Abiding Our Time - Joseph Wood

     This Sunday, you will hear the word "abide" repeated again and again throughout the epistle reading (1 John 4:7-21) and the Gospel (John 15:18). While most Episcopalians recognize in those repetitions the archaic use of "dwell, live," the more common definition in Modern English is "to accept or act in accordance with"--and the possible tension between those two understandings is something I think is fundamental to hearing the fullness of our Biblical witness.

    As this meditation's title hints at, abide comes to us from the same root as "bide," which is really only seen in American English through the phrase "bide one's time." They both stem from the Old English bīdan and Germanic roots beyond that mean "to wait." The difference grows from the suffix ā- and its connotations of onward or continually. (For completeness' sake, the original Greek here is μείνατε [meinate] from μένω [meno], which is generally defined as "remain" or "abide.") Now, the reason I offer that etymological swarm is not just so I can make low-key "root," "stem," and "grow" puns echoing John 15:1-8, even as it's a nice perk. Rather, I name them because they would seem to have real consequence when trying to distinguish between a "branch [...] that bears no fruit" and a branch that does (John 15:2). If I am to properly abide in Jesus and his extended allusion of himself as the true vine, I want to know whether I am suppose to be continually waiting or continually acting in accordance with that truth. The figurative fire only heightens my concern.

   The question between waiting (or dwelling) and acting only becomes more complicated when we recognize it as a variation on the Reformation debate between Sola Fide (faith alone) and Works Righteousness. A very truncated summary of which would be that Protestants argued that faith alone is necessary for us to experience salvation, while Roman Catholic doctrine stated that one experiences salvation through faith and particular, virtuous deeds. As you might imagine, Biblical allusions to bearing fruit played a prominent role in that debate as theologians tried to parse just how the New Testament was inviting the faithful to be fruitful. The Protestant logic was that the natural outgrowths of faith were actions that corresponded to that commitment--as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, "the just man justices."* The Roman Catholic reasoning was closer to that of psychologist Alfred Alder, asserting that "acting as if" one is the archetypal Christian brings one closer to being a more fully realized Christian. These days, the parallel would be something along the lines of Recovery thought and the aphoristic strategy of faking it until you make it. 

    Being a good Anglican, I ultimately find merit in both understandings. There are certainly times when I almost instinctively act out of my faith, but there are also times when I have to actively try to live into being a better person and believer. So I cannot ultimately tell you whether your abiding should be active or passive as it unfolds, whether you should live in or live into Jesus as the vine from which Christianity springs. I think both are true, and I think we must continually discern where and how we need to grow--both individually and communally. Sometimes we need to simply dwell, to allow ourselves to be still in the grace that is given to us to freely. Other times, we need to strive to accept that grace more dynamically, claiming our Christian identity moment by moment as we do what we are called to as followers of Christ. After all, we Episcopalians argue that we are both Protestant and Catholic, that we chart the via media (middle way) with our Anglican siblings around the work between the seeming binaries of historical Christianity. Ours is a faith of ambiguity, and perhaps the most authentic experience of salvation we can offer up to the eternal vine-grower sometimes is to live in and live into that complexity, whatever fruits the harvest may bring.

*From the poem "As kingfishers catch fire"