"The Branch cannot bear fruit by itself but has to remain part of the vine; so neither can you if you do not remain part of me. I am the vine and you are the branches. As long as you remain in me, you bear fruit; but apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not remain in me is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; and the withered branches are thrown into the fire and burned." (Jn. 15:4-6).
One of the memories I have of childhood was an old woman living in our part of the country who kept goats. Everywhere she went, the goats followed her! It was not unusual to meet her coming along the road with a dozen goats trotting along behind her. What fascinated me about the goats was that they were tied together, as they trotted along freely---but, definitely, all in the one direction!
I am aware that this is a very limping example to use when I speak of us travelling back to the Garden with Jesus! Jesus calls himself a shepherd, not a goat-herd! What was unusual about the old lady, among many other things, is that the goats followed her. You can lead sheep, and they will follow, but you have to drive goats, because they will follow nobody!
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory with all his angels, he will sit on the throne of Glory. All the nations will be brought before him, and, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, so will he do with them, placing the sheep on his right, and the goats on his left."(Mt. 25:31-33). The sheep represent those who followed Jesus voluntarily, and the goats are those who refused to follow, or who had to be driven along the path of righteousness, because of fear of domestic, civil, or divine retribution!
Jesus speaks about 'remaining in me'. In simple, everyday language, what does that mean? Let me use the example of the computer here in front of me as I write. To send messages to others, or to check on news, weather, or other data on national and international levels, I have to be connected with a telephone system that will link me up with where I wish to contact. This is called being 'on-line'. With the progress of modern technology, I can avail of what is called 'broadband', which is a permanent connection, which gives me immediate access to the facility for sending messages, or seeking information. When I am connected to Jesus, I am 'on-line', and this is definitely 'broadband'!
For many years of my life I didn't understand this simple truth. I was always connecting and disconnecting, when it came to prayer. Switching from prayer to work was like unplugging one gadget, and plugging another into the same socket. It was 'change-over' time, when time could be strictly compartmentalised. Notice, it is only my head that changes gear; the heart, lungs, etc., just continue as usual. When I discover that prayer is a heart-thing, and not a head-thing, then I continue to having a praying heart in the midst of the market-place. I could be in the midst of the maddening crowd, and still have a hermitage in my heart.
The secret here is to be deeply and constantly aware of the source of prayer, grace, gift, spirit. This is all the work of God, and God never has to change gear or switch plugs. As a source of life, love, and power, the Spirit is always available to me, and I can draw from that source in every single thing I do. To live with conscious awareness of this source, and to have a sense of being connected to it at all times, is what it means to remain in Jesus, and allow him remain in us.
"I live now, not I, but Christ lives within me."(Gal. 2:20). "You are not under the control of the flesh, but of the spirit, because the Spirit of God is within you. If you did not have the Spirit of Christ, you would not belong to Christ. But Christ is within you."(Rom. 8:9-10). "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will it be trials, or anguish, persecution or hunger, lack of clothing or dangers or sword? No, in all this we are more than conquerors, thanks to him who has loved us. I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor spiritual powers, neither the present nor the future, nor cosmic powers, were they from heaven or from the deep world below, nor any creature whatsoever will separate us from the love of God, which we have in Christ Jesus our Lord."(Rom. 8:35-39).
I have quoted at some length here, because I could not hope to improve on the powerful conviction of Paul about that umbilical chord that binds us to Christ at all times. Let me make a point, though, that needs constant stressing. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" Only ourselves can do that. When I speak of separating from the love of Christ, I don't mean that it's possible to stop that love being poured out for us. What I mean is that, of my own accord, I can cut myself off from that love, and refuse to let it reach me. There's a light over the computer here as I write, and it is also lightening up my face, and most of the room as well. I can walk away from here, walk out the side door, and be in total darkness, if I so choose. The light is still shining, of course, and, if I return to this desk, it will continue to do for me what it is doing for me now.
Jesus didn't want Judas to go out and hang himself, but he couldn't stop him, if that's what Judas decided to do. Once again, it is willingness on my part that makes everything possible. "Peace on earth to those of good-will."(Lk. 2:14). "God makes us holy by means of faith in Jesus Christ, and this is applied to all who believe, without distinction of persons."(Rom. 3:22). In other words, there are two parts to our salvation: there is what Jesus did, and whether we accept that or not. The work is done, the victory gained, the invitation is offered. The Lord them waits for our response. If we choose to remain connected to him, then we are plugged into the power that will bring us safely all the way back to the Garden.
