May 18, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday of Easter
Reading I (Acts 9:26-31) Reading II (1 John 3:18-24)
Gospel (St. John 15:1-8)
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord tells us that we must remain in Him because apart from Him we can do nothing. Now this is quite a statement because we know that there are lots of things we are capable of doing, but those are all things on the natural level. He tells us that He Himself is the true vine and we are the branches. And we all know that if we went out and cut a branch off a tree, it looks healthy for a few hours, but then with no life getting to it, suddenly it starts to wilt and after a short period of time it is dead. Now we can all look back in our own lives and if we have ever fallen away from the Lord, we can say, “But I didn’t die!” But spiritually we did. And we can all admit that spiritually there really was not anything good coming out of us in those times. While we could continue to operate on a natural level – and even that is only because of the goodness and mercy of God – we could not operate on a divine level. And since that is our dignity, to be able to operate in a supernatural manner, this is what Our Lord is talking about. So the only way we can really live according to the fullness of our dignity as members of Jesus Christ is to remain in Him.
The real question that we need to ask ourselves is: Do we want to do that? Objectively and in theory, I suspect all of us would say “yes”. It sounds like a wonderful thing to be able to operate on a supernatural level, to be able to operate in a divine manner, to live and be in a divine way. That sounds pretty marvelous to us. But then when it comes time to put it into practice, we are not so sure if that is what we really want to do. Sadly, most of us like the way the world is a little too much. We like to be just like everyone else. To be elevated and operate in an elevated manner would make us a little different than the people who are around us – different in a very good way, but different nonetheless. And that is where most of us balk at the Lord’s invitation. So what most of us do is that we like to have one foot in both camps, if you will. We do not want to walk away from the Lord, but we do not want to bear fruit for Him either. We like to be a branch that is connected onto the vine with no fruit coming forth. Our Lord tells us in the Gospel reading what happens to those branches: His Father will cut them off and they will be thrown into the fire. I do not think I need to explain to you what fire that is going to be, and for all eternity. We have an obligation to bear fruit for Jesus Christ.
Too many of us, I think, simply take our salvation for granted. Since most of us were baptized into Christ and were taught about the Faith from the time we were little babies, it just does not seem to mean a whole lot to us. That is, it does not mean what it really ought. Too often we do not really stop to consider what it is we have been saved from. We look at the forgiveness of our sins and we are grateful to the Lord for having done that. But do we ever stop to really think what it is that He has done for us? We look at a crucifix, which for most Catholic people is something that they see many times every day, and after a while we just do not pay a whole lot of attention to it. We think about the fact that we want to go to Heaven, but perhaps we do not really stop to think that the death of Jesus Christ has freed us from the bondage of Satan and from everlasting condemnation.
When we really stop to think about these things and when we are convicted with our sins, then we begin to recognize what it is that He has done for us and the kind of gratitude that we owe to Him. When we understand this, then we will bear fruit for the Lord because we will recognize it is not just enough to sit off on the side and make claims about our Catholicism but not really put it into practice. But rather, when we understand what He has done for us, then we recognize that there is a necessity to respond in like manner because we recall that He gave us a commandment, and that is to love one another as He has loved us. We are to do for one another what He has done for us. That is where the difficulty comes for most of us. We like what Jesus has done for us – we do not like the concept of having to do it for someone else. And so again, we really need to look at this and ask ourselves seriously what is required of us of the Faith that we profess.
In both the second reading and the Gospel, we hear about the fact that if we remain in Christ we will be able to ask whatever we want and it will be given to us. And there is a point in the second reading where Saint John talks about how if our hearts do not condemn us then we have confidence with the Lord. We need to be very careful how we understand that. We can numb our conscience and say, “Our hearts do not condemn us for anything!” But we know better than that. When Saint John tells us that we cannot simply love in word but we must love in deed, we cannot simply talk about it – we must do it. We are called to live lives of holiness, lives of prayer, lives of self-sacrifice, lives that are placed at the service of others. These are the deeds that Our Lord is seeking.
