What does the word ABIDE actually mean? Does anyone beside Christians ever use this word? We used the word abide yesterday in church when we sang the hymn Abide With Me.
Clearly that hymn was written by an enthusiast of John’s Gospel. The Johannine community material (Gospel of John and 1,2,3 letters of John) makes frequent use of the Greek word meno which is traditionally translated as “abide.”
We don’t use the word abide in everyday language; pity. If we were contemporizing a translation of the word meno we might say simply, remain or stay.
The problem with the word meno is that, although it is a verb, it doesn’t really express what we would consider an action. If I point my finger at my dog and say “stay!” she knows what that means (even if she pretends she doesn’t) and the activity she carries out is remaining where she is. Staying or remaining is a grammatical action but not a cardio-vascular one. This can be confusing.
Meno, abide is a strange kind of verb which doesn’t describe an action but rather a state of being. Such a word describes something called “aspect.” Most verbs describe an action but some describe the aspect of an action. Verbs like begin or finish are aspect verbs, almost adverbial, and so is remain/stay/abide.
Why is this important? Understanding what kind of word abide is is important because John uses this word like a million times and it is crucially important in John’s theology of discipleship.
To follow Jesus, especially for John, is to be found in the place where Jesus is. John cares a lot where people are from and where Jesus is from but it is mostly symbolic. What is important is to be where Jesus is, not just location-ally, but in aspect. To be found in Jesus or as our second lesson and gospel reading for this week suggest, to be connected to Jesus, a conduit of Jesus is the goal of discipleship.
Jesus gives a very tangible example of what this “abiding” looks like in the image of the vine and the branches. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”(John 15:4) Who hasn’t been working in the garden and not accidentally snapped off an important branch or a plant or cut the wrong vine? It doesn’t take long for the branch or vine to shrivel, it has no future if it is not connected to the sturdy rooted plant. If the broken vine is really long it can take a while for the very end of it to shrivel but its shriveling is inevitable.
Each gospel writer does more than simply recount the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They each emphasize aspects (there is that words again) of Jesus and his teaching that is particularly important for their readers to hear. So why does John’s writings in the New Testament talk so much about remaining and abiding?
Scholars are pretty certain that John’s gospel was written during the very disturbing period in the early church when followers of Jesus, who still worshipped in synagogues, were beginning to be asked to leave because of growing animosity between the Jesus-Jews and the non-Jesus Jews. No doubt those who had recently lost their association with their spiritual foundation (the community of the synagogue) probably felt literally “cut off.” John emphasized the source of life and sustenance, the true source of strength is Jesus. In Jesus they must abide in order to continue to be connected to the real source of life and strength.
Therefore even though they were displaced from their religious community their spiritual home was in Jesus. In Jesus they must abide/remain. If they remain in Jesus they will persevere.
Today the problem is not so much kicking people out of religious communities as people dropping out of these communities of their own accord. Spiritual but not religious is the phrase I often hear. I understand the meaning behind this phase. Culturally we are suspicious of institutions including religious institutions. Truly institutions, including the institution of the church, have often betrayed the trust of those they were meant to serve. But rather than give up on institutions we should revisit the purpose of our various association and make adjustments.
Jesus formed an association of disciples which became the church. There are many aspects (word again) of what developed into the institution of the church which are not essential and some may be detrimental to the community established by Jesus. But the community itself is essential. Christian individualism is kind of an oxymoron. Abiding in Jesus always has implications for abiding with one another. Perhaps our biggest challenge today is to discover new and more effective ways for our abiding in Jesus to energize our connections with one another.