Abide with Me: Thoughts on Christian Unity

Broken heart shape hanging on a wire by Kelly Sikkema Unsplash

By Catherine Sider-Hamilton

Jan 22, 2020

What can be said about Christian unity in a month that has seen yet another church propose to split? (See: "The Methodist Church will probably split in two over homosexuality, and that's bad for all of us" )

I think about this question with increasing difficulty because there is a weight of sorrow in my heart. But it is upon us, intractably and practically, in deep divisions over marriage and what it means to be a faithful Christian in this time.

A few thoughts from within the midst

So I offer a few thoughts from the midst of the church’s struggle.

One of the great privileges (and terrors!) of serving at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Riverdale, is that we have two world-class theologians in the pews. After a recent sermon, Prof. Ephraim Radner said to me, “I agree with you. It is not staying that is absolute. It is Jesus. But that’s just it. He is here. We don’t go someplace to find him. He comes to us; he comes here where we are, right here into the place of our sin and division. Here he comes to us.”

That seems to me just right. But I would note this: when he comes to us here, in the place of our sin, in the midst of our divisions – when he abides with us – he asks us who love him to abide with him.

“Where are you staying?” the would-be disciples ask Jesus (John 1:38). And he says, “Come and see.” Come and stay with me. Stay: μένω. That word μένω has a long footprint in John’s gospel. It is what the Holy Spirit does at Jesus’ baptism. “I have seen the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove from heaven and resting – staying, μένω – upon him.” It is what God does in Jesus (the Father who abides in me - μένω - does his works 14:10). It is what a branch does on the vine. It is what Jesus does with his people. “Abide in me,” Jesus says to his disciples on the night he is betrayed. Abide in me, “as I abide in you” (15:4, μένω).

The disciples have seen in Jesus (before they even know it) the crucial thing: he abides. And he invites us to abide in him.

What does it mean, this abiding?

“If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father and he will give you another comforter to be with you forever” (14:15). Jesus’ abiding – here, in the Holy Spirit, forever – is intertwined with our abiding, a love for him that is known in faithfulness to him. If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says; “you are the branches.” “Already you have been cleansed by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, as I also abide in you” (15:1, 5, 3-4). Jesus’ abiding and his word; his word and our abiding, cannot be separated; it is his word that does the cleansing work which makes abiding possible.

There is an “if” in this text. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (15:10). It is possible, it seems, for Jesus to come here to us, to be here with and for and in the midst of us, and for us to turn away from him. It is possible to refuse the gift, to say “no” to the glory we have seen, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. He comes here to us in the place of our sin and pain and sorrow, a great drink of water in a desert place, and it is possible to say no.

Faithfulness is a word that is useful, as well as unity; faithfulness, and conscience, too.

It is not enough simply to stay.

It is necessary also to keep his word. This is a faithfulness that Ephraim and my colleagues here at Wycliffe show us how to live.

Surely no one wants this latest division. That it is happening again and again is a sign, in part, of the importance of the question and how deep it goes – for marriage goes right to the root of our lives, both as human beings and as Christian people. “This is a great mystery” – the cleaving together of husband and wife – “and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). The marriage of man and woman is deeply involved precisely in Jesus’ abiding with us. Marriage matters, not just as an ethical or social or justice or identity issue, but because the marriage of man and woman in Christ is a place where Jesus gives to the church his abiding and its redeeming power.

What is at risk, in turning away from Christian marriage? That we turn away from Jesus and his abiding.

These splits are only the visible outworking of a leaving that began long before. The first leaving is the turning from Christ to the world.

For that is what we see, in the new marriage ethic. It is the world’s vision. It seeks the best the world has to offer: to be equal, to be self-determining, to be fair. But it can take no account of sin, and the sorrow that haunts us. And so it has no place for a Saviour.

This new word on marriage is the world’s word. But Jesus has said, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” “I have given them your – the Father’s – word.”

He comes to us, right here where we are, in this church. He abides with us. And he calls us to abide in him. If you love me, he has said, you will keep my word.

And as we seek to do that in the midst of a wandering church, it is not necessary to see the end of the road. It is only necessary to keep our eyes on the one who is the Way. “Come and see!” Jesus says. "Abide in me."

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Catherine Sider Hamilton is priest-in-charge at St. Matthew's Riverdale and Professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek at Wycliffe College, Canada.