Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

May 10, 2009

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8)

“Remain in me, as I remain in you.”

The word of the Lord is not some dead letters written on a page, something meant for people 2000 years ago. The Lord continues to speak to us as we are today. The word is meant to be food for our lives now.

But if we are to hear that word and be nourished by it, if it is to give us light and direction, we need to hear it from where we are, from what we are experiencing here and


So where are we now, as this word is offered to us?

One answer to that question would be that we are in the mid-point of the Easter season. We are praying over what the resurrection of the Lord might mean for us, and looking forward with anticipation to a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a few weeks at Pentecost.

That’s where we are liturgically. As a church in prayer.

But there is another answer to where we are. We are a people in a time of great stress and anxiety and confusion. And there are strong feelings of division in the air.

It’s impossible to be unaware of the stresses in our economic situation. There are brothers and sisters living on the edge, wondering whether they will have a job – or a home over their heads – tomorrow. The situation is so threatening that we can look at a loss of 500,000 jobs and see it as ‘not so bad’ news. We see banks and Wall Street getting help and wonder about Main Street and its needs.

But I want to focus on what we are experiencing in our church. The so-called culture issues – and in particular, abortion – are back in our headlines. And there are ugly words and accusations in the air. There is a sour and mean-spirited mood hanging over us.

The immediate occasion is the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to give the graduation address and receive an honorary degree. Next Sunday, to be exact.

It has given rise to a torrent of angry and abusive words. Just listen to the vitriolic stuff on talk radio or the cable TV networks. You can see it in the letters to the editor in diocesan newspapers. And worse in the blogosphere where there are even less constraints against malicious attacks. Some bishops have turned to the most serious weapon of all for people of faith, threatening refusal of Eucharistic communion for faithful Catholics who agree with the bishops’ moral position on the evil of abortion but just happen to disagree with the political strategies they propose for dealing with it. One bishop has ratcheted up the rhetoric by saying we’re in a war!

I have two priest-friends who tell me they live in dread of going home to their families for dinner, because of the harsh climate of accusation and counter-accusation among people – on both sides. There is self-righteousness on all sides, the unwillingness and inability to even entertain the idea that the other guys might have some truth on their side. We’re all truth, they’re all error – or worse. I asked one of the priests how his Easter was and he said it was “the Easter from hell . . .”

Much of all this is unspoken. Which makes it all the more difficult to deal with or respond to, because it is unnamed. Like an unpleasant odor clinging to everything.


In the midst of this painful situation where do we turn? When we are anxious it’s natural to look for an anchor. A rock to hang on to. Let’s return to the word of the Lord. It gives us two sources of hope.

The first anchor it offers lies in the story we read in Acts: don’t be afraid, the church has been there before. The Spirit has not left the church. It’s brought us through much worse crises than this.

Just imagine that you are one of those first followers of Jesus after the resurrection and Pentecost. You’re all excited at being part of this new movement. It’s growing and it’s vibrant. You’ve come to believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. But you’re still an observant Jew and so you still attend synagogue or pray in the Temple; you still observe Jewish law and custom. But then you hear something shocking: they’re beginning to preach to Gentiles and proclaim that God’s favor is upon them! These pagans can even become full followers of the Way without being circumcised! They’re saying that maybe the 612 prescriptions of the law no longer bind us?

And then this fellow Paul shows up. We read a few weeks ago his own account of the kind of violence he had inflicted on the followers of Jesus, breaking into their homes, dragging them out and having them thrown into prison. And now he’s saying Jesus has appeared to him and talked with him, and he’s received a commission to preach to these Gentiles? What have we gotten ourselves into? Just what does it mean to be a ‘Christian?’ What do you have to do to belong? Who’s in – and who’s out?

The tension was so bad that those who were trying to impose the Law on these God-seeking converts were actually ready to kill Paul. They had to sneak him out of town and get him far away.

Fear not. We have an anchor. The Lord is still faithful. We’ve been there before. In spades.

And then we read in the Gospel from John a simple, direct statement: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” It’s telling us that in times like these we need to strip away the surface stuff and return to the basics, to the foundation.

In the reading from the First Epistle of John the anchor is clear, the message unclouded. all that really counts is that we stay rooted in our faith and trust in the Lord, and work at loving our sisters and brothers. Whatever takes us away from that is not the work of the Spirit.

Scripture scholars point out that throughout John’s Gospel Jesus finds any number of ways to tell us who he is for us. They are statements in which he uses the formula “I am,”which evokes Yahweh’s name in the first covenant. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the gate through which the sheep enter.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

And in today’s reading: “I am the vine.”

We are branches, not the vine. Every bit of life and nourishment and energy the branch needs in order to survive and flourish comes from the vine. A branch that is cut off and trying to make it on its own is useless. If we forget who we are and where our life comes from, we can do nothing.

Remain in me, as I remain in you.

The reality is that by ourselves we can’t learn to really listen to one another, to respect and communicate in trust. Our ego and self-righteousness gets in the way. We’re afraid of losing our perch on what we think is truth so we’re blind to the truth in the other guy’s position. If we let ourselves entertain that, it would mean we have to change. We would have to die to ourselves.

But Jesus, the vine that holds the source of all life, tells us it’s possible, that we can bear great fruit. If we remain in him he promises to send us his own Spirit to live within us.

And what kind of Spirit is that? Paul tells us it is a Spirit of liberty! A Spirit of expansive creativity, not some cramped and frightened spirit that hugs its identity to itself in fear of a world that appears threatening. He tells us it is a Spirit of love. A Spirit of joy – and there is precious little joy in the harsh rhetoric that surrounds us. It is a Spirit of gentleness, and patience and kindness. Ezechiel and Jeremiah spoke of God’s promise to take out of us our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.

We need to pray earnestly that the Lord will keep us rooted in his love. That the life of his Spirit will be poured out upon us so that it flows in our veins and we can recognize our common calling as sisters and brothers in the same Lord, flesh of one flesh.

And let’s pray very specially that that graduation next Sunday may not be captured by the spirits of violence and exclusion. That the Spirit of the Lord will inspire Father Jenkins and President of Obama. That he gift them with the healing balm of Gilead. With words of healing and reconciliation. Words that, even in the face of our differences, can show us the way to common ground. Words that can inspire us to gentleness and care and patience with one another.


Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me!

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.