Monday, May 11, 2009

Abide In Me

During their first missionary voyage, Paul and Barnabas caused such a commotion in Iconium that they were run out of town by Jews and gentiles who sought to stone them. They moved on to Lystra, in Laconia, where they preached the good news of Jesus, with good results, at least at the start.

At Lystra, there was a man lame from birth. Seeking that he truly believed that he could be healed, Paul commanded him to stand on his own two feet. The man not only got up, but started to walk, and jump, and dance around with joy. When the bystanders saw what had happened, they thought that Paul and Barnabas were gods. They called Barnabas Zeus, and Paul Hermes, since he was doing all the talking. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the city gates, brought garlands of flowers to greet them, and oxen to perform a holocaust on the spot!

Barnabas and Paul immediately tried to clear the air, insisting that they were not divine, but merely human. The healing was not the result of any power of theirs, but of the power of God, the same God they have known through the rains from heaven and the fruitful seasons of the earth, the one true God and father of all, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. But that only fueled the people’s enthusiasm for offering sacrifice to them. (Acts 14:5-18)

Today’s lectionary reading ends there. The people from Iconium and Pisidian Antioch then arrive in Lystra, and start telling their side of the story about Barnabas and Paul. The people who moments ago were ready to offer them divine homage now start picking up stones to cast at Paul, who is dragged out of the city and left for dead. Amazingly, when they reach him, he is able to get up and walk. After a night’s rest, they move on to Derbe, where their preaching wins “a great number of new disciples.” They appoint leaders of the newly founded Christian community in Derbe. Then they return to their home base, Antioch in Syria, where they report to the Christian community “what God had done with them, and how they had opened the doors of faith to the Gentiles.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever knows my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. My Father will love those who love me, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Then Judas (not Iscariot, but Thaddeus) said, “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us, but not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and abide with them. Whoever does not love me will not obey my teaching. The words you hear are not mine, but the words of the Father who sent me.

I have told you all this while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have told you.” (John 14:21-26)

There is a Greek verb used repeatedly in the chapters of John’s gospel which are read at Mass during this season between Easter and Pentecost. The verb has many shades of meaning, and several translations: “to stay”, “to remain”, “to live”, “to settle down”, “to make one’s home”. My preference, in this text is “to abide”.

It is a wonderful word, the German mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “It is not right to love God for the sake of Heaven, nor for the sake of anything. We should love Him for the goodness that He is in Himself. Whoever loves God for any other reason does not abide in Him, but abides in whatever he wants to obtain from Him. Therefore, if you want to abide in God, you must love Him for nothing but Himself.”

That is how we behave at home -- or ought to.  We love the members of our family for themselves, not for what they can give us, or do for us. Saint Teresa de Jesus wrote that she would like to close down both heaven and hell, so that people would love God for God’s own sake, and love other people for their own sake, not for the rewards we might gain, or the punishment we might endure. That is abiding in God.

Today’s gospel begins with the obverse of the same truth: God abiding in us. At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus says “Whoever loves me, my Father will love, and I will love. We will come to them and abide in them.” At the end of the reading, Jesus sais, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send you in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I told you.” This means that the Trinity lives in us, and we in the Trinity.

Where did we ever get the notion that God is distant from us? It may well be because the people who spoke to us about God had in mind the phrase “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. I suspect that they were not familiar enough with the Scriptures to realize that the Greek word translated “fear” is better translated “awe”. Our God is an awesome God, not a fearsome God. Or it may be that the only way they knew how to maintain discipline in their family is the way that discipline was maintained when they were youngsters themselves. In either case, the notion that “God is love” was absent from their mindset. There is a saying in French “Qui aime bien, chatie bien” [Whoever loves much, punishes much.] The former French teacher writing this recognizes a saying typical of the 16th century; the student of church history attributes the attitude – if not the words themselves, to the Dean of Geneva, Jean Chauvin (aka John Calvin).

Love unites; fear separates. It makes you want to run away. We flee from the very source of our being like frightened rabbits at the sound of the horn and the bark of the dogs. How awful! On the other hand, if we be still, and know that He is God; that He stands at the door of our heart knocking; that He stands there, patiently waiting for you to open the door and let him in. There is no need to be afraid of him. He can hardly wait for you to unlock the door. He longs for you, a thousand times more than you long for him. How awesome!

But remember: the door to your heart opens only from the inside. You can abide in Him, only if you invite Him to abide in you.

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