Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2024
Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
All Saints Episcopal Church, Worcester

1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Earth Day: Abide in love

My message today boils down to three words: Abide in love. I hope you’ll keep listening, but I will confess right up front that everything I have to say will be a riff on that. Years ago, when I was in seminary, someone told me that a preacher should never say the word “love” in a sermon unless the readings assigned for the day clearly justified it. It’s advice I’ve ignored in pretty much every sermon I’ve ever preached, but if any day called for preaching about love, today would be the day. By my count, the word “love” shows up in some form a full 29 times in today’s passage from the First Letter of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…” (1 John 4:7-8). And so on.

And there’s another word that gets almost as brisk a workout in today’s readings: the word “abide.” That one shows up 14 times in our readings from the Letter of John and the Gospel of John. Put them together, and here’s what you get: “Abide in love,” and John himself will say it: “Those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b).

At All Saints Church, Worcester, with the Rev. Sam Smith (Rector) & the Rev. Meredyth Ward (Priest Associate)
Abide in love. There’s rich meaning in those words on every level. To start with the most interior level, what would it be like for our minds to abide in love? Our minds are often quite scattered and distracted, jumping from one thing to the next like drops of oil bouncing on a hot frying pan. Moment by moment our minds are looking ahead and making plans; now they’re looking back into the past; now they’re analyzing and judging, having opinions about this and that: I like it, I don’t like it.

Abiding is different. Abiding in love means that our agitated, jumpy minds learn to become steady so that we can rest in the present moment, giving everything we do our full attention. Abiding in love can mean what’s sometimes called practicing the presence of God: we find ways throughout the day to keep bringing our awareness back to God’s loving presence, maybe by repeating the name of Jesus or by bringing awareness to our breath, consciously breathing in God’s love every time we inhale. Abiding in love can mean taking regular time to pray alone and in silence so that we can listen to the inner voice of love that is always sounding in our hearts. We tend to think that we have to reach out for God, as if God were far away, a distant destination we will eventually reach, maybe after we die. But in fact, as many spiritual teachers attest, through an attentive practice of quiet prayer we come to realize that God already abides within us, that God is our Source and is simultaneously within and beyond us.

Abide in love! What an invitation that is to go through the day with an intimate sense of God’s presence!

The invitation speaks at a wider level, too, in our relationships with other people. What would it look like if you were abiding in love in your contact with others? Abiding in love might mean renewing the intention to be honest and vulnerable and real; it might mean listening carefully to someone, offering encouragement and support, trying to “be there” for the other, even if it comes at a cost to ourselves; it might mean the hard work of admitting mistakes, of apologizing and making amends; it might mean reaching out in love to those who are different or forgotten, to the stranger, the marginalized, the lost. Abide in love – that’s about creating and cultivating relationships that flow from the love that God’s Spirit is always pouring into our hearts (Romans 5:5).

But there’s an even larger level to think about: what might it mean to abide in love in relation to the living world around us? Jesus invites us in today’s Gospel to abide in him as he abides in us. To express that intimacy, he uses an image from nature: he is the vine, and we are the branches – that’s how close we are to him. Have you ever noticed how many of his parables and stories use natural images?  I think of him speaking about sheep and seeds, about sparrows, lilies, weeds, and wheat. Jesus lived close to the Earth. In the Gospels we see him walking along the seashore and up mountains, taking boats out on the lake, spending weeks alone in prayer in the wilderness. Jesus understood the inherent sacredness not only of human beings but also of the whole created world, all of it lit up with the presence of God.

And his life, death, and resurrection was good news not only for human beings but also for the rest of the living world. The Bible tells us that God loved the whole world into being, sustains all things through the Holy Spirit, and through Christ redeemed and reconciled all things in heaven and on earth “by making peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:19). Protecting the Earth that God entrusted to our care is not just an “add-on,” a sideline or optional hobby for a few Christians who call themselves “environmentalists” – it is central to being Christian.

So, when Jesus says, “Abide in love,” I hear a summons to take hold of the deep ecological meaning of what it means to follow him. We need to hear that call to abide in love, for we have broken faith with the living world. Our society’s relentless extraction and burning of coal, gas, and oil is pushing our planet wildly out of balance. Every living system is in decline and the web of life is unraveling before our eyes. The world keeps breaking records for heat, and last year was the warmest year on record, by far. We now live in a world where atmospheric rivers can fill the sky and a month of rain can fall in one day; where wildfires can be so intense that they create their own weather; where hurricanes can be so fierce that we need to create new categories for storms. It’s not surprising that many of us can lie awake at night, wondering what the future will hold for our children.

So – now is the time to reclaim our God-given connection with the earth. Now is the time to renew our union with God and all God’s creation, which includes not just our human fellows but all living creatures and the larger eco-systems on which we all depend.

I hope you’ll join me after the service to talk about what we can do. Now is the time, as theologian Sallie McFague would say, to recognize that the world is not a hotel, but our home.1 When we visit a hotel, we may feel entitled to use copious amount of hot water, to throw towels on the floor, to use and discard everything in sight and then to head to the next hotel – in short, to exercise what she calls the “Kleenex perspective” of the world.  But when we realize that in fact the earth is our home – that God created it and loves every inch of it and entrusts it to our care – then everything changes. We realize that we live here; we belong here; we can no longer tolerate a lifestyle that exhausts the planet’s resources and that treats land, sea, and sky alike as receptacles for waste.

In a few moments we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything within us and around us can be lifted up and blessed – not only the bread and the wine, but, also, we ourselves, and the whole creation, every leaf of it and every grain of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive at last not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, all beings are blessed. Everyone and everything are part of a sacred whole, and all living things are kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, as something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth, a people who abide in love.


1. Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, p. 53.