In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.”
Jesus is, of course, talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit – which we will celebrate two weeks from today, on the feast of Pentecost. My favorite explanation of what – or, more precisely, WHO, the Holy Spirit is, comes from St. Augustine’s treatise “On the Trinity” (De Trinitate). In answer to the question of what the Holy Spirit is, Augustine says that the Holy Spirit is the love with which the Father loves the Son, and with which the Son loves the Father. The Holy Spirit is therefore personal – the love of the person of the Father for the person of the Son, and vice versa – and the Holy Spirit is divine, the love of GOD. Thus the Holy Spirit is himself a person who is God – the “third person” of the Holy Trinity.
But more to the point, the Holy Spirit, who is God-as-love, is, as it were, the ENGINE driving the divine activity – which is love, all-conquering, all-excelling, all-creating. This is the gift that Jesus says he will give to us after his Ascension to the Father: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth…”
In the chapter of John’s Gospel immediately after the one from which today’s Gospel is taken, Jesus fleshes-out the implications of the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive the engine that drives divine activity, the divine love. Which is why Jesus says, in John 15:
“…apart from me you can do nothing” but “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
This saying, that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing, is in turn a corollary of what the Lord says elsewhere. In Matthew (17) Jesus says: “I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” And in last week’s Gospel lesson, the Lord said:
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Clearly the Lord teaches that if you have faith in him, you can do anything. But the opposite is also true: apart from Jesus, you can do nothing.
Here again is an uncomfortable teaching. And its very likely not merely our inability to do anything, apart from Christ, that rattles us. The most uncomfortable facet of the Lord’s teaching lies behind the relationship of these two sayings: In Christ, anything is possible; and apart from him, nothing is possible.
Again we find that the most audacious fact of the Gospel is Jesus himself, because he sets himself up as the wellspring of all power: it is this proclamation of himself, this outrageous claim that he is the source of all ability, all potential – he doesn’t even say that he is the source of all power for moral goodness – that might be understandable. Rather he says: “apart from me you can do NOTHING.”
The key to understanding this saying is in the Lord’s words about the vine and the branches: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…”
Jesus proclaims himself to be the source of all life, the main body of the plant through which the branches are nourished, from which life-giving nutriments are directed and delivered, and through which the plant’s health courses out to the dependent shoots. And when we are fed by Christ – when we are, in other words, receptive to what he delivers to us – when we soak up his doctrine, when we are nourished by his body and blood, then are made fruitful – we are enabled to act in such a way that others may in turn receive nourishment from us.
But without Jesus, we are like branches cut off from the main plant – unable to sustain ourselves, disconnected from the roots and cut off from nourishment. We lie there seemingly alive for a time, but ultimately and necessarily dry, withered, lifeless refuse, fit only for burning.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”
This is hard, but it is the corollary to Jesus being himself truly the life, and truly the source of all life. And this is why the most important thing is Christ himself, why we must seek him, hold to him, look to him for guidance, for strength, for nourishment – not because he punishes us for not seeking him, but because apart from him we can do nothing – apart from him there are only shadows and illusions that lead to non-being.
In Deuteronomy God spoke to the Children of Israel and said: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,” (Deut. 30.19). This injunction comes to fruition in Christ. Choosing life means choosing him.
We get a taste of separation from Christ in those moments of existential angst, those times when we indulge our feelings of despair, or hopelessness, or anger, or ennui, or dissipation, or whatever. When we use ourselves up pursuing anything apart from Christ – whatever it is: money, relationships, happiness, and even churchy, religious things. Apart from Christ, its all nothing, and it leads to further nothing. And this is why it is critical for us to form an intentional habit of SEEKING – to spend time daily in prayer, looking for Christ with our hearts and our minds, with our INNER BEING – reading the Gospels, turning over its tropes in our minds, always asking ourselves the Lord’s meaning by this phrase or that. And its why too we must often avail ourselves of the sacraments – because the Lord has promised to meet us there.
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
My favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said: “What is eternal and important is often hidden from a man by an impenetrable veil. He knows: there’s something under there, but he cannot see it. The veil reflects the daylight,” (Culture and Value, 80). Its not always easy to EXPERIENCE Christ at work in us, to FEEL his presence, to FEEL his gift of the Holy Spirit making all things possible. And it becomes particularly hard when we face difficult circumstances. And this is why patient ABIDING is necessary: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
One of my favorite stories from the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” is the following, which some of you have heard before:
“Father Lot went to see Father Joseph and said to him, ‘Father, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
That’s the difference. Apart from Christ, you can do NOTHING. Saying a few prayers, doing a little fasting, a little yoga, not bothering anyone, trying to be good… its all NOTHING apart from Jesus. But if you ABIDE in him, and if his words abide in you, then you can become all flame… you can do ANYTHING.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.