Saturday, May 16, 2009

If You Keep My Commandments: To "be" rather than to "do" -- A Homily for Easter VI

Homily for Easter 6, Year B, 2009
Sunday, May 17th, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: John 15:9-17

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”
--John 15:10

To keep the commandments of God; this is what we take to be the essence of our Christian life. Indeed, back in the fourteenth chapter of St. John, Jesus himself says, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” The keeping of commandments seems to suggest the taking up of a task, the doing of certain duties, the following or keeping of a code. I suggested last week, in our reading of John 15:1-8 (Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches) that we might be overly tempted to understand the concept of “bearing fruit” as the concept of living out a life of good works. I do wonder, though, if we miss the point of his words if we unduly focus on Christian “duty” rather than Christian “being.” Now, there will be many that will respond that “good works” are the natural response of those who respond positively to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they would not be wrong in their assertion. The Church has long maintained this theological position and indeed, faith without ensuing good works would appear to be a meaningless dead faith. To this view I wholeheartedly subscribe, and yet there seems to me to be something of a chasm between faith and the work of faith, and this chasm is exacerbated by our societal obsession with doing. The evidence of our value and worth in this world is that we produce something of value. I expect that this is the ultimate result of the Industrial Revolution and the age of consumerism. Unless I produce something that people want, find useful, and will pay for, I am of little value to the rest of humanity. Is it so far a stretch, then, to ask if this loathsome estimation of our human worth as participants in a society obsessed with productivity is not frequently applied to our spirituality and life of faith?

As a Church that finds at least a portion of its identity formed in the womb of Protestantism, we are clear that “good works” do not buy us our salvation. We are clear that is by God’s grace alone and through our faithful response to that grace that we find ourselves to be his redeemed children. Yet, why are we so obsessed with works? On the one hand we may say that they have nothing to do with the attaining of salvation, yet on the other we still count ourselves worthless if our faith appears to bear no fruit. The problem seems to me to be that we have a very narrow understanding of what “bearing fruit” might mean. This skewed understanding is intensely shaped by a world that identifies intrinsic value in productivity. Thus, the evidence of a lively faith will seem to be for us a proliferation of churchly activity, of service to the community, of endless programme opportunities, of doing, doing, doing. The implication being that if our lives are full of doing this will be the evidence of a faith-filled life. The corollary, of course, is that if I do not pack my days with good works and productive activity, I have no evidence of my faith. I wish to reiterate, I do not see good works as bad. On the contrary, a lively faith will indeed lead the Christian person to an intense desire to live out the gospel in works of charity and activity. Yet, good works are simply that, a living out of the gospel, not the evidence of faith.

What then, does Jesus mean when he commends us to keep his commandments? Of what does he speak? He speaks, of course, of love, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Love is more than doing. Love may cause us, and even drive us, to act in certain ways, to do certain things, but at the core of its essence, love is really about being. Thus, we can say that “I am in love,” or “we are in love.” Love transforms us, changes us, and affects our very being. Love works on us, on our very being and our very existence. This is the reality to which Jesus speaks when he says you did not choose me, I chose you! To be in love is to be in Christ, for it is Christ who affects our hearts, inhabits our being, and transforms us. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love. The commandment is not so much an order to “do” but a invitation to “be.” It is the experience of the abiding presence of our Lord with us always. What is more, we experience the same love of the Father for the Son, for as they abide in each other; so now in Christ the Father abides in us and we in him. In this is the joy of Christ made complete, and is our joy made complete. And consider this: “joy” is another word of being rather than doing.

Thus, as I asserted last week, the fruit that we bear is Christ abiding eternally amongst us in the world. It is the fruit of love and the fruit of joy of which we, and those around us partake. The fruit is not to be hoarded, just as it (unlike so much in our modern age) is not grown for personal gain. It grows and ripens for the purpose of sharing, the purpose of nurturing, and the purpose of existential and eternal fulfillment for the whole world. If we try to hoard the fruit of love, the fruit of joy, and yes, even the fruit of hope, we will fail. The fruit will fall to the ground and rot, its life-giving purpose perverted. The fruit of the vine is for the life of the world and the healing of the nations. To this end, Jesus says “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Love is something to be given away, not hoarded. When love, the fruit of the vine is given away, more will grow. When love, the fruit of the vine is given away it nourishes the one who receives it and it gives life. Love begets love. It is something to be enjoyed and something in which we abide.

Thus, it is true that love will cause us to live out our lives in acts of love. Love will cause us to bear the fruit of love in our lives, and yes, love will lead us to good works. Let us never forget, though, that works are not in and of themselves the fruit of the vine, the fruit is Love itself in the person of Christ. When we find ourselves consumed by the doing of this life, and when we begin to mistake what we “do” for the essence of Christianity, then let us recall what Jesus said: “I do not call you servants but friends.” To be a servant is to work, to define ourselves by what we do; to be a friend is to be defined by what we are. To be a friend is simply “to be.” And what marvelous fruit grows from branches that abide in the friendly vine of Christ.

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

No comments: