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Remaining on the Vine: Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2024




“Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask.”

 

          “Follow your heart!” How many times have we heard this phrase, or at least the idea that it conveys? It reflects the modern value of autonomy, being a law unto one’s self. Follow your heart, and you will find yourself, and find true happiness.

          If you were not paying close attention, you could even have gotten the impression that St. John was suggesting something similar today in his epistle: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask.” So long as what I do seems right to me, so long as I’m following my heart, I can’t go wrong, right? I think you know the answer to that question.

          What is true in the idea of “following your heart” is that you have a conscience that helps you distinguish right from wrong. Following your conscience is a moral necessity. We have to follow our conscience when it convicts us of what we must do. But that does not mean that your heart or your conscience makes something right or wrong in itself. The goodness or evil in an action itself does not come from your conscience, but from a higher source.

          Thus, St. John tells us that, “God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.” The heart seems like a true guide, and if it is well-formed, it can be. If your heart has been trained to desire good things, when it reaches out to something that is good and beautiful, following that movement of the heart is not only good, but even necessary. For this to be the case, though, we need to be able to affirm what St. John says: “we belong to the truth.”

          Two weeks ago, we said that the goodness of what we do with our bodies is determined not by whether our acts correspond to our feelings, but by whether they correspond to reality. In that case, we were talking about what is appropriate to Christian spouses: the reality of whether or not their lives have been joined in holy matrimony, determines the goodness of many different ways in which we relate to the opposite sex. The truth of a relationship is the guide against which a behavior is measured.

          Both St. John and the Lord Himself emphasize today, though, that we are not talking about mere rule-following. “Those who keep his commandments,” St. John writes, “remain in him, and he in them.” This is so much more than being on the right side, or just having the right opinion. We are talking about whether you are in Christ, and whether He is in you.

          Christ tells us today that we must remain in Him as the branch remains on the vine. When the branch grows, there is a power flowing from the vine into the branch that makes it possible. Separated from the vine, the branch can do nothing. This is the challenging part. The branch has no self-determining power. If it attempts to be a law unto itself, to be autonomous, it dies. To grow, to flourish, to bear fruit, the branch is dependent on another power flowing out to it from the vine itself.

          This is the Christian life. Remaining on the vine, remaining connected to Christ, means that you are filled with a power that is not your own. This is consoling part. Remaining on that vine (chiefly, by persisting in a state of grace) means that there is consistently a force acting within you that you do not recognize, that things happen in and through you that are not of your own choosing, but work towards the growth of your soul and the fulfillment of God’s calling for your life.

          It is really an odd image, the vine and the branches. The branches cannot choose to bear fruit. It is not their fault if there is a drought, or if there is no sun, or if some clueless gardener cuts the vine in the wrong place. If we find that image odd, though, it is likely because we have an unhealthy obsession with choice. Something is good in our minds if it is chosen. Even people are good in our minds, insofar as they are chosen.

          We live in a world that wants to be off the vine, that wants to choose for itself. This world is seeking to replace human thought with artificial “intelligence,” marital intimacy with robots, maternal care with artificial wombs, and life-giving human interactions with soul-crushing virtual life. As Christians, we recognize the problematic nature of all these developments. But we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to keep all of our American individualism, our right to choose what we want, when we want, with whom we want, to keep the immense material prosperity we enjoy, and at the same time, not reap the fruits of what our consumerism, materialism, and individualism have sown.

          It is time for Christians to wake up to the fact that there is something rotten at the core of the American project. While attempts have been made to show that America is irredeemably racist, sexist, or classist, that is not what I am talking about. We need to stop being surprised that the American obsession with individual liberty (conceived not as the freedom of the sons of God, but as libertarian license) has ended with the freedom to define the meaning of life and the universe for oneself (as Justice Kennedy wrote in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey). A world in which a country saw its mission as maximizing material prosperity at all costs, judging the effectiveness of its leadership by the S&P 500 and the price of gas, and then conquered the world with its economic might and cultural hegemony (namely, our country), was always bound to reach this point. It did not happen because people started voting for the “wrong” political party, because people stopped going to church, or because prayer was banned from public schools. It was baked in from the beginning.

          As Christians, we need to recognize that happiness, true contentment as a son or daughter of God, comes not because of being faithful to your own choices, but from being faithful to unchosen obligations. Imagine if the branch should have the power to choose. It prefers a different trellis, a different place in the garden. But in trying to flourish somewhere other than where it has been planted, it separates itself from the vine, from the invisible source of life that comes from outside itself. But being faithful to where it has been planted, to that unchosen obligation, means it remains in the vine, remains attached to the source of life.

          My own parents cultivated in us that sense of fidelity to unchosen obligations with a list of family priorities: God, family, school, then our commitments and friends. We did not choose whether or not God exists, whether or not we would be Catholic, or whether we were or not in relation to Him. All those realities were given to us as free gifts when we were baptized as infants. We did not choose to belong to a family, and we did not choose whether we needed to go to school. Of course, there were moments in our lives when we chose to affirm those obligations, but our choices did not make the existence of God or the existence of our family, or the existence of the obligations coming from those realities any more or less real.

          Each one of us has different unchosen obligations to which the Lord calls you to be faithful, that are the key to whether or not you are remaining in the truth, remaining on the vine, remaining in Him. Examine your own conscience: Do I show joy in being faithful to the unchosen obligations in my life?

          Start with the small things: Do I find joy in Christian manhood or womanhood? Do I strive to live authentic masculinity or femininity? Do I strive to love the children God has given me? (You might have chosen to have children, but you did not choose to have that child, the imperfect one who disappoints and frustrates you.) Do I work to build up my family, respecting and honoring my parents and cultivating a positive relationship with my siblings? What about my neighbors, coworkers, my church, and my Lord? Or my obligations to myself – to offer the sufferings of illness, and bear the burdens God in His wisdom has called me to bear?

          Unchosen obligations are everywhere, and the fact that they are unchosen does not lessen their value the smallest bit. In fact, the most important obligations in life are the ones that are unchosen, because they cut to the heart of who you are as a Christian man or woman, mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister in Christ. It is in fidelity to unchosen obligations that incredible fruit is born.

 

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

V Sunday of Easter, A.D. MMXXIV

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