Wednesday Gospel reflection: Abiding with the Word
In today’s Gospel we heard an extraordinary dialogue between Jesus and a group of ‘Jews who had believed in him’. This last point is important: we have here an antagonistic dialogue between Jesus and his own followers, not some Pharisees or anyone like that.
The dialogue begins so promisingly: Jesus encourages them to continue believing his word, to continue as disciples, and thus to receive the truth and to attain freedom. Why does it all go wrong after this? Jesus explains that they have not in fact received his word properly – ‘my word finds no place in you’ – and, worse still, they even desire to kill him. This sinful desire for violence and death shows that they are still in a kind of slavery, though they do not know it. ‘We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone’. In their pride they forget all too easily their years of slavery in Egypt, in Babylon, and even in their own beloved Holy Land. Even now they are a subjugated people, under the mighty Roman Empire. We can’t really blame them for their patriotism: who doesn’t enjoy singing Rule Britannia, boasting that we shall never be slaves; yet at the same time we gloss over how many slaves we have made in the past, and how many people are still suffering modern kinds of slavery and human trafficking even in Britain today. Let’s not delude ourselves about our own freedom, either, for we all suffer to some extent the worst kind of slavery, the slavery to our own sins, though we don’t like to be reminded of this.
So Jesus’ teaching can seem threatening because he demands a total commitment to God, leaving no room for boastful pride or self-righteousness or excessive patriotism, no room for sin at all. This total commitment to God is not a new kind of slavery, a slavery to God; rather it is true freedom because God is the ultimate source of our freedom. We find freedom in being his children, and we can do nothing apart from him, nothing unless we abide in him.
To abide in God, though, we have to abide in Christ. He is the Vine and we are the branches. Now this is what the Jewish disciples truly objected to, namely, the identification of Jesus Christ and God. Earlier in the Gospel, St John has explained why certain Jews wished to kill Jesus: it’s ‘because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God’ (John 5:18). This is the message – the word – which they cannot abide, and in which they do not want to abide. But Jesus is the true Son of the Father, the son who ‘continues for ever’. Actually, the word ‘continues’ is better translated ‘abide’. To abide means to live, to dwell permanently and loyally – thus the Son abides for ever with the Father. Even when the Father sends him forth to be with us, he never truly leaves the Father’s side.
The blindness of these early Jewish disciples is a salutary lesson to us. After denying their history of political slavery, they also fail to see their spiritual slavery to sin. Then they claim to be Abraham’s children and to be doing the will of God, while harbouring murderous intentions against Jesus. Finally, and this is truly ironic, they declare, ‘We have one Father, even God’, when it is precisely for such a claim that they want to kill Jesus in the first place!
Why do they not see that Jesus has come from God? Jesus himself explains that it is because they cannot bear to hear his word. Here tonight in Blackfriars, we have heard his word, and we can choose to receive it. If we abide in his word, if we abide in him, we will be free.
A sermon preached today at the Priory of the Holy Spirit (Blackfriars), Oxford.
Gospel reading: John 8:31-42