Where Do We Choose to Remain?

5th Sunday of Easter (B) – May 2, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Acts 9:26-31; Psalm 22:26-28, 30-32; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

Where Do We Remain?

When we read this Gospel today, and Jesus eight different times talks about “remaining,” we could easily have spaced out and think he’s saying, “You do you. Remain where you’re at. Stay there. Remain. Be a good person. You’re doing fine. Remain.”

But what happens when we remain? On a purely biological, scientific level? Stagnant water, water that is just sitting there, where it’s not flowing, remaining? It’s a major environmental hazard. Stagnant water is prime breeding ground for bacteria and other things. The human body: if your blood “remained,” if your circulatory system didn’t do anything; if your neurons stopped firing and just remained—that’s the definition of death. A kid remained playing video games for twenty-two days straight—ended up dead (true story). Remaining is bad news.

But we remain in things all the time. We remain in our habits, yeah. But we remain in a lot of other things: our sins, our own way of thinking, locked in our own self, our own little world. You name it. We remain in that. We remain in good things too: our healthy diet, our job that does a lot of good for people, our marriage. Great! But ask yourself, return to your heart and ask yourself, “Do I find peace? Do these bring me a newness of life? Do I feel connected with people, or rather do I feel restless, lonely, at times a stranger to myself and my family and friends?”

I’ve said it a lot: everything is amazing, but nobody’s happy. We live, we “remain” in the American suburban dream; we shouldn’t have any problems. We want to pretend like COVID is the only problem we face. But come on. There was something a little off before COVID. Go back to your heart and ask: “In the place where I remain, do I find peace?” Because we’re going to remain wherever we think we can find that peace, that fulfillment, that sense of being connected and belonging. Often, we just remain in the wrong place. Or we remain in the right place, but we resent it and wish we were somewhere else.

Rituals Last Long After the Reasons Are Forgotten

You see that all the time! The externals of things usually last a long time after the reasons for them are forgotten, a long time after the reason caused you to do whatever. We’ve all seen people remain in a relationship long after it ended, for good and bad reasons. But you know what I’m talking about. The reason for that relationship, the reality of that relationship, is gone, even though externally things are still in place.

Or, I had one of the kids over in the school point this out in a slightly different way. They said, “Just forcing us to pray and go to Mass isn’t going to make anyone believe.” Exactly. Or think of it this way, “Just because we do externally Catholic stuff—kids in a Catholic school, go to Mass on Sunday—that doesn’t mean that we’re living it.” Many people go through the motions, but if they took a good hard look, they could admit it’s not really real. And in fact, by staying they just resent it. So again, go back to the question, “Do I find peace? Does this bring me a newness of life? Do I feel connected with people, or rather do I feel restless, lonely, at times a stranger to myself and my family and friends?”

The Invitation to Abide

We easily fall into this ritualism, this formalism—empty words and gestures. But when Jesus tells us to remain, he’s inviting us to more than just sitting around. He’s inviting us to invest our whole life, our whole self into a relationship with him. Think about the charade of a relationship: why does that happen? Because little be little, people start pulling back from one another, holding back.

That second reading, the Apostle John is calling this out. He knows our tendency. And he says, “Let us love not in word or speech,” not in lip-service, formalism, ritualism—“Let us love not in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” In other words, engage your whole life, the entirety of your life in this relationship with him, and then see how it goes.

I use marriage as an example because it’s a powerful one. A husband can be living all of the externals of marriage—putting a ring on it, providing, living in the same house—but at the same time, he’s not really there. He doesn’t remain there, he just happens to be there. Or for example, this is why the Church talks so much about the problems of contraception: looks like marital love, but it isn’t. Couples start using contraception, the guy gets a vasectomy, lady gets her tubes tied, and people wonder why the marriage seems to start hollowing out and falling apart. It’s a charade. Or someone in the relationship isn’t getting the emotional support they need, and so they start seeking that out from someone else. Marriage: all the externals can be there, but that doesn’t mean it’s really there.

A husband and wife continue to abide, remain in marriage when they recognize that it is in and through their vocation to marriage, through being with each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, loving and honoring each other, all the days of their life—through remaining even after love becomes difficult, that’s when they can look at their heart and realize they are finding peace, a newness of life; there is connection rather than restlessness and loneliness.

Marriage is a great sign of the mystery that is Christ and his Church, Christ and us (c.f., Ephesians 5), that’s why I use it. But even married couples aren’t going to find everything in marriage. There is something more.

“‘Come and see.’ And they remained with him.”

What we celebrate all during Easter is that as Christians we aren’t just called to believe certain things and follow certain rules—we are supposed to do those things! But that’s not what Easter focuses our attention on. Our attention, time and time again, is focused on an event, it is focused on something that happens, on something that still happens today.

When Andrew and John first saw Jesus, they followed after him, they were drawn to him. They don’t know why. But they follow after him. And they ask, “Where are you staying?” Literally, “Where do you remain.” Listen closely: not, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” No. “Where are you staying? Where do you remain?” They want to remain in his presence, they want to remain with him. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, let me tell you the rules about following me. Let me make sure you know what you’re supposed to believe.” No. He simply says, “‘Come and see.’ And they went and saw where he remained, and they remained with him” (John 1:39).

And after remaining with this man for hours, listening to him speak, being with him in his presence, thinking things like, “Who is he speaking like this? We have never heard anyone like this!”—after remaining in his presence, this impression forms deep within their hearts: “If I do not believe this man I won’t believe anyone, I won’t believe my own eyes!” It’s that simple. They became “Christians” (so to speak) at that very moment. When they were with him, everything changed. And they spent the rest of their life remaining with him. And why wouldn’t they? When they were in his presence, when they were with him, everything changed! Peace, newness of life, recognition, fulfillment—you name it!

During Easter, we celebrate that this is still possible—because this man rose from the dead. He is still present with us. We can still encounter him today. The question is, where do we find him? Where do we experience this? That is where we need to remain. That is where we will find this peace, this newness our heart keeps looking for.

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