Fifth Sunday of Easter: Love in Deeds, Remaining, and Bearing Fruit

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Christ, the True Vine icon (Athens, 16th Century) Source

Given how quickly the lectionary moves away from post-Easter events, it is tempting to think we “run out” of stories of the risen Christ. Yet the Church is encouraging us to re-evaluate Jesus’s whole life (and ours) in light of His resurrection. Having had the good fortune to undergo St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises this year, I want to bring yesterday’s readings and St. Ignatius into dialogue on three points: love “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18), remaining in Jesus (John 15:4-5, 7), and “bear[ing] much fruit” (John 15:8).

 

“Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)

When the author of 1 John invites us to “love […] in deed and truth,” this invitation does not come from personal accomplishment or ethical expertise, but from the experience of God acting in deeds and in truth. It is primarily theological—a word about God—and only then can it be a responsive word about ethics, personal responsibility, and what we can do. Having experienced God’s love in deeds and truth, the community must love in this way too.

But isn’t this hard to accept? If we limit God to the miraculous, the extraordinary, and the unexplainable, perhaps very few would claim this kind of friendship. Yet even this difficulty pales in the face of another one. Perhaps it is not the fact that God acts which is surprising, but that God acts with and in me. Perhaps it is not a miracle-working God who seems absent, but we who are really absent from ourselves, our stories, the ways in which “God works and labours on [our] behalf in all created things on the face of the earth” (Spiritual Exercises, n. 236).

“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4)

While undergoing the Exercises, I encountered powerful resistances to accepting this sense of God’s pervasive, trustworthy, and active love. I had previously told the story of my life in terms of “damage control.” At my core, I understood myself as selfish, arrogant, insensitive to others’ needs, frequently a jerk without knowing it, an irritant to others as much as myself. I often saw only what harm I had often done to others. My goal was to limit this harm: through silence, scrupulous manners, and North Dakotan non-assertion, I could shield others from my brokenness. It involved being someone and something other than myself, and it involved all of me to keep this fragile idol standing.

The surprising and difficult invitation of Ignatius was to see myself as “a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus” (General Congregation 32, Decree 2: Jesuits Today). Slowly, in prayer and contemplation, I could see the soil of my life turned, the anxieties about myself uprooted, the hardness of my heart broken and placed in its proper context. Where I had seen harm, I came to see God’s merciful protection. Where I had seen sin, I saw abundant mercy and unmerited love given not only by God but by my parents, my siblings, my wife, my friends, my daughter, strangers. It was Jesus’s delight to console me, to offer me peace, to share reconciliation with our Father, sisters, and brothers.

Where I had seen myself as someone who needed to be hidden, I came to see myself as someone loved, loved far more than I deserved, surely, but gratuitously, freely, recklessly loved by God and by God’s images in those people who remained with me. This was where I too needed to remain.

What might it mean to “remain in Jesus,” as John invites us to consider? Most fundamentally, it means to share in Christ’s life: to dwell where He dwells, to abide in His relationship with the Father in the Spirit, to do what He does (“keep my commandments”), even to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 14:2, 10 23; 6:56). It is to let the sap of His love and His life flow in and through us, as a vine sustains its branches (John 15:4). This life is ours to accept freely and make our own.

 

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“Ignatius and His Companions,” Campion Hall, Oxford Source

“By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8)

 

 

If Christ loves me in this way, shares His life with me in this way, the only possible response is to share my life with others. If Christ never ceases to console me, to give me peace, to build me up, to minister to my weakness and my poverty, how can I do anything other than do the same for those whom He loves, to give what I have been given? As St. Ignatius invites us to pray, “Take, Lord, and receive… All is yours, dispose of it entirely according to your will” (Spiritual Exercises, n. 234).

This fruit is not our own, but simply our response to God’s prodigal and abundant love. It is the water given to us which becomes a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). It is the five barley loaves and two fish which feed a multitude (John 6:5-13). It is the net filled to the point of tearing which we draw in at the Lord’s instruction (John 21:3-6). It is, paraphrasing Gerard Manley Hopkins, “let[ting] him easter in us, be[ing] a dayspring to the dimness of us” (“The Wreck of the Deustschland”).

Our readings challenge us then to see Christ risen and at work in our lives. If we can trace the story of God’s love acting in deed and truth for us, surely we can let God work and love in us, work for and love our families, the poor, our communities. We can, in other words, let the risen Christ and His active love “remain” in us, and if we do, God will work in us to bear fruit. Let us see Christ at work. Let us trust Christ to remain in us and to let us remain in Him. Let us pray that He will actively love others through us.

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