In our culture, those are not popular things, but I think if we look at the first reading we will see that in the culture 2,000 years ago they were not popular things either. Saint Paul, in talking with the Greeks, the Hellenists, we are told that they tried to kill him. We can look further on in Saint Paul’s life and see the cost that the Gospel was for him. He was stoned and beaten with rods and whipped and all kinds of things that happened to him. We look at the apostles and we see that eleven of the twelve of them were martyred, Saint John being the only one who was not; but they tried a couple of times and it did not work. So they finally just tossed him out in a cave on the island of Patmos and let him sit there. We see that it has never been a popular thing to be a true Catholic – and it never will be.
But it is a question of whom we want to please, God or men. Those who want to practice Minnesota Nice do not want to please God; that would not be very nice, after all. Someone might be offended because we are really living our faith. “What would people think if I talked about Jesus? What would they think if I actually wore a crucifix so people would see it? What if they saw me praying in a restaurant or in the lunchroom? Well, people might not want to talk to me anymore.” Praise God! If that is the reason people do not want to talk to you then we need to praise God for that because obviously those were not the kind of people you should have been associating with in the first place.
At the same time, you do not know what kind of effect you are going to have on people. Now I am not talking about being arrogant about it, being in somebody’s face and being obnoxious about your faith. I am simply talking about living it! What would happen if on break you took your Bible with you and read from the Scriptures for a while? What if you were actually seen making the Sign of the Cross before you ate your lunch? These are things that tragically make us nervous. Why? There was a person I was talking to not too long ago who was driving down the freeway and saw that a car was pulled off to the side of the road. And there behind the car on a little mat was a Muslim man saying his prayers because it was the time and the hour for prayer. So he pulled over to the side of the road, and in front of all of creation, there he was kneeling out on the shoulder of the freeway saying his prayers. How many of us would be willing to do anything similar to that? I am not suggesting that that is what we ought to do, but I am just simply using that as an example of someone who put God ahead of what everybody else thinks. He obviously did not care if hundreds of people were driving down the freeway and thought that he was insane for kneeling out there next to the freeway.
How seriously are we really taking our faith? Each one of us needs to look very seriously at that question. Are we bearing fruit for Jesus? He commanded us to do that, to go out and bear fruit that will last; and not just a little bit, He told us to bear great fruit. Are we doing that? Keep in mind that the vast majority of people who convert to Catholicism, when they were asked why they converted, their answer was a very simple one: It was because of the example of someone in their life who was a Catholic who was living their faith. Now it is not necessarily a litmus test to ask yourself how many people have become Catholic because of your example, but it certainly is a question that we can ask ourselves: “Would anyone become a Catholic by my example, according to my words, according to my actions, according to the way that I live? Would anyone recognize the Catholicism that is there and would they want to be a Catholic because of me?” Those are some legitimate questions we can ask.
When the Lord tells us we have to love in deed and not just talk about it, it means to put our faith into practice, not just on Sunday morning but at every moment of every day, to put Jesus Christ as the top priority in our lives and to live the Faith that we profess. That is what He is asking of us. When we stop to think about the love that Our Lord is asking of us and then just think about love on a natural level, when a young man falls in love with a young woman, he does not care if the whole world knows about it. He will trip all over himself to do all kinds of things to impress this young lady, and she kind of doing the same on the other side. They will clear their schedules to make sure they put the other one as a priority. They will spend all kinds of money on roses and gifts and all sorts of things, even if they do not have it. They want to show their love to the other person, to demonstrate that there is something real here. But when it comes to Our Lord, it is not an infatuated kind of love that He is looking for; it is a real, true, deep, and profound love that He desires, a love of union of persons which can only come in prayer, a love which brings Christ out into the world and brings Him to others, a love which calls others to a deeper conversion, to a deeper love for Christ, a love which, out of charity for others, will point out their sins and help them to grow in virtue. These are the kinds of things that Our Lord is looking for from us.
That is what it means to not merely talk about it but to practice it, to take what it is that we know is right and to put it into practice, and to change our lives to become like Christ, the true vine into which we are grafted and the only means by which we will bear fruit. The Lord makes very, very clear to us that the only branches that will remain are the ones that bear fruit. He expects it of us, He requires it of us, and He asks us to do for others what He has done for us. Look at the crucifix; see the love of God in its fullest form. And do for others what He has done for you.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.