1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8
Last week I received two really remarkable emails.
The first was from a man who was a student of mine a number of years ago. We used to talk about spiritual things, and he was writing to say that he’d been struggling for a long time and had finally admitted he was an alcoholic. For years he “pursued accomplishments and other avenues of escape,” as he put it, until finally he reached a turning point, a moment of desperation, and started going to AA meetings.
AA is a spiritual program, he says: “Cliff Notes for a spiritual life: follow God, help others, deal with your own garbage, and let God take it away, pray, meditate.” I can’t think of a better description of the program the gospels put forward, of the teaching of Jesus, and I admire this man very much for his courage in entering into it. “It’s pretty incredible stuff!” he says, “and hard, hard to follow God and not follow your own agenda. I fail all the time.”
What impresses me is his resolution combined with his humility, his recognition that he isn’t the vine, just one the branches. “I’ve been my own God for most of my life,” he wrote—another really striking statement, a statement I think almost all of us could make—but now he understands exactly what Deacon Teo was preaching last week at the 9 o’clock mass, that despite our human desire to be independent, our need to be in control, we can never know real freedom until we surrender to God. “Without me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing.”
The second email was from a man I don’t know. I don’t even know where he was writing from. He had just read something I’d written and reached out to me online.
He’s in his early fifties, a poet and a person of faith, but although he’s been writing all his life, he’s never had anything published. “By all the usual measures,” he says, “my efforts are a complete waste of time . . . all my words are written on sand. “
And “it isn’t just poetry–so much of our efforts seem fruitless,” he says, and suddenly the email takes a turn. It opens up.
“I am a father,” he says, and “my daughter was killed by a drunk driver just after she left home to begin school as a university freshman. All that labor, all that love–for what?”
I wasn’t expecting this. I was surprised and moved, and I was wondering what would come next, what this man was asking of me.
But he wasn’t asking anything of me. He was giving me something. He was giving me his faith and his wisdom and his hope.
This is how the email ends:
All that labor, all that love—for what? But I quickly realized that isn’t even a relevant question. I wish now only that I had spent more of myself loving my daughter while she was alive. Something beautiful for God is beautiful even when it remains hidden to every other eye. God invites us all to die to ourselves . . . . Love is the only thing that remains, after all.
This is incredible, this is the real thing, the way this man moves, in a single sentence, from hopelessness and despair to the recognition that he was asking the wrong question, that we are all asking the wrong question. “For God,” as the letter of John puts it, “is greater than our hearts.” Greater than our loss, greater than our death, greater than our life.
Notice how the man seems to echo the letter of John when he says that he wishes he’d shown more love for his daughter while she was alive: for this is what the Lord commands us, John says, that we should “love one another.”
Notice the word “remains” in the man’s email: “Love is the only thing that remains,” he
says–and in the letter of John, “the way we know he remains,” and in the Gospel of John, “remain in me, as I remain in you.”
I am the vine and you are the branches.
For me the most important question is how we can know God when he lived so long ago and when the narratives of his life and his teachings in the four gospels are so beautifully open-ended. We use the name “Jesus” all the time, but what does it really mean?
I think it means everything.
Because Jesus remains in us and we remain in him, because he isn’t just someone who lived in the past but someone who is living now, because at the end of the days of his post-resurrection appearances he ascended into heaven and then sent the Spirit, his own spirit, to fill all the world and to fill our hearts, and it is through the Spirit that we know his presence and know his will. “The way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us,” the letter of John says, and this Spirit is something we feel whenever we feel joy or whenever we feel sorrow, whenever we feel something opening up in us and moving in us—when someone sends us an email and we’re sitting reading it and suddenly our heart leaps, it expands, and we know something in a way we can never put into words.
Or maybe we don’t feel anything for days and weeks and years, we’re desolate, we’re empty. Then the way we know the Spirit is through the people around us, through the people who send us the emails, through the people who sit with us in the pews, through the cloud of witnesses that has filled all the centuries since the historical Jesus walked the actual ground.
How can the poet who lost his daughter rise to such wisdom and compassion? How can the alcoholic find himself and grow so much at exactly the moment of his greatest failure?
Because the Spirit is always moving, if not in you or in me at a certain moment, in others, and those others sometimes sit down at a computer and in their generosity and faith send us an email, to share what the Spirit has revealed in them. And for a moment, reading it, we know, or we suspect, or we at least glimpse the possibility, that what the gospels proclaim might really be true.
God exists, and God is bigger than our hearts, and even in the darkness there is light, there is exceeding light.