There are many ways that help us keep connected to Jesus, and my individual preference may be the best one for me. No matter where I place the emphasis in the process, I must always remember that it is the same Spirit working in and through all of us that makes any or all of this possible. Over the years, I have had the privilege of writing some books of Gospel reflections, and I found this a very powerful way of becoming immersed in Jesus and his message. It is a continuing on-going experience, of course, and I am never going to get it together, this side of the grave. However, I have to keep going, doing something, and living something for its own sake, and not for the sake of any Brownie points I might earn along the way. Getting to know the mind and heart of Jesus is priceless knowledge in itself. The journey is an end in itself.
There was a certain element of 'Live horse, and you'll get grass' in the Religion I inherited. Life was something to be endured. We lived with the fate that befell Adam and Eve, as if Jesus had not come to undo all of that. "To the woman God said, 'I will increase your suffering in child-bearing, and you will give birth to your children in pain. You will be dependent on your husband, and he will lord it over you.' To the man God said 'Because you have listened to your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I forbade you to eat, cursed be the soil because of you! In suffering you will provide food for yourself from it, all the days of your life. It will produce thorn and thistle for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. With sweat on your face you will eat your bread, until you return to clay, since it was from clay that you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.'" (Gen.3:16-19).
Through what he has done, Jesus has changed the whole script for all time. His part of the salvation and redemption story is completed, while ours is always on-going. He is already back at the right hand of the Father, while we are still on pilgrimage. For a number of years I had the privilege of accompanying groups to the Holy Land. A pilgrimage is not exactly intended as a holiday, with every creature-comfort available at the snap of a finger. It was an attempt to walk in the steps of Jesus, and to relive these great moments in the very places where they occurred back then. What amused me (annoyed me?!) was when members of the group made a habit of complaining about the hotel, the coach, the walks—indeed, at some stage or other, the leaders and the Spiritual Director were the subjects of complaints as well!
I can well understand that people had paid a lot of money to come on this trip; some were elderly, and many were tired; some were anxious, and some were unwell. It would be unrealistic to expect that everyone should become heroic, and that personalities should change, just because we had moved to a different locale. However, with whatever sensitivity I could muster, I tried to remind people that we were, after all, attempting to walk in the steps of Jesus, and we cannot expect that this will always be easy. In fact, the hardest place to practise the gospel at times is in my own kitchen!
Eucharist is obviously a very real way of maintaining the sense of being in Christ, and Christ being in us. I open my heart as well as my mouth when I receive Communion. I welcome him into my heart, and I ask him to make his home there. This is my favourite prayer, which I often share publicly after Communion: Lord Jesus, we welcome you, and thank you for coming. We ask you to make your home, feel at home, and be at home within our hearts. Set up your Kingdom there, proclaim your victory, and hoist that flag of your victory within our hearts. Put all enemies there under your feet. Take your whip of cords and drive out anything within our hearts that's not of you. Come with us into this day, Lord. Keep us close to you, and don't let us be apart from you today. May your presence within us touch the hearts of those we meet today, either through the words we say, the prayers we pray, the lives we live, or the very people that we are.
"He humbled himself by being obedient to death, death on the cross. That is why God exalted him, and gave him the Name which is above all names, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth, and among the dead, and all tongues proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father."(Phil. 2:8-11). Repeating the name of Jesus is a very simple and a very powerful prayer. It can become like a mantra, that keeps going, completely unknown to anyone, as I go about my daily business. It is not possible to quantify the presence of Jesus, but if I am in the habit of repeating his name, then I can be assured that I am in him, and he is in me. I am connected; I am on-line.
His name is my Password, and it allows me full access to the treasuries of heaven. I can make a connection between my breathing, and whispering his name. I can associate his name with every breath I take; and, as I exhale, I can breathe out everything within that is not of him. In doing this, I have Jesus constantly in my heart and on my lips. When a little toddler begins to pick up words the first ones taught by proud parents are mammy/daddy. This is the parents' way of strengthening the bond, and of giving the baby further security. The baby may not yet know what the words actually mean, but this is the beginning of a process, and a wonderful point on their journey together.
It is obvious that if I remain in Jesus, and he in me, that I cannot go too far astray. Unlike the old woman's goats, we don't have to be tied together! To walk with Jesus is a personal and deliberate decision. Someone else said yes for me at Baptism, and, indeed, my yes of Confirmation might not have had the level of maturity required for a life-long relationship. There comes a time in my life, however, when I must take full personal responsibility for my response to my Christian calling. The secret, however, is that this is not simply just a once-off thing, but something that must be renewed with each new day. I can live to day on my yes of today. To continue to be on-line today, I had to switch on the computer this morning!