Monday, June 05, 2006

Remaining in Christ

Monday after Pentecost

What follows is a development of the homily I delivered among the hOME Community a few weeks ago. It's germane to present themes of John 15, the Feast of Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday, which is coming up this weekend. This is not a thorough treatment, and that's intentional, as I would enjoy discussing some of the points.

"Remain in me"

The Trinitarian persons have a life that consists in the fact of their relating to one another. The Christian conception of God is one of three persons as one essence: God is a community. Ancient Eastern Christians used the metaphor of perichoresis - circle dance - to talk about the divine life of "persons" mutually indwelling and interweaving. These Johannine passages themselves have a particular cadence: to love is to remain which is to obey, and this is what it means to love. You are my friends, and friends of god, and you are my friends because I have loved you. The danger of this strange repetition is that it does little for the clichéd ways in which we understand love, even Christian love.

We spoke last week about this strange picture of a vineyard. In prophetic language, the people of God were a vineyard, and as Yahweh tended it, he expected good fruit. When his vineyard failed to produce, or did so poorly, Isaiah tells us he was prepared to uproot it and begin anew. Jesus had carried through this metaphor; a lot of branches have been already cut back in judgment upon their unfruitfulness, and as the vineyard of Israel is replanted, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are all the branches.

For those of us who have been baptized into Christ, we have a life that is made up by the way we live together. How can we know if we're being obedient to God? We look around and see if we're obeying this one foundational command: are we loving one another?

The Grand Sweep

There is the implication of judgment in this: if we do not love one another, we do not remain in Christ's love. It cannot mean that we cease to be objects of his love, but it does mean that we are separated from its benefits. In talking about love and obedience and our failures in these things, we must be very clear. I don't think we can start by talking about judgment and alienation and heaven and hell and all of that. It has to fit in somewhere, but not the very beginning.

When we talk about salvation, we're talking about a life. More specifically, we're talking about God bringing God's own life into ours - infusing our lives with his own healing presence, so that our lives become part and parcel with his own broader movement in healing and recreating the entire world. Salvation is a broad sweep, and those of us who been baptized into Christ are caught up in it. When we get caught up in that, he infuses our lives with his own, and who we are changes: we become the kind of people who learn to love others well, the kind of people who can and do lay down our lives for our friends - for God's friends - and learn to be friends of God in turn. To frustrate that in a willful and continual way would be to step out of this work and to hinder salvation in our lives: we are not remaining in Jesus.


What does this frustration look like? It is the nature of sin, and an unhealed, "unsaved" human state to be concerned with my own life, my own interests, and my own happiness. It is only a minimal conversion - at best a beginning - when we move from that to an interest in "my relationship with God." Conversion to Jesus will bring with it a radical reorientation of our entire lives: toward him, his Church, and his work of restoration and recreation in the world. A Christian life, a "remaining in Jesus" life, will be characterized by a continual reorientation of one's goals from self-fulfillment and self-actualization toward loving one another as we understand our lives as grounded in him, in the Christian community, and in this learning to love God's world.

This is a gradual and ongoing turning, and it's important to understand it as such. It is important because it makes it alright to suck at it. It should never surprise us that we fail extravagantly and often in the work of loving one another. We've been a selfish, self-centered people who are learning not to be, who are being made into something else. Let us be surprised by grace and not by failure, for our kind Lord expects more failure from us than we could ever imagine - he's much more realistic than we. The life of the Christian community together cannot stand or fall on how well we get it right, but how willing we are always to turn to one another again, to learn to forgive one another, to make restitution, and to continually build our lives together. What's so important is knowing how to deal with things appropriately when we do fail one another. That's the stuff of wisdom, maturity, and grace.


Let's talk about this "remain in me" business. This is the Johannine "eat my flesh and drink my blood" Christ. This is a Jesus who is unavoidably and unabashedly mystical. This is also good news. Jesus is not offering us the hope of cognitively appropriating some fact about himself, but the mystical experience of a metaphysical reality that is not limited to what we can see and feel and think about and comprehend. This is a mystical "heart knowing" and not just a cognitive "head knowing," this "remain in me" business.

It means that the practices of "remaining" might have a limited apparent benefit, but if we can give God permission not to make sense to us, we can be changed. We remain through our life in the community, being together for the long haul, through prayer, and of course, the Eucharist. Again, the Johannine Jesus has in mind that we eat his flesh and drink his blood.

Thomas Aquinas' ancient "Hymn to the Blessed Sacrament" (and I know I'm pushing some buttons, I just hope it's understood to be kind) sums up the formation element of Christian mysticism: "Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail."

Jesus will not be trapped by our thinking about him, any more than he will ultimately be hindering by our faltering, halted attempts to love.

There's one reason that this is true: the Trinitarian god is deeply, passionately, ridiculously, madly, bat-shit crazy in love with each and every one of us. If we don't get that, none of it makes any sense at all. Only with a solid understanding of this, and the experience of "remaining," can we start to understand what judgment is.

Further Reading:

Vindicated:"Thoughts on the Eucharist"
Alan Creech: "Remain in Me" and "We Have to be Mystics"
Vindicated: "Risking Love" and "A Matter of Trust"

I'll return to Oxford tomorrow afternoon, to congratulate Edith and Matt on the completion of their finals and greet Brad and Patrick after the long week(s) they've been gone. And where in the world is Chris…?

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888 said...

You have some neat ideas.

Chris said...

In a treehouse in southern Turkey. No seriously, I have pictures...

Anonymous said...

You just made my post-it note quote wall of fame.
For the second time.

Kyle said...

Thanks, Bruce. Welcome to my little blog.

I can't wait, Chris.

Caren, I live for that wall. I make it my own. :0)