“I am the True Vine… abide in me as I abide in you… those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
The Dude Abides
In the movie The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges plays the title character of Jeff Lebowski or The Dude, as he is called. Due to a case of mistaken identity, The Dude gets caught up in a comically confusing mystery centering on a possibly fake kidnapping.
The Dude could be described as a lazy man; the narrator says “He might be the laziest man in all of Los Angeles County.” The story is set in the early 90s and he is sort of an aging member of the hippie generation. In the opening sequence we see a tumbleweed blowing around aimlessly, going wherever the wind takes it, and this seems to be a symbol of the way of the Dude: just going with the flow.
He has no discernible ambition, no job, no plans for the future, but also no regrets: he is in the present. The narrator later says that he takes comfort in the Dude being out there, “taking her easy for all us sinners.” The Dude doesn’t expect anything from anyone. He doesn’t compare himself with others. He doesn’t get taken in by the agendas, anxieties, labels, and definitions of others. All this results in a fundamental easeful-ness, and a basic benevolence; even a purity of sorts.
Without all the worries that beleaguer the ordinary person, he is free to simply be. The way of the Dude is summed up in his motto, “The Dude abides.” Many stressful things happen to the Dude, things that would drive a lot of us to the edge, but throughout it all — the ups and the downs, the strikes and the gutters as he puts it, or the changes and chances of this life as our Prayer Book might put it — the Dude abides.
The Dude has resonated with many people, to the point that he has become a quasi-religious figure. There is a religion of sorts called “Dudeism.” There are books such as The Tao of the Dude. Jeff Bridges said that a friend who is a Zen master told him that, among a lot of Buddhists, the Dude is regarded as a Zen master, perhaps because he is so present, spontaneous and uncontrived, letting one moment fall into the next.
Of course, following the Dude who is without any commitments, attachments, and so on, may not be practical, possible, or really even all that commendable, but nonetheless: the freedom of the Dude who abides can shed light on the freedom that comes from abiding in Christ.
The True Vine
In today’s Gospel from John, we hear this word “abide” a total of 8 times, and in the corresponding epistle reading from the first letter of John, the word gets used 6 times. That’s a total of 14 “abides” in the appointed readings for today. Jesus’ call to abide follows his saying, “I am the true vine,” and that we are the branches.
Abiding here means staying closely connected to the vine; growing strong, bearing fruit. This is nothing less than a mystical union with Christ’s life becoming our life. This has been called “mutual indwelling” — Christ in us and we in him.
This abiding or resting in Jesus doesn’t end in passivity; he says, “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit and become my disciples.” The passive quality — resting and abiding — is joined to the active life of discipleship or discipline. And so the tension between the mystical and moral dimensions of religion are resolved here: the ethical life follows from inner experience.
Interestingly, Jesus says that the path of discipleship also strengthens this mystical union even as it flows from it: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” Later, Jesus specifies: “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” There is a reciprocal flow: contemplation leading to action; action leading back into contemplation.
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
We see what it looks like to abide in Christ in the story of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch that we heard earlier. In this story, we follow Philip who, like the Dude, seems to embody a rare sort of freedom. Philip’s adventures, which we jump into the middle of today, begin after some stressful and traumatic events: Stephen, the first Christian martyr, has just been killed, followed by a persecution leading to Christians in Jerusalem being scattered into the countryside.
But despite these hardships, it seems Philip is free from fear — not necessarily the experience of fear, but from being ruled by it. Philip seems free to move on from rejection, danger, and dislocation and to simply follow the movement of the Spirit to a wilderness road. This leads him to cross paths with a eunuch from Ethiopia who had gone to Jerusalem to worship.
Philip hears him reading from the prophet Isaiah in his chariot, and so Philip begins to speak with him, and they begin to talk about Jesus, and this leads to the eunuch’s desire to be baptized in some nearby water, and so Philip baptizes him. He welcomes him fully into the people of God. This was a significant break with a rule established in the book of Deuteronomy, in the Torah, that no eunuch or anyone with similar irregularities would be admitted into the assembly of the Lord.
We see Philip’s freedom leading him to go beyond prejudice, and cultural and geographical boundaries, to include, and therefore extend freedom, to “the other,” the outcast, the rejected. It’s worth noting that even as we see the exclusion of eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible, we can also understand this story as the fulfillment of another passage in the Hebrew Scriptures: in the same book that the Ethiopian was reading, Isaiah, there is a vision of eunuchs being embraced by God.
Philip also becomes an early fulfillment of Jesus’ declaration that the apostles will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. In the ancient Mediterranean world, Ethiopia was considered to be at the ends of the earth, and this story is one of the first in the scriptures of someone outside of the fold of Judaism being brought into the people of God through Jesus. But the interesting thing is that, even though it follows so clearly from Jesus’ forecast, it doesn’t seem like any of this was planned; it simply came from Philip’s following the movements of the Spirit, which is signified at the end of the story by his suddenly being snatched away — transported — by the Spirit after baptizing the Ethiopian.
Philip here is not totally unlike the Dude, who is blown around like a tumbleweed in the wind, and indeed we read in John’s Gospel that, “The wind blows where it chooses… you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This way of following the Spirit and abiding in Christ that bears fruit in acts of love, generosity, hospitality and inclusion — this is what we are about as St. Paul’s, and it is what we are about as the Church. So, may we stay close to the source, living in Christ as he lives in us. May we grow strong, and bear that good fruit of loving one another and welcoming each another as Christ has welcomed us. May we abide as branches of the true vine amid the ups and downs, strikes and gutters, and all the changes and chances of this life. And may we know this as freedom, and as joy. Amen.