May 3rd, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
Last week I received two really remarkable emails.
The first was from a man who was a student of mine a number of years
ago. We used to talk about spiritual
things, and he was writing to say that he’d been struggling for a long time and
had finally admitted he was an alcoholic.
For years he “pursued accomplishments and other avenues of escape,” as
he put it, until finally he reached a turning point, a moment of desperation,
and started going to AA meetings.
is a spiritual program, he says: “Cliff
Notes for a spiritual life: follow God,
help others, deal with your own garbage, and let God take it away, pray,
meditate.” I can’t think of a better
description of the program the gospels put forward, of the teaching of Jesus,
and I admire this man very much for his courage in entering into it. “It's pretty incredible stuff!” he says, “and hard, hard to
follow God and not follow your own agenda. I fail all the time.”
What impresses me is his resolution combined with his humility, his
recognition that he isn’t the vine,
just one the branches. “I’ve been my own
God for most of my life,” he wrote—another really striking statement, a
statement I think almost all of us could make—but now he understands exactly
what Deacon Teo was preaching last week at the 9 o’clock mass, that despite our
human desire to be independent, our need to be in control, we can never know real
freedom until we surrender to God. “Without
me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing.”
The second email was from a man I don’t know. I don’t even know where he was writing
from. He had just read something I’d written
and reached out to me online.
He’s in his early fifties, a poet and a person of faith, but although
he’s been writing all his life, he’s never had anything published. “By all the usual measures,” he says, “my efforts are a complete waste of
time . . . all my words are written on sand. “
And “it isn’t just poetry--so much of our efforts seem fruitless,” he
says, and suddenly the email takes a turn.
It opens up.
am a father,” he says, and “my daughter was killed by a drunk driver just after
she left home to begin school as a university freshman. All that labor, all that love--for what?”
wasn’t expecting this. I was surprised
and moved, and I was wondering what would come next, what this man was asking
wasn’t asking anything of me. He was
giving me something. He was giving me
his faith and his wisdom and his hope.
is how the email ends:
All that labor, all
that love—for what? But I quickly
realized that isn’t even a relevant question. I wish now only that I had spent
more of myself loving my daughter while she was alive. Something beautiful for God is beautiful even
when it remains hidden to every other eye. God invites us all to die to ourselves . . . . Love is the only thing that remains,
This is incredible, this is the real thing, the
way this man moves, in a single sentence, from hopelessness and despair to the
recognition that he was asking the wrong question, that we are all asking the
wrong question. “For God,” as the letter
of John puts it, “is greater than our hearts.”
Greater than our loss, greater
than our death, greater than our life.
the man seems to echo the letter of John when he says that he wishes he’d shown
more love for his daughter while she was alive: for this is what the Lord commands us, John says,
that we should “love one another.”
the word “remains” in the man’s email: “Love
is the only thing that remains,” he says--and in the letter of John, “the way we
know he remains,” and in the Gospel of John, “remain in me, as I remain in
am the vine and you are the branches.
For me the most important question is how we can know Jesus when he lived
so long ago and when the narratives of his life and his teachings in the four
gospels are so beautifully open-ended. We use the name “Jesus” all the time, but what
does it really mean?
think it means everything.
Because Jesus remains in us and we remain in him, because he isn’t just
someone who lived in the past but someone who is living now, because at the end
of the days of his post-resurrection appearances he ascended into heaven and
then sent the Spirit, his own spirit, to fill all the world and to fill our
hearts, and it is through the Spirit that we know his presence and know his
will. “The way we know that he remains
in us is from the Spirit he gave us,” the letter of John says, and this Spirit
is something we feel whenever we feel joy or whenever we feel sorrow, whenever
we feel something opening up in us and moving in us—when someone sends us an
email and we’re sitting reading it and suddenly our heart leaps, it expands,
and we know something in a way we can never put into words.
maybe we don’t feel anything for days and weeks and years, we’re desolate, we’re
empty. Then the way we know the Spirit
is through the people around us, through the people who send us the emails,
through the people who sit with us in the pews, through the cloud of witnesses
that has filled all the centuries since the historical Jesus walked the actual
There’s a curious and saving contradiction in the Book of Acts today. In the beginning of the passage we learn that
Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to join the community but that people are
afraid of him, and there’s all this conflict and tension, just as there is in our
lives, although in the case of Paul they actually try to kill him at one point. It goes that far.
yet the last part of the passage says that the church was “at peace.” “It was being built up and walked in the fear
of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”
How can things be so bad people are trying to kill Paul and yet the
Church be at peace?
How can the poet who lost his daughter rise to such wisdom and
compassion? How can the alcoholic find
himself and grow so much at exactly the moment of his greatest failure?
Because the Spirit is always moving, if not in you or in me at a certain
moment, in others, and those others sometimes sit down at a computer and in their
generosity and faith send us an email, to share what the Spirit has revealed in
them. And for a moment, reading it, we
know, or we suspect, or we at least glimpse the possibility, that what the gospels
proclaim might really be true.
and God is bigger than our hearts, and even in the darkness there is light, there
is exceeding light.