Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2 2011
The disciples in today’s Gospel reading ask Jesus what seems to be an ordinary everyday question, “where are you staying?”. And Jesus responds in what seems to be an everyday way, “come and see”. Presumably at that point Jesus is staying in or near a place called Bethany which is where John’s Gospel says that the Baptist conducted his ministry. We don’t actually know where that is, but it’s not the same Bethany as the one where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived, as that was near Jerusalem and rather than the Jordan.
Anyway, Jesus took the disciples to the place he was staying, and we are told they “remained with him that day”.
As is usually the case in John’s Gospel, there is more going on than meets the eye, and this passage can be read on more than one level. The key to this is the word, “remain”, “stay”, or “abide”. It’s always the same word in Greek, menon, and is a key motif that runs through John’s Gospel. It’s a rich word which means being rooted, centred, solidly and persistently staying. Where you abide is where you are real. It occurs five times in today’s reading, and if we use the word “abide” we can see how they link up:
‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abided on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and abide is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”’… They said to him, ‘Rabbi…, where are you abiding?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was abiding, and they abided with him that day.
In fact the true and deep answer to the question, ‘where is Jesus abiding’, has already been given to us in the prologue to John’s Gospel:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
And this is enlarged on by Jesus as he leads the disciples deeper into his teaching through the Gospel, that Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in him and the Spirit abides on him. And the disciples themselves, and therefore we, are invited to abide in Jesus, and so in the Father.
Our true life, where we are utterly centred and rooted and real, is found in God. This huge answer to a small question is already present when the disciples say to Jesus, “where are you abiding”, and he answers, “come and see”.
But the immediate answer to this question is in fact found in something not huge but very small. Something local and particular and ordinary, a house or room in whatever village Jesus was staying in near the Jordan where John was baptising. Jesus, in the immediate sense, is abiding there.
Our true life is abiding in God, but that is not an abstraction. It’s not a nice idea somewhere else. It has to be true in the here and now, in the local and particular, if it is going to be true at all.
Jesus is the Word of God from all eternity, and from all eternity he has been abiding in the Father’s heart. But he is also the Word made flesh. As a human being he shares fully in our nature, our bodily limitation. We are in this place and not over there. We are in this time and not in some other time. We inhabit the present time and space, the present moment. And God is fully present for us, if we will abide in him, in each present moment and place.
Therefore to abide in God we need to be present in our own lives. But so often we are not. Like James Joyce’s Mr Duffy who “lived at a little distance from his body”. We have a constant tendency to be drawn away from the present time and place. Its challenges and opportunities are too ordinary, humdrum, needing too much work, too persistent an attention. The grass is greener – on the other side of the hill. The sun will come out – tomorrow. We fly away to times and places we are not in. And so we fail to be present to ourselves and to God.
But Jesus says, abide in me. That’s the key – abiding in Jesus is where we begin to be present to God and so to ourselves. In him we begin to live truly, deeply and abidingly.
In Christ we are in the Church. Scripture tells us that the Church is his body, and that’s not just a metaphor. If we are in Christ we are a new creation, made part of a new and living body of which Christ is the head. He becomes the principle and source of our life, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and not by our efforts. And that’s important because it means this is a truth we can rely on. The Church as the body of Christ is the extension of the incarnation, the Word made flesh in the world.
Like Christ, the Church abides in God both in all time and space, and in the local and particular, in the here and now. And it is the Eucharist, the sacrament of the body of Christ, which brings this about. The Eucharist joins together the eternal and the local, the Divine and the human.
The Eucharist makes the Church. In this sacrament we become what we receive, the body of Christ. And so the Church is fully present in every celebration of the Eucharist, here and now, in this time and place, and in every time and place.
In the Eucharist our human fragmentation is overcome. We are made one body in Christ, we share one life. And this also makes us one with the Church in all the world. Here our abiding in God, in Christ, is renewed.
And this is the principle by which the world is transformed. If we are abiding in God we are also abiding, truly, in the present moment, in our daily lives, in this world with its opportunities and its needs.
The Eucharist gives us new strength to be truly present, abiding in Christ, in every moment. To be present for our neighbour, for the stranger in the street, for the lonely, for the needy, for the oppressed. To be present in the challenges and needs of our own lives, trusting that God wills us to be in the present moment whatever it may bring, because that is where God is present for us. Even if sometimes the present moment is very dark, and we cannot see quite how or why, we still believe and trust that God is calling us to abide in him, to live with his life.
At the end of the Eucharist we are dismissed with the words, “Go in the peace of Christ”. That doesn’t mean, “go away and forget all about it till next week”. It means to go in the peace of Christ, inhabiting his peace, carrying his peace. We who have been made one by this sacrament of unity are sent out into a fragmented and divided world to be agents of unity and peace.
Through the Eucharist we become the body of Christ. We abide in Christ, the source of our life, and we also abide in Christ in the world for its transformation. This is the bread come down from heaven, says Jesus, my flesh for the life of the world. May we be that body, living with the life of Christ, in the world he came to redeem, this week and always.