Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Remain in Him

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B

In this week’s gospel, we continue with the Farewell Discourse of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel which stretches from the 14th Chapter to the 17th. Taking place just after the Last Supper, it represents a sort of last will and testament.This Discourse, like many of the discourses in St John’s Gospel proves enigmatic, as it attempts to express the mysteries of the Father by the One who alone can claim to have intimate knowledge of such mysteries, in language that is both symbolic and poetic. The whole discourse interweaves themes that readily lend to abstraction. Many of the verses are repeated several times and the discourse is rather circular. Though placed in a contextual setting that takes place before Good Friday and Easter, the discourse envisions a horizon that extends beyond Easter to life in the community of faith after Jesus is no longer visibly present with his followers.

The placement of these passages during the Easter season can seem odd. If Easter is supposed to be a time of celebration, the passages from this farewell discourse makes no apology that life after Easter is not all blissful. The risen Jesus has come to give life, yet death remains. The risen Jesus promises life with God, yet that can seem distant. The good news is not that Christians, the Easter People, will now be spared from pain and problems and therefore be able to live trouble free lives. Rather, it is the gospel that challenges the forces that threaten despair. The gift of life is given despite the presence of death. Relationship with Christ remains real despite the fact that his followers see him no longer.

In his farewell discourse as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples the last, and the most important, instruction of his earthly ministry: “love one another as I love you.” For Jesus, this love took the form of the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection. Jesus recognises the enormity of what he asks us to do and that is why he gives us the beautiful metaphor of the vine and branches that we heard in last week’s gospel. “As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.” In other words, we must stay connected to the very source of love—God—in order for us to be able to live out the command to love as God loves.

In last week’s gospel, the parable of the vine and the branches beautifully expresses the relationship between him and his disciples in terms of a living, vital and fruitful organism. Jesus reminds us, “cut off from me you can do nothing.” Set within the context of this metaphor, Jesus now clarifies in this week’s passage both the privileges and responsibilities of being branches on the Vine. The benefits of joy, love, and friendship must be answered by a return of love, as well as fruitfulness and fidelity.

But there is an important proviso: disciples must “remain” in Jesus. The life of a branch and its relationship to the Vine is best expressed by the Greek word “meno”, which is translated either "abide" or "remain." It's used many times in both last week’s passage as well as this week’s. “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” And a little further, “if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will …” This week we hear the same refrain but in a more intensified way, “Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” In other words, the mutual indwelling of the Vine and the Branches, Christ and his disciples, is made possible because of the Son’s indwelling in the Father and that of the Father indwelling and remaining in the Son.  Within the idea of “remaining” is the commitment to stay with something over the long haul, to be faithful, to endure in the face of challenges and adversity, and to press on. “Remaining” becomes the ultimate criterion for us to observe this radically new commandment to love as Christ did.

What does it mean to “remain”? One remains in Christ by means of love. We are invited to contemplate the depth of this great mystery, the gift of love offered by God to us. We are called to remain in love, in the love of Christ, in being loved and in loving the Lord. It describes a mystical union that is a way of life rather than an experience of a few key moments. It is now in this relationship of mutual indwelling that Jesus reveals his greatest commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And in case we were to mistake the nature of that love, and fail to recognise its revelation on the cross, he adds, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Yes, love is the way in which God is known as well as the ultimate empowering principle. And yet, we should sugarcoat or sanitise that love by making it something warm and fuzzy, sentimental and robbed of its edge. In fact the love of God has nothing to do with these things; rather it is about complete sacrifice. How has the Father loved Jesus? He loved him by sending him into a harsh world where painful suffering awaits and the sins of the ages will be piled on his shoulders. How then has Jesus loved the disciples? He has gathered them into a band of followers and now sends them out into that same world though they also will be rejected by many, meeting painful persecution as they spread the gospel. This is how much he loves them – he destines them toward their own cross. There can be no other way for those who count themselves as the friends of Christ. The cost of loving, the cost of being a friend of Christ lies in this profound claim, “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus did it and now invites us to do likewise.

What a profound and inspiring statement that is! This statement, and those who embody it, contradicts the pessimistic ideologies that claim life is nothing more than a quest for self-preservation. For us Christians, life is an invitation to love, and ultimately to make the sacrifice of love. Every day brings its new opportunity to “lay down our lives.” And yet when we choose to observe that criterion of remaining in Christ, observing his commandments, we will find a renewal of our strength when our own personal resources are drained. As long as we remain in Christ, as long we continue to unite ourselves to the ultimate source of our life and strength, we will bear fruit, not just any kind of fruit, but “fruit that will last.”

What is this “fruit that will last”? Pope Emeritus Benedict gives us a clue. “This is the dynamism that lives in Christ's love. To go forth, namely, not to remain in myself and for myself, to look to my perfection, to guarantee eternal happiness for myself, but to forget myself, to go forth as Christ did, to go forth like God went forth from his majesty towards our poverty, in order to find fruit, to help us and give us the possibility of bearing the true fruit of love. The more we are filled with the joy of having discovered the face of God, the more the enthusiasm of love will be real in us and bear fruit.”

Jesus then ends where he began, talking about the command to love. No one can tell us exactly what a specific act of love will look like in the varied circumstances of our lives. It can be expressed in a multitude of ways. That is a list for another homily. But we can see what a person looks like who embodies love in life and death. We can see that in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved us and chose us first, and asks us to remain in his love. That is also the best way to love each other. Let us thank God for the greatness of his love, let us pray that he may help us to grow in his love, and truly remain in his love.

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