain within us, to dwell in us, in an unfading, eternal way.
Over the past several weeks, most of my sermons have focused on what it means to feast on the bread of life through our relationships with each other, which is also a focus on what it means to be in communion with each other. The final reading from John 6 this weeks brings all of this home as Jesus tells us that those that eat his flesh and drink his blood will abide in him and he in them. Jesus is committing himself to be in common union with the faithful disciples that do their best to live their lives according to the teachings that Jesus gives to us. He is providing for us an example of what it means to be fully invested in a relationship with another person and to remain in that relationship in spite of differences.
The teaching that Jesus gives to us today is perhaps the most anti-cultural teachings for the present age in America. In the present day, we segregating ourselves more and more into more or less single-minded communities along different lines of demarcation – including political and religious. We have forgotten that being in true community – being in a common union – also means living with each other when we find a small difference between us. The common reaction to these differences in the present time is to simply leave the relationship behind and find a new community – a new group that will speak with a single mind on practically every issue – or at least on every issue of any significance. As groups form along these lines of demarcation, it also means that we are not able to live in relationship with someone that is different than us in one way or another. When I leave persons that might share a different view of one issue or another, I do not give myself the benefit of learning from another because I am no longer able to truly listen to what is being offered, and Jesus is trying to teach us that our lives of faith also must include taking the time to abide with each other just as Jesus abides with us.
The polemical nature of our culture in this age is not supported by the words of Jesus today. If we are to make Peter’s proclamation our own, I have to remain committed to being in relationship with people that are sharing different thoughts and reflections than my own. As I listen to the people that I find around me, I must start from the position of seeing Christ in them and seek to discover what Christ is attempting to teach me through my relationships. The abiding of Christ is the lesson for us to learn. It is a fidelity to relationship that is not easily described in words because it is something that needs to flow out of my heart just as Peter’s words flow out of his. The abiding love of God through Christ is what teaches me to ask for forgiveness, to be reconciled to my neighbors, and to first look for Christ in each person. It is the abiding love that I find in the Eucharist and in the life and work of Christ that teaches me that breaking common union with another because of a single issue is not the way for me to build relationship or to grow in understanding of God’s abiding love. The abiding love of God through Christ invites me to engage with people that have something to teach me, and I am able to do that by asking questions, listening to the experiences of those around me, and then reflecting on what God is trying to teach me through my relationships. If I am able to remain open to the exploration of humanity through relationship, I am able to understand that Christ abides in each of us in unique ways, and Christ is attempting to teach me the reality of God’s love precisely because Christ abides with me even when I get it terribly wrong.