Abiding isn't a word you hear very often these days. It has rather an old-fashioned ring about it. After all, it speaks of commitment, and waiting, and being alongside and hanging on in there.
And much of the world isn’t comfortable with those concepts. We live in a fast-paced society where everyone is on the lookout for the next tweet; the next posting on Facebook. Where emails demand an instant answer rather than hand written letters read and re-read before a thoughtful response is penned.
And yet this evening we've heard those familiar words of Jesus, ‘abide in me’. The word is used 11 times in the space of 10 verses, so it's not just a throwaway term.
‘I am the true vine – abide in me. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit."
Vines are interesting plants. Richard is in France at the moment and will have driven past a whole variety of vineyards. Some are neatly trimmed, almost regimented. Others are straggly, their top growth looking neglected. The small vine in our garden grew at a phenomenal rate last summer – and even produced edible grapes (though not even enough to make the wine for a single communion service!). But if it is to flourish, some severe pruning will have to take place – and not just once, but time and time again.
For the vine growers of the Loire, there is also the sense of abiding. You can't plant a row of vines this year and get a harvest next. They take years to establish, to train. But with skill and patience, they will continue to produce fruit for decades, sometimes even hundreds of years. And that requires action – on the part of the farmers – and in effect, the vines!
Abide in me. The road of faith is not about a quick-fix feel-good sensation. It is about commitment, the long-haul, being willing to abide in Christ. But it's not just one way. I will abide in you, says Jesus. God's commitment to us is also the long-haul. The constant caring, the necessary pruning so that parts of our lives which have not yet borne fruit might begin to blossom into fruitfulness. But that's not a one-day wonder. It's a shaping, and growing and changing through the days, months and years of abiding in Christ. Not about just sitting back and hoping for the best.
I was glad that we had the other reading – the one from Ecclesiasticus. It's not a book often read in public worship, and I'm not particularly familiar with it. So I skimmed some of it – and there is much about the value of differing skills; how to prepare for death and live through grief. And the chapter we read this evening is, I would suggest, about abiding.
It praises the one who seeks out the wisdom of the ancients in the study of God's law – something that can't be done in just a few minutes. He (for of course they always left the “s" off in ancient texts!) abides in God's word, seeking out the hidden meaning of proverbs and at home with the obscurity of parables. Not just looking at the words but actively seeking beyond the words.
I love that phrase from verse three. Too often people take a cursory glance at Scripture, decide it doesn't make sense and then dismiss it. Or they use Bible verses as proof texts to justify events, even to induce guilt (as someone might do with verse 7 of John 15). Abiding with Scripture – learning to live with the dynamic tensions of the living Word, to be at ease with obscurity, is about being in relationship with God. Abiding with God's Word in the company of Father and Son, waiting on the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And in that abiding is revealed mystery which cannot be seen through speed reading.
Today we commemorate Richard Rolles, a 14th century mystic. In his late teens he became a hermit – an abider in God's presence. His study of theology and practice of contemplation led him to spend the latter part of his life alongside a community of nuns in Hampole, more abiders in God.
14th century Richard roles wouldn't know what to make of life in 21st-century England. But in all the changes, increased speed and seeking after experience, the call of Christ for us to abide in him has not changed.
Just as those French vines slowly grow, are pruned and shaped so that their fruitfulness is increased and continues, we are reminded to follow the example of Richard Rolles and the company of saints before and after him, to abide in the love of Christ so that God may be glorified even through our knobbly and sometimes misshapen growth. Hang on in there – abide – and be active. And pray that I and the community of the faithful might do the same.