Monday, April 23, 2018

Believe or Abide?

"All you have to do is believe in Jesus. If you believe in him, you'll go to heaven."

That's what Christianity sounded like to me for my childhood and adolescence. I don't think I'd put it quite like that now, but it's not too different from the faith I hold. I do believe that faith in Jesus is how we are saved. I don't think people go to heaven because they're good, because they live by the golden rule, or because they try hard to make God happy. Effort and actions don't get us to heaven. Our faith in Jesus does. But what do we mean by that?

Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:1-8) gives us a very different way of getting to heaven. Jesus said to his disciples, "Abide in me as I abide in you." I think we underemphasize the importance of abiding in Jesus. In these words, spoken during Jesus' last meal with his followers, Jesus encouraged them to remain connected to, grounded in, and nourished by him. Jesus used the image of a vine, branches, and fruit to drive this point home. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? "Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me." It is our abiding in Jesus that enables us to bear fruit--live lives--that are worthy of our calling. And bearing fruit is the basis for God's judgment of us and our lives.

Jesus said, "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." Although I don't think the fire where the discarded branches are burned is supposed to be an image of the fires of hell, Jesus makes it clear that those branches (people) who don't bear fruit are deemed empty and fruitless and set aside by God. On the other hand, and this is where the emphasis belongs, those who remain grafted in Jesus are those who bear much fruit.

Jesus did not say to his disciples, "Those who believe in me bear much fruit." Nor did he say, "Anyone who agrees with my teachings will go to heaven." The emphasis is on abiding, and maybe that's where we should place our emphasis, too. What does it mean to believe in Jesus in the life-changing, go-to-heaven sense? It means believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that God the Father has made him Lord of all, including our lives, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the only means by which we are set free from sin and death and reconciled to God so that we can participate fully in the reign of God here on earth. That's a lot more than "All you have to do is believe in Jesus." While it's true that all one must do is believe, that sense of believing is deeper than deciding in one's mind that Jesus is a pretty cool dude. It means believing that one's true hope belongs to him.

You can't get to heaven by bearing fruit, but believing in Jesus in the sense of abiding in him always leads to fruit-bearing. Yesterday's reading from 1 John 3 reminded us that we, too, should lay down our lives in love for one another, caring for one another and meeting one another's needs. One cannot belong to God in Jesus Christ without showing that love in outward ways. There's a careful balance here that the preacher needs to walk. We aren't preaching works-righteousness, but we are proclaiming a faith--a belief--that is more than a mental exercise. It is a life spent grounded in Jesus. It is abiding in him.

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