May 2, 2015

5th Sunday of Easter: Remain in Him

You’ve had the experience.  A knock on your door or the bell rings.  You go to the door, open it and there before you stand two clean cut young men in dark trousers and white shirt with dark tie.  Or maybe its two women dressed in almost Amish-like garb looking all the world like they just stepped out of an episode of “Little House on the Prairie.” 

No matter, they pleasantly smile and ask in essence if you know Jesus Christ and have accepted him as your personal savior. At that moment your Catholic spine begins to tingle and a well of thoughts flood your mind.  You either are ready to politely close the door or boldly proclaim that “I’m a Catholic and not really interested,” or you may be tempted to invite them in for conversation, or to hand them a copy of the Catholic Catechism, which you know they will refuse while at the same time offering you some of their own literature. 

In the end, the awkward encounter ends peacefully with little accomplished other than you’re hoping they do not return.  Yet, maybe the question remains.  “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”  Have you? Such folks are to be commended for their zeal whether we agree or not with their approach to spread the Gospel they surely deserve some measure of credit.  But the lingering question still needs to be answered by you.   What does it mean for us to accept Jesus as our savior?

Any choice of tele-evangelists and the well-respected Billy Graham come to mind with such a query but it is as fundamental to our Catholic faith as Christians as it is to any Protestant denomination.  The truth is, Jesus Christ IS our personal savior.  Without him, there is no eternal hope for humanity.  Our second reading this Sunday from the letter of St. John reminds us: “We should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and . . . remain in him.” By no other name is salvation possible.  All we need do is recite the Nicene Creed as we do each Sunday or the more concise Apostles Creed and one is convinced that Jesus is our savior. So to follow him is not just to follow a wise teacher in the line of great prophets or “gurus.”  To follow Jesus Christ is to enter into a relationship with him that is life producing.

All that being true, how do we personally make that choice?  The Gospel from John 15: 1-8 this Easter season Sunday presents a beautiful image which Jesus uses to reinforce the truth of our intimate relationship with him and through that encounter the life of the Father and the Spirit flows to us like a vine flows life to its branches or the trunk of a tree to its leaves or fruit. Somehow, I’m grateful Jesus didn’t say: “I am the trunk, you are the apples.”  Yet the point is the same.

Surely since ancient times as today grapevines and its delicious product (wine) have played a central role in human culture.  Jesus himself enjoyed it and displayed the first miracle of his public ministry by changing water into a fine vintage of wine. Maybe a nice Merlot or Zinfandel? 

Like a core vine as our savior his life must flow to us.  The parallel is pushed farther: “My Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” Pruning is not always a delicate process.  Rose bushes are nearly cut to their base in the fall but in the spring and summer miraculously up comes a new stalk with an abundance of fresh and beautiful leaves and flowers. Pruning is necessary to produce beauty and more life.

We are reminded the same is true in our spiritual life:  personal sin in need of forgiveness, a crisis of faith, dryness in prayer, challenging moments with our health or family relationships, financial difficulties, the sad loss of a loved one and all other such things are moments of pruning.  These are times we are invited to our knees, as many do, to see these not as curses, despite how disappointing or frustrating, but as moments when we are called to grow in faith and trust; to be pruned as it were and deepen our dependence on the Lord’s flow of life that sustains us. 

So in this clear image, Jesus invites us into a relationship with him that we may view as nuptial.  As the ideal of the sacred vocation of marriage is that man and woman join in a union where the “two become one flesh.”  Intimacy and communication is at the heart of married life.  Out of that intimacy new life is produced.  It is the marriage bond which makes that life not only legitimate but a part of a family bonded together by both blood and spirit. So, we are born (baptism) into a family (the Church) and from that family we bring fruit to others (our Christian witness).  Our first reading from Acts reminds us of how Paul found new life in Christ and his ministry is forever legendary for Christianity.

By both Word and Sacrament each weekend, or more often for some, that life of grace continually flows to us. We can refuse it or embrace it but, “without me you can do nothing.” Such is Jesus’ astounding claim upon our personal lives.  However, the promise is amazing: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Jesus is for us not only the vine but even more the word of God made flesh, the bread of life (Eucharist), the Lamb of God, the resurrection and life.  Our Catholic faith is anything but a personal devotion.  We see ourselves as united, as a “we” and not a “me” or “I.” Because of this sense of family and community so deeply rooted in the Catholic experience we may have trouble with such a singular question as: “Is Jesus your personal savior?” 

The answer is “Yes/and.”  He speaks to us in and through the community of faith and while personal prayer certainly has its place ever the same is the communal experience of inclusive Catholicism of great value.

Almighty ever-living God,
constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us,
that those you were pleased to make new in Holy Baptism
may under your protective care, bear much fruit
and come to the joys of the life eternal.

(Collect for Sunday)