by Fr. Michael Cover
Homily 6 Easter (RCL, Year B)
“You did not choose me, but I have chosen you.”
Greetings in the name of the Risen Jesus!
On this sixth Sunday of Easter, on this first public Eucharist celebrated at St. Paul’s Church in more than a year, I imagine that most of us are feeling overwhelmed by a mixture of emotions—joy, grief, worry, confidence, hope, and perhaps a number of other feelings that we cannot yet name. This last year has been one of tremendous loss, but also of unexpected gains. The world around us as we knew it changed overnight. And now, here we all are again, in Springtime, and seemingly on the precipice of a yet another change of season. The signs of thaw are all around us: businesses are beginning to re-open, or loosen restrictions. Schools are finding new ways to open their doors. Summerfest has announced a slate of performers, albeit it for September. And all of us, like timid moles or rabbits are emerging from hibernation after a very long COVID winter and beginning to stick our noses out of our holes to smell the air a bit—even, at times, without our masks—to see if perhaps the thaw is real.
In a moment like this, with an exponential expansion of horizons and possibilities, the question that naturally arises: “what will I choose to do now”? As life resumes, after a long and death- like hiatus, what new life will I choose for myself? What changes to my life, what habits of prayer that grew during the pandemic like a cactus bloom in the desert are precious things that I want to hold onto? Alternatively, where do I want life simply to “get back to how it was”? What if I can’t have that “back to how it was,” in certain cases? Or should I really want anything to go “back to how it was”? Is that even possible? What friendships, what relationships should I choose to rekindle? What relationships and friendships should I leave dormant? Should I go to church again, and if so, where? Will I choose to live here, or elsewhere? What will I do with my life now?
Our situation, then, is overwhelming. Choices are, of course, at one level, liberating, and over the last year we have had too few. But now, inundated as we are with so many choices, we realize that choice can also be a tyrant, over-burdening our bandwidth and demanding decisions before we have properly had time to grieve. My wife Susanna and I have often talked over the last year of “decision fatigue”, a phenomenon that at present shows no signs of abating, but rather seems likely to get worse before it gets better.
For those of us who are and have been laboring under such choice fatigue, Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John come to us as a balm:
“You did not choose me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16).
In our world of overwhelming choices, St. John reminds us that friendship and kinship with Jesus is not something that we have chosen; neither is he a Lord that we have elected. St John assures us that Jesus is not an app that we have downloaded and might be uninstalled; and that the Church— the mystical body of Jesus in the world—is something more than a store that we once visited in the worship mall of America. No. Each of us, by the grace of our baptism, has been chosen personally by the loving initiative of Jesus to be adopted by his Father. As one modern writer has put it: the Gospel comes with a house key.
Of course, what we do about God’s choice remains up to us. We can ignore it or push it aside, or accept it. But God will not cancel us or chance his tack. In light of such confidence on God’s part, some of us may also want to question His judgement. “Why would Jesus have chosen me of all people?” we might ask. “Surely there has been a mistake. Many people might deserve to be chosen by Jesus as his friend, but not me. Not given what I have done. Not given who I am or who I have more recently become. Not given my weakness of will, my inhibitions, my fears and my frailties. My proven inability to choose to follow him and his commandments time and time again.”
Nevertheless, Jesus tells us: “you did not chose me, but I have chosen you.” And chosen for a specific purpose, as St. John continues, “that we might go and bear fruit.”
What does this mean for us, to bear fruit? The metaphor of fruit is used widely throughout the scriptures. The most obvious is of course the fruitfulness mentioned in Genesis: God commands Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” in the formation of families and the bearing of children. On this Mother’s Day, we remember all our mothers who have followed Jesus’ commandment to “bear fruit” in this particular way and devoted themselves to our care, welcoming us as guests within their own bodies and then feeding and nurturing us, physically and spiritually.
Mothers are our first teachers in what it means to go and bear fruit. And yet, there are many others. It may, as St. Paul suggests, refer to the spiritual gifts and virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faith, gentleness, self-control. To bear fruit can also mean any number of works in the world. We may choose to bear fruit through our labor or through our charity, in our homes and workplaces; in our art and in our music; in sponsoring a daycare or building of belltower. Exactly what kind of fruit has not been specified. All that is clear is that we have been chosen, and fruit is expected. And not just any fruit, Jesus tells us: “fruit that will last.”
This last condition in Jesus’ saying may give us pause. What does he mean, “fruit that will last?” St. Paul reminds us that all our plantings and buildings will be tested as through fire. And if this Jesus is the same Lord who, in the Parable of the Talents, “reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter,” we do well to consider the fruits He may expect of us, and weigh their costs with honesty.
Of course, with human beings, such fruit is impossible. We are not such skilled spiritual agrarians; all our blackberries, so lovingly stored, may yet go rotten. St. John’s Jesus, however, seems to know this, to anticipate our objection. With his command, he also gives a promise: to grant “whatever you ask of the Father in my name.”
There is, Jesus admits, no chance that our fruit will last outside the context of his choosing us. “You did not chose me, but I have chosen you. And I have established you so that you may go and bear fruit, fruit which will last. And I have established you, so that whatever you ask the father in my name He will give to you.” With humans, indeed, it is impossible; but with God, through prayer and the power of Jesus’ name, we can bear fruit that will last.
Our whole situation reminds me a bit of the situation of Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb in C. S. Lewis’ children’s book, The Silver Chair. Bullied and harassed by peers at their modern elementary school, Jill and Eustace, rather on a whim, call to Aslan the great Lion, hoping that he can rescue them from their predicament. Much to their delight, they find themselves transported through a magical door in the school gardens into the land of Narnia. There, however, instead of catching their breath, they are immediately commissioned by Aslan to search for a lost prince, who has been taken captive by an enchantress in that world. This, he says, is why he has summoned them. Jill protests: there must have been some mistake. “No one called me and Scrubb into Narnia, you know; we were being chased; and we called on someone; a certain someone; I can’t remember his name.” Aslan breathes in reply: “you would not have been calling to me, unless I had been calling to you.” He then bids the two children do, in their quest, whatever is asked of them in his name.
St. Paul’s Church: as you journey though the weeks and months and years ahead, it is my prayer that each of you would know yourselves as chosen by God; as summoned by Him and sent to bear fruit that will last. And do not forget / to ask for what you need / in Jesus’ name.