Abiding and Freedom: A Lenten Meditation

I have so appreciated the Sunday dramatizations at Cornerstone and the literary pieces on the blog during this Lenten season. They’ve reminded me to read my Bible not only with a critical mind, but with a creative one as well. So as I contemplated this section of John’s gospel last week, I tried to put myself in the shoes of one of the unnamed women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples. How would his teachings have sounded if I were a sister to Simon the Zealot? What would it feel like to watch Jesus heal if I were one of the women he had healed as well? What would I think of his parables if I came from a family of fishermen...or of tax collectors?

As a woman in ancient Israelite culture, I would be well acquainted with the feeling of being a religious outsider. Mosaic law would require regular ritual cleansing for many of the basic bodily functions of being female, and the social structure would have restricted my participation in the most holy places of the temple. But the women who followed Jesus weren’t the only outsiders. In fact, many of the disciples themselves were marginalized in their own ways. Instead of surrounding himself with the elite of society, Jesus called regular, broken people to follow him. And so when Jesus teaches in the temple, this mixed group of followers is listening. In John 8, Jesus sets a new bar for religious life: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”

The word “abide” is rich with meaning. It can be used for the life-giving connectedness of the vine and its branches, or to describe continuing on a certain path, but the word picture that particularly compels me as I consider this teaching is that of dwelling in a home. In what seems like a cosmic act of hospitality, Jesus invites us to dwell.

We recently moved to a new home, and as I get to know my new space, I am struck by how the places we occupy can profoundly affect us. The layout, the furnishings, the occupants all play their part in shaping our experience. They can add to or detract from feelings of being boxed in, safe, relaxed, overworked, you name it. They can provide opportunities for community and respite after a hard day. Over time, we become intimately acquainted with the features and flaws of our imperfect homes. We know the cracks and scuffs (as well as the stories behind them) and how to navigate to the bathroom with our eyes closed. Dwelling most certainly involves familiarity.

Jesus explains that his followers should dwell in familiarity with his word. Certainly, abiding in his word includes reading the teachings of Jesus in our Bibles, but in some ways it is more profound than that. John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the Word. From the beginning He existed with God, and He is the manifestation of God’s truth, the container in which all reality about the world is delivered to us.

Career Christians may be familiar with the idea of inviting the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts, but what Jesus describes in this passage expounds an equally powerful and opposite image. In a way, we are actually called to make our home in Jesus’ heart—learning the history, exploring the rooms, and enjoying the beautiful views that only knowing Jesus can provide. To abide in Jesus is to live in truth—not just as a temporary visitor, but as part of the family. Just as we get to know every nook and cranny of our earthly house, abiding in Jesus reveals rich and deep perspectives of the truth. When we choose to dwell in this profound truth, we discover a freedom beyond imagination.

In this same conversation, Jesus explains that our sin reveals the home we grew up in. It is not active sinning that causes enslavement, but rather our identity—full of greed, lust, pride, and ultimately a desire to be king over our own lives—that inspires our sin. To put it another way, we are all born not as sons of God, but sons of the father of lies, the devil. We grew up in the house of sin and are thus slaves to it. Just as a small child unconsciously mimics the habits and behaviors of his own parent, we are indoctrinated by deceit and don’t know how to behave any differently. Yet, Jesus provides another way. He promises adoption as sons, inviting us to dwell with Him and teaching us how to live as He does. By his death and resurrection, Jesus pays the priceless adoption fees required that we might join the holiest family, calling the perfect and just God, the creator of the universe, our Father.

When a woman in ancient Israel married, she would move into a new home to abide in the house of her husband, taking on a new identity and purpose. And here is Jesus, inviting us to come live in His holiest house, to join the family of freedom. We are no longer required to live on the outskirts of religious life, but can instead draw near to God and live freely in our new home.