One of the words we use a lot in the United Methodist Church is the word “Connection.” Yes, we are a connectional church. Our founder, John Wesley knew the source of the power of those connections. That source, of course, is God our creator, sustainer and foundation of our being. Just like electric devices, if we are not plugged in, or in Wesleyan terms, if we are not connected to God through prayer and worship, we have no power. We’ll get nothing done.
So, the question is: “Are you connected?” If I ask this question to Jonathan and Elizabeth, they would say, “absolutely,” without hesitation because they are always connected to Instagram. Of course, you know, I am not talking about social media, here. Our Lord, said, “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.” He said this during the Last Supper with his disciples, so it is one of his last words.
How do you and I become connected to the true vine? And once there, how do we summon up the capacity to bear much fruit? Which branch am I? Am I the good branch that bears much fruit or am I the branch that bears no fruit and will soon be thrown into the fire? These are all important questions for this morning’s reading and the key word is “Abide.”
In verse 4, Jesus says, “Abide in me.” The word abide is used 8 times in today’s text. He says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
Abide. It means to dwell, to live your days, remain in . . . rest in the love of God.
How would such a thing change the way we live each day? What if we lived, not in the frantic urgency of what is required of us, but rather in the knowledge of God’s love for us. To abide is not effort, it is gift. It is the way we live in the presence of a loved one. We abide with them even when we are separated. They are never far from heart and mind, and the thought of them brings an aching peace and healing. When we are in their presence, or in God’s presence, words are not often required.
For me, the Contemplative Prayer is a great way of abiding in the presence of God. In the Christian tradition Contemplative Prayer is considered to be the pure gift of God. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only a part of prayer. We need to listen from God. To listen, we need to open our hearts and minds – our whole being – to God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.
The main goal of Contemplative Prayer is bringing my presence into the presence of God. As you know, con means together; temple means indwelling. Dwelling together with God! This is not just a conversation with God; it is communion with the living God. When I practice this prayer life, I experience indescribable peace and healing… and sometimes, joy as well! I don’t know why or how. I just can’t explain it. Because it has been so good and helpful to me as I continue my journey, I want to share my experience with all of you.
How can you dwell in the presence of God? We need some preparation, discipline, and practice. You can’t just say “Abracadabra 123!”
During our worship service, from time to time, I invite you to a very brief breath prayer session. By itself, the breath prayer is a good contemplative prayer. According to church history, in some monasteries many years ago, the monks were expected to be in this prayer for all day. Nothing else! Just breath prayer… for all day long. Their prayer was “O Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me, the sinner,” known as the Jesus Prayer.
I try to have two daily prayer sessions that last usually 20 – 30 minutes. One in the morning and another one just before go to bed. I usually begin with breath prayer (my favorite is “Be Still and Know (that I am God).” and then move to other types of prayer, for example, imagination prayer, lecio divina, centering prayer and so on. By the way, if you can join our next Bible Study, you will have a chance to learn about the imagination prayer and actually practice and experience it.
A couple of weeks ago when we had our Bible Study, I mentioned about our images of God and how they affect our prayer life. If my primary image of God was the Judge who will gather the dried up branches and throw into a fire, I would not want to be in the presence of God. Rather, I would run away and hide. Right? Thankfully, my image of God is not the Judge, but a loving, caring and supporting companion. No wonder I want to be with God all the time!
One of the requirements of confirmation is writing one’s personal affirmation of faith. Last week, as we review their first drafts, Veronica asked, “Pastor Tom, why should we do this?” I know it’s a very heavy subject and very boring thing to do. But, I believe it is really important, especially for our young people, to be ready to face any challenge from their peers who have no faith in God. Or, in my opinion, the worse is challenges from Christian friends who have a fundamentalist view on everything.
For example, there have been many groups of Christians who were obsessed by the second coming of Jesus. On my college days, they came to me and asked, “Are you one of the chosen 144,000?” They believe only the chosen 144,000 will be lifted up to heaven on the Judgment Day and the rest will suffer horribly for thousand years. These folks believe that the American popular culture is controlled by the devil. So, if you watch a movie or listen to a popular song, you are actually worshiping the devil. Of course, this is nonsense. But, for those who believe in this, it is a very serious matter and the social consequence of this kind of belief is very unfortunate, sometimes, even dangerous. I know personally several ivy-league graduates who live very unproductive life because of their fundamentalist view on life and God.
Who is God for you? Creator? Sustainer of life? One of my friend’s car has a bumper sticker which reads, “God is my co-pilot.” What do you think? Is God the source of all goodness and beauty? Or, the Lord of judgment day? The sound theology affirms that God is a judge. It is also affirmed by our gospel lesson as well. But, if we only focus on this, it becomes problematic.
It is my prayer that all of you can experience what I am experiencing in the loving, sustaining presence of God. Let me tell you a story. When I served a church in New Haven, we offered a weekly contemplative prayer meeting. Not many came to this prayer meeting, but for those who come, they really loved it. One day, as I concluded the session, I led a guided meditation. And the last part of the meditation was to invite the participants to rest in the presence of God. After several minutes of silence, I said, “When you hear a gong, you may open your eyes if you are ready.” Guess what? I noticed everyone opened their eyes, except one person. This person, Marion Sachdeva, simply did not want to conclude our session; she just wanted to rest longer …. in the loving presence of God. All other participants waited patiently, but there was no sign that she wanted to open her eyes. I hated to do so, but I had to ring the gong again, because somebody had to lead the group. Finally, she opened her eyes, took a big breath and said, “It’s so good.”
Friends, it is so good to be in the presence of God. And you and I are invited to abide and dwell in Christ. I hope you can join the Psalmist who says: “If I ascend to heaven you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
Part of what it is to be a branch is to dwell in the vine. And here’s my last thought. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” I think this could be a concept that is a little difficult for Americans who were raised in Anglo-European culture. You are taught to stand on your own two feet. You are taught to rely on yourselves. The best help you have is at the end of your own arm. And yet, this text says no.
This text says, the secret of abundant and fulfilling life is in acknowledging that you are a branch and you need to be attached to the vine. There is no room for rugged individualism in this text. Instead it says, “Abide in me.” Over and over again. Abide in me. Live in me. Dwell in me. Trust in me and count on me, for all things. You will find your life — in me.
Let us listen to our Lord’s last word one more time. ”I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Amen.