C Cycle – 5th Sunday of Easter 19
Jesus in the upper room the night before He died talks with his disciples and one of the things, He says to them and to us is “apart from (Him) we can do nothing.” Yet one of the things we do in our spiritual life is exactly the opposite. We take charge and decide for ourselves how we can become holy men and women, how to be better people. We decide what is right, what is wrong, what is sin and what holiness looks like.
Lately, I seem to have had conversations with people who have a desire to feel forgiveness for things they regret doing in their past – things they cannot forgive themselves for doing and desire to feel the forgiveness of God setting them free. Their guilt is overwhelming them, and it seems to drive them further away from the one who can free them and into further despair because they fear condemnation.
Where do we start to understand the forgiveness God has promised us? I believe it begins with a fundamental spiritual truth given to us in the very words of Jesus we hear in the gospel today – apart from him we can do nothing.
We have this tendency to look at our weaknesses as permanent flaws that we succumb to constantly and we cannot see a way to change ourselves by any other means except by trying every spiritual means at our disposal. If we do that, we are not relying on the very means God gave us to become holy and that is by the Spirit of God transforming our heart. We do not become holy by doing but by receiving. If we embrace the vine, acknowledging we are the branches who can do nothing on our own, we will feel the freedom of knowing those failings have already been forgiven by God.
How can we look at ourselves and see or better yet feel the uplifting words of God as He created us telling us how good we really are?” Do we feel like we are the crowning glory of God’s creation or do we feel like we want to hide from God? Do we see ourselves reflecting the image of Jesus Christ as God promised us, we are destined to do? Yet it seems we continue to feel as if we will never overcome our evil desires and feel as if we are continuing to fail to please God? Those feelings can only drive us to strictly control our spiritual lives or avoid the Christian community altogether.
You know early in the churches history this view of our humanity as evil was resisted as heresy. The Gnostics and Manichaeans viewed the body as evil, corrupted so much so that the soul needed to be shielded or protected from this evil body. The soul was in danger of being forever tainted by this evil body of ours. That concept was totally rejected by the Church who acknowledged the soul and body are not evil, and Jesus came to not only save our soul but to redeem our bodies. Jesus’s words “apart from me you can do nothing” should remind s holiness and redemption was achieved by the love of God through the death of Jesus and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
How do we avoid making the mistake the Apostles were making when Paul appears before them after his conversion with the desire to join them in proclaiming the good news? They did not accept him, they rejected him because they did not believe him. Don’t we tend to flock to those who tickle our ears and with whom we agree with and dismiss or reject those whose message challenges us to move out of our comfort zones and see how God desires us to be continually growing according to His plan and not remain as we are now?
This gospel today is a call to open our eyes and see the only way to discover the love of God, the forgiveness of God and the mercy of God is by allowing the Spirit to guide us. Paul, who was rejected as not having a true conversion, gives us a clear way to discover these things in his letter to the Galatians, “… the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another so that you may not do the things that you please but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:17-18).
Let us go back to those things we see in ourselves that condemn us as failing to live up to the standards God desires of us. Things which are typically sins of the flesh, our cardinal desires of lust, greed, pride, self-centeredness and envy. When the scriptures speak of the flesh, they are not speaking of our body created in the image and likeness of God but instead the scriptures are referring the things we do to distort our natural human desires. Sexual intimacy is a natural human desire, but lust motivates us to distort this natural desire in a quest for self-gratification.
Those who deal with psychology of humans tell us we have this desire to be recognized and be acknowledged and rewarded for those achievements. These desires are a natural part of being human and pride does not drive them. But pride can drive us to bully others in the quest for recognition, to denigrate them and it causes us to refuse to submit our wills to God. When Jesus was telling us “apart from me you can do nothing” He is bluntly telling us growing as disciples is not possible if we have spiritual pride that what we are doing is better than any other way to grow in holiness.
The entire reason God sent us Jesus Christ is to change our hearts so we would not look at our human weaknesses and beat ourselves up as never being able to rid ourselves of sinful acts. He sent us Jesus to show us the way to the freedom of God’s forgiveness for our failings and to show us the way to continue to grow in holiness by following the prompting of the Spirit.