Reading 1: Acts 9:26-31
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
Reading 2: 1 John 3:18-24
Gospel: John 15:1-8
This Sunday’s gospel reading focuses on bearing fruit. God “takes away every branch . . . . that does not bear fruit.” People must remain in Christ because they “cannot bear fruit” on their own. “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” Those who don’t bear fruit “will be thrown out like a branch and wither” and disciples will be known because they “bear much fruit.”
On a rudimentary level, these statements can be taken in two problematics way. First, they can be used to justifying the exclusion or casting out of people. If they are not bearing fruit, so the thinking would go, they are not “remaining in Christ” and can be cast out. Second, Jesus’ words can make it sound like personal fealty trumps what is true and right. All one needs to do is buddy up with Jesus and one is fine. The kingdom of God becomes the cronyism of God.
As is the case with all of Jesus’ sermons in the gospel of John, the statements are not meant to be read on this worldly level. Instead, Jesus’ words are to raise up our understanding.
The first step up of bearing fruit is to understand when we are with Christ. Far from being some mystery, John’s letter, the second reading, helps us to see that being in Christ is to “love one another just as he [Jesus Christ] commanded us.” It is a love that cannot be just “word or speech” but must be “in deed and truth.” It is an active love, a love that flows from Christ, just as a branch grows from the vine.
I was once speaking to my colleague about parenting. My kids were still young, and her kids were grown. Her advice to me was, in essence, “be quiet.” Her insight has stuck with me. With too much talking, children shut down. Some of my worst parenting has come when I lose my cool, get angry at the kids for something done or undone, and lecture them. My friend’s advice to be quiet was so that I would learn to listen to my children, their thoughts, interests, and worries. Then, I would know how to respond in love. She counseled me to a Christ like love where Jesus listened to those around him – like a man who needed his daughter healed, a woman with a hemorrhage, or daughters whose father had died – and responded to their needs. Christ attended to those around him, and, if we are to bear fruit, we need to do the same.
The second step of bearing fruit is to love beyond those right around us, beyond our family and friends. We must bear fruit by loving our enemies. The first reading touches on this challenge. The disciples wanted nothing to do with Paul when he showed up in Jerusalem. Paul’s persecution of Christians had made them “afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.” It was only after Barnabas’ intercession that the disciples opened up to their enemy.
Being at a small college, there are many enemies. The disagreements over curriculum, budgets, faculty lines, and the overall direction of an institution can divide faculty, both amongst themselves and against administration. I disagree with some of the decisions the college has made, vehemently, and too readily question the intelligence and integrity of those on the other side. Thus, Jesus’ teaching stings because I struggle to find a way to love those who seem so opposed to what is good and true.
I am also embarrassed of this struggle. I know my “enemies” are far from evil and are trying to do what they believe is good. Thus, the call to love one’s enemies presents a deeper challenge to love beyond my own characterization of “enemies” and extends to those that who are genuinely a threat (so much so that I know my enemies hardly deserve the name). This does not mean we should capitulate in the face of evil. We must find a way to stop the harm that enemies do, but this effort to resist evil cannot be rooted in hate or fear. It must be rooted in a Christ like love for friend, neighbor, and even those causing the harm.
The third step of bearing fruit is the realization that we must have faith in God. We are often frustrated in our attempts to stop evil. We might be able to stop or contain aggressors with force, but this doesn’t stop the evil. The damages is still done, and the ideas persist. Even though Nazi Germany was defeated, the wounds to the Jewish people persist, the German people still struggle with their guilt, and racist ideologies endure. It is an evil that continues despite our attempts to stop it. It seems beyond our powers.
While this might lead to despair and giving up, still we are to bear fruit. We have to keep doing what is right, even if it looks like it will not work. We have to keep on trying to love others, even if it seems like it will not change the world we live in. We must continue to do justice and be merciful even if it seems it will not triumph. We are to persist in these things because of a faith in God who has ordered creation such that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, to borrow Martin Luther King, Jr.’s phrase.
Jesus’ challenge to bear fruit is an ongoing call to keep growing, bearing more and more beautiful fruit. We are to rise above our petty exclusiveness to manifest love in our families, toward enemies, and through history. We are to rise up these levels of love, even if we do not see where it will lead, because we have faith in God who moves the whole universe toward love. We must grow so that, with the psalmist, we can sing:
And to him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the Lord
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown.