In His Steps
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 05/10/2015
Based on John 15:9-17
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. Love each other as I have loved you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. This is my command: Love each other.”
I pulled these specific sentences from this morning’s text because they highlight three major points that Jesus is making in his farewell speech to his disciples, as he is nearing the time of his arrest and crucifixion. These three points are: 1) Love begins with God, 2) The importance of “Abiding” in God’s love, and 3) we are chosen by God to bear fruit that lasts.
As the majority of you know, I have just come back from a couple of weeks of holiday. During this time I was able to spend a few days with six of my twenty grandchildren. This particular group of grandchildren range in ages of nearly two years old to 17. It was a marvelous time of doing guy things with the two older boys, chatting some with my granddaughter as most of her time was scheduled with friends, getting to watch the 1st grader play soccer and spending time with him in batting practice. Then I had the opportunity with the two youngest on a refresher course of how to change poopy diapers. This opportunity came about with the volunteering to babysit so that my daughter and son-in-law could take advantage of having an evening out with other adults their age. What these activities represented is what it means to “Abide in”, to abide in the family setting. Believe me; you know when you’re abiding when you are changing a two year olds diaper!
We as Christians, recognize Jesus as embodying the essence of God; this is what we are saying when we say “God incarnate,” or “God with us.” But in order for Jesus to have been able to show us the essence of God, Jesus had to abide in God. This is where I would like us to focus on this morning, the importance, no the necessity of “abiding in” God. What does it mean to “abide in?” Does this “abiding” require something of me? Can I “abide in” partially or does “abide in” Jesus’ teachings mean total by in?
In this week’s View, I sent an amendment suggesting a couple of videos that could prepare you for this morning’s worship. One of the videos was about the life of a priest in El Salvador back in the 1980’s, Archbishop Romero who along with other priests were martyred for their stand on equal opportunities for the poor of their country. Those events are a part of what helped spark what we call “Liberation Theology.” The second video was based on a novel written in 1896 by Charles Shelton, a Congregational minister titled In His Steps. A fictional story about a minister who challenged his congregation to live just one year consistently asking themselves this one simple question, “What would Jesus do?”
In my very early twenties, my then, mother-in-law presented me with a copy of the novel In His Steps, which over its 119 years in print has sold over 30 million copies. I have to confess that reading this book has been one of those life changing events in my life. In its pages, I too was challenged to look at my life, evaluate what I wanted out of life, and what did it mean for me to be a follower of Christ. In the safety of its pages, I was able to visualize the joys of “abiding in” the life of Jesus as well as the hurt and sometimes harm that comes along with that “abiding”. For you see, the world in general is afraid of the power of love. It is so afraid of it that it tries to kill the type of love that Jesus is speaking about. It killed Jesus, it killed Archbishop Romero, and it subtly tries to kill it in those who work at following God’s dream for his creation.
We live in a world that is so calloused through hurt, pain, and lose that it cannot envision a world that could exist by the principle of love one another. We read in the book of Acts on how through the power of love, the Jewish-Christian community grew in leaps and bounds. The power of “abiding in” Jesus was so strong in the early church that it drew thousands of people throughout the Mediterranean to live a style of life that has grown, has spread throughout the world, and has lasted for over two thousand years. Why is it then, that in American churches we are wringing our hands and complaining about shrinking numbers? The answer I believe is found in the pages of a novel written by Rev Charles Shelton; the church has lost the belief in the power of “abiding in” Jesus. Oh, we give it lip service, but when given the opportunity to live out the teachings of Christ; of turning the other cheek, of offering our tunic when our coat has been taken from us, of sharing what we possess with those who lack, how well do we fare? That is the question and challenge in Rev Shelton’s novel.
One of Shelton’s characters explains the change in her life after taking on this challenge of asking “What would Jesus do” in this way: I used to think that to be a Christian, I had to live my life by keeping Jesus’ commands, but now I just let Jesus live in my heart. This character was able to do this because she started to “abide in” Jesus instead of living what she thought Jesus would wish her to do. Let me personalize it in this way: When Steve Mitchell stopped living his life the way he thought others expected him to live and started living the life that was true to who he was, he started becoming a whole person. The transformation within my perspective of life was tremendous. I was no longer fearful of being ‘discovered’, I was no longer intimidated by other men’s masculinity, because I discovered what being masculine was for me, but most precious of all, I found a peace that I had never known before, and that peace came through the internal sense that God loves me for who I am, not for who I ought to be.
Jesus says, no greater gift is there than the gift of love. What Archbishop Romero discovered in his ministry was that love was not just a passive word, but is a verb. Love meant giving up the power that comes through oppression, love meant standing side by side with those who were most in need, love meant providing basic necessities of food, shelter, and companionship to those who are powerless to provide for themselves.
So, as a church how are we fairing with what it means to “abide in” Jesus? Do we fall short in this walk? Of course we do. Do we have all the answers to how we accomplish our mission of sharing God’s love in our community? Of course not! But I can say that as a congregation we do take up the challenge of trying to understand what it does mean to “abide in” God’s love. Our latest opportunity in learning about “abiding in” God’s dream comes through a man named Ed. Ed is job and home challenged. A few weeks ago, during the monthly council meeting, a number of you joined in the conversation of how can we as a congregation best minister to Ed? Although the meeting felt awkward much of the time, I believe it was done in a spirit of “abiding in” Jesus. Not all of us came away agreeing with some of the proposed steps that we were willing to take. And you know what, that is fine. It is normal, for no one of us has a crystal ball that we can look into and know the answers. That meeting was a sacred conversation, and those kinds of conversations can only happen when God is involved.
As I came away from that meeting, I began to realize that our “abiding in” needed some horizon expanding. I found that we were approaching Ed from a perspective that comes from our own experiences. As I discussed this with Pastor Wayne, we realized that we needed to seek advice of those who work more closely with people in Ed’s situation. Out of that several of you joined Wayne in a conversation with Ann Klienkoft of Denver Parish Ministries. These are acts of “abiding in” God. David Cunningham, Professor of Religion at Hope College, Holland, Michigan writes: The love that structures the inner life of God gives us a sense of the proper pattern for Christian love. Far from a mere feeling of euphoria, it is a disciplined habit of care and concern that, like all the virtues, can be perfected only over a lifetime.
As a congregation, we will never fully “abide in” God because it is a life time process. As individuals who say we follow Christ and his teachings, we will never completely achieve a fullness of “abiding in” God, because it is what our journey is about. But if we start asking ourselves “I wonder what Jesus would do in this instance”, and if the answer has the action of love in it, then we will not go very wrong. For no greater love does one have for their friends than to lay down their life. Those are powerful words. Jesus went to the cross for his friends, for us, for the world. Let us do the same by walking in his steps. Amen