As he spoke thus, many believed in him. Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
In his commentary Francis J. Moloney, SDB points out that the many who believed in Jesus mentioned in verse 30 are somehow different from “the Jews who had believed in him” in verse 31. The grammatical constructions of verse 30 “indicate that an ongoing section of ‘the Jews’ have the beginnings of belief in Jesus but still have some way to go. . . . They have come to partial faith in Jesus and remain there (perfect tense). Jesus attempts to draw them into authentic belief.” (The Gospel of John, p. 275)
Jesus, then, goes on to say that the way one is drawn into ever more “authentic belief” is by abiding in his word. A great theme in John’s gospel revolves around the question which his first disciples ask him: “Master, where do you live?” (John 1:38) Jesus invites them, in response, to “Come and see.” In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us that we live where he lives when we abide in his word. To live and to continually grow in faith we are to make his word our dwelling place.
In the Xaverian Fundamental Principles we read:
Your life with your brothers and sisters,
centered on the word and worship of God,
is a sharing
in the memory of Christ.
That shared memory of Christ is a living memory. When the Divine Word is the ground and the context of our whole life and consciousness, we become increasingly formed and conformed to the life of the speaker of that word. Faith becomes our way of thinking, of acting, and of speaking.
The words of Jesus today are a great consolation for us. In his commentary Moloney writes: “A disciple is always at the school of Jesus. ‘It is not immediate assent but steadiness of faith that gives character to genuine discipleship’ (Bultmann, Gospel 434).” The Fundamental Principles tell us that if we allow ourselves “to be formed by God through the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life,” we shall “gradually experience a liberation and a freedom never before imagined.” The context for that continual formation is the word. At every moment, in every “common, ordinary, unspectacular” experience of life, we are being formed. it is by living in an ongoing dialogue between our life experience and the word of Jesus that we come to liberation and freedom. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
We must be willing agents of our own formation. The events of life can deform us as well as form us. We can interpret our experiences in the light of our deformative as well as formative memories. We can develop a growing resentment and defensiveness as we but repeat the patterns of our past. We can attempt to manipulate and control the meaning of our experiences and to inflict those meanings on ourselves and others. Our everyday experiences, then, can harden our willfulness and our defensiveness against whatever in our lives does not buttress our present constrained interpretations if we introspectively limit those interpretations to our present and limited experience and awareness. If we make “our own heads” our home, then we are but disciples of our own unconscious.
If we abide, however, in the open, inspired and mysterious word of Jesus, we become in time, by little and by little, his disciples. Our life is not alienated and closed, it is participation in the life and mystery of the Divine. We shall always begin by having “our thoughts” about our common, ordinary, unspectacular experiences of life, but if we abide in the word and so openly dialogue and receive form from that word, our thoughts will slowly be released and be conformed, and perhaps in time transformed, into “God’s thoughts.” This is a slow and painstaking process. This is what Bultmann means by “steadiness of faith.” Our faith is always partial, but if we abide in the word then we become formed slowly but inexorably into more “authentic faith.”
It is not easy for us to make the word our home, in large part because the truth is not easy for us to bear. Much of what keeps us going through our days are our illusions. We are filled with our own ideas of who we are, what the world is, and even who God is. To abide in the word is to make our dwelling in a place without walls. It is to relate to all of life, including our own sense of ourselves and God, in the faith that trusts the ongoing work of God in us and in the world. It is trusting in what we know and what we do not know, in who we are and in who we are not yet.
The more we dwell and abide in the word of Jesus, the more it reverberates in us. It is the measure of our experience and the call to formation, reformation, and transformation to which “the common, ordinary unspectacular flow of everyday life” calls us. A great obstacle for our truly abiding in the word as a disciple is all that we’ve learned and been taught about the familiar words of scripture. So often we read or hear a word, and we already know what it means. We must always begin again to learn how to listen, to hear beyond our present interpretations to the multiple meanings the word contains, to the mystery into which it draws us. The mystery is both the mystery of our own and our world’s becoming and the Mystery of God. To be servants of the kingdom requires first that we become, through and through, disciples of the word. Focally at some point each and every day we must return home to the word if it is to become the place where we live throughout the day and throughout our lives. In that time we must abandon our “knowingness,” so that we can hear the call that resounds within the word, and allow it to reverberate in the very core of or being.
The wisdom of living that comes from pondering Scripture does not appear suddenly: it ripens in us like a fruit slowly ripens on a tree. The tree is in us; it is the tree of our hidden life in Christ; its fruits are the manifestations of this divine self in our thoughts, feelings, and daily actions. In the beginning, this tree of life is like a tree in the winter — cold and stark, without foliage, leaves, blossoms, or flowers. Exposure to scripture is like exposure to the radiance of the sun. Just as the tree begins to blossom in sunlight, so does the tree of our divine life begin to blossom in awareness and action when exposed to the light of the Scriptures. After we have opened ourselves for a long time to the Word of God, we may find this Word suddenly lighting up for us with inspirational beauty. We hear with new ears. Certain texts may now strike us immediately, texts that perhaps meant little to us for many years.
The initiative for such sparkling insights rests with God alone. We cannot force or compel them; we can only bide our time and wait in loving attention. These insights, communicated to us through our reading, are not necessarily new ideas. The ideas may be familiar. What is new is that they now give form and life to our daily existence.
Adrian van Kaam, “A Guide to Pondering Scripture,” in Foundations for Personality Study, ed. Romeo Bonsaint, pp. 528-9.