Abide “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” – Jn 15:5
Of all the subjects in the world, perhaps no one subject has had more ink spilled by so many diverse sources, with so many competing agendas, than the one exploring the nuances of love. And of all those who have set stylus to slate, vellum, or paper – few, if any, have been more eloquent on the topic than the Thirteenth Century Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi.
Of it, he wrote, “Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.” Those of you who have allowed yourself to experience love know that it is the riskiest of indulgences. And yet, unlike other indulgences – those little luxuries we could do without – love is an imperative, as the vastness of Rumi’s metaphor implies. Love is like spiritual oxygen we breathe in deeply, in order to sustain the life of our spirit.
The word “inspiration” is derived from the Latin, in spirare, to “breathe in.” This is itself a loan-word derived from the Greek, penuma, which means both breath and spirit. So it is when God “breathes into” the dust, in the Genesis account of creation, the dust takes life and becomes a human being. The spirit has taken lifeless matter and made life, through the loving self-emptying of God. Similarly, one of Jesus’ first acts when he appears to his disciples after the resurrection, in John’s account of the Gospel, is to breathe on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit,” as a way of commissioning them to continue his work. And, thus in-spired, they proceed to do just that.
This vision of the atmosphere itself saturated with divine love; of love as the being and identity of both God and the created order derived from God, is beautifully rendered in those timeless verses from the First Letter of John, which we heard read today. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” The potency of love is what makes it both risky and essential. When we make a decision based on love, we know that we are, to a certain extent, throwing caution to the wind – where, Proverbs reminds us, the Spirit blows where she will.
And still we don’t care, for love impels us to approach nearer to its source, like a nail to a magnet. The open expression of love permits mutual vulnerability, allowing for the integration of emotion and intention between the subjects. Hence, love is also the fount for compassion, for ethics, and for hope. And yet, love is a complicated phenomenon – rather than nail to magnet, think moth to flame. Human beings will tell lies for love. They’ll surrender careers and security for love. They’ll suffer all sorts of indignities for love.
Human beings will die for love, and they will kill for love. Love provokes heroism and fearlessness. Love incites jealousy and rage. Love raises red flags, and it raises white flags. The lives of Rumi and Jesus are separated by over 1200 years. One lived and died as a respected Sunni Muslim scholar, poet, and Sufi mystic. The other was a wandering Jewish spiritual teacher and wonder-worker, killed for upsetting the religious and political status quo. And yet both shared and beautifully articulated the most important of insights: that love is the fibre of the universe, because it is a creation made of the loving intention of God. And just as God experiences the pain of love lost, and love betrayed; so we share that same familiarity with being abandoned by love. Is it any surprise, then, that some of us eventually decide that it is easier on the spirit to stop risking love, and its attendant hurts? No, not surprising at all. But is it, really, easier?
I am struck by the many rustic and pastoral portraits Jesus paints in his teachings. Whether he is likening his followers to sheep, for whom he, as the model shepherd, will risk death – as we heard last week; or, whether those followers are more akin to the branches of a grape vine, bearing sweet, abundant fruit with careful husbandry; Jesus sees in the natural world the organic cycles of love. In this respect, I do not see love as ever lost, even when it is betrayed. I see it broken down and recycled into wisdom, which can be applied like fertilizer to the growth of a deeper and more fertile love. To this end, there is another quote by Rumi that is meaningful to me. He observed, “The ground's generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty. Try to be more like the ground.”
This calls to mind the parable told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, in which the gardener pleads with the owner to spare a poor, barren fig tree; until he has a chance to lay manure around it to help it bear fruit. We can view the experiences we have had as something once living, now dead and entombed. Or we can see them for what they are – as the nutrients integral to our identity, and the ground from which we grow a future of affirming, expansive love.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The word, “abide,” unites this reading with John’s discourse on love – which gives us more than a clue about who this Jesus is, in whom we are bidden to abide. He is God incarnate; and, if God incarnate, then he is also love incarnate. Love, carefully tended root and branch, fertilized by manifold grains of love and pruned by the wisdom and discipline of God, bears much fruit.
And so I want to conclude with one last quote from Rumi: “A great mutual embrace is always happening between the eternal and what dies, between essence and accident.” God is the eternal; you and I are the chance events embracing that essence. What we do with that love which holds us, which breathes into us, which conveys identity and being on us; and who abides in us; is ultimately a test of faith. As we journey through this Paschal season, I invite you to engage in a deep meditation on the meaning of love in your own life as you meet this test. How do you distill the many experiences of love in your life – the agonies and the ecstasies – into a life of kindness, compassion, and hope? Do you enfold others in your embrace of the eternal? How does love define you, in both its expression and its denial, even as you try to draw borders in a vain attempt to limit its influence – the influence of that which abides in you? God is love, and we are God’s branches. What fruit will we bear? Amen.