Sunday, May 06, 2012

How to Stay Connected—to Jesus

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 6, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 9: 26-31; 1 John 3: 18-24; John 15: 1-8.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Easter 2012]

This homily is about “staying connected.”

Now this is a topic that should be of interest to most of us, because this is precisely what most people in the modern world spend most of their waking hours trying to do!

We live in an age of what’s commonly called “social media”.  The term “social media” includes things like Facebook and Twitter and regular old email, the primary purpose of which is to help people stay connected to each other.

However, the sad irony is it doesn’t seem to be working!  In fact, generally speaking, it all seems to be having the exact opposite effect!  It’s appears that the more social media options we have—and use—the more distant we tend to get from one another.

Our social media are leading many of us to social isolation.  “Interfacing” has become a common substitute for “people-facing”!  Now don’t get me wrong, interfacing isn’t bad in and of itself—I, for example, email people throughout the day; it’s become a very important part of my priestly ministry.  But this kind of thing does become a problem when it almost totally replaces person-to-person contact and interaction!

Telling 10,000 people through Twitter that you’re about to take a bath is not the same as actually having a conversation with another human being!

To really “stay connected” with other people, we need to go beyond the kind of interaction we get through the social media.

And, believe it or not, something similar is true of our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our Lord calls himself “the vine” in today’s gospel text from John 15, and he refers to all of us as “the branches.”  That’s not a coincidence.  The branches need the vine to live: we need Jesus Christ and his saving grace to live eternally.  But we also need the Lord for everything else in life—even for things that we would normally call “natural”.  As Jesus says here, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”  And, as St. Paul reminded the Athenians, in God “we live and move and have our being.”

So a relationship with Jesus can’t be optional; at least it can’t be optional if we want to reach our ultimate goal of heaven, and if we want to live this earthly life to the fullest.

Now most Catholics and other Christians will readily acknowledge this.  They’ll have no problem admitting that having a relationship with Jesus and “staying connected” to him is essential.

The problem comes in actually building that relationship and sustaining it!  Well here’s where the analogy of the vine and the branches—and the analogy of the modern social media—become very helpful.

As I just said, Jesus makes the point here that our relationship with him is like the relationship of branches to a vine.  Well, as every gardener will tell you, for a branch to remain on a vine—and flourish—and produce a lot of fruit—two things have got to happen:

1.      The branch has to avoid being cut off; or, if it does get cut off for some reason, it has to get grafted back on

2.      It has to get enough nourishment

And that’s precisely the way it is in the spiritual life.  Branches (that is to say, people) who produce great fruit for Jesus Christ are people who, first of all, don’t allow themselves to get cut off from the Lord through mortal sin (or, who, if they do get cut off, get “grafted on” again as soon as possible by making a good confession). 

Believe me, nothing pleases the devil more than when we either ignore or deny the serious sins in our lives—because the devil knows that those sins sever us from Jesus, the vine!  And think of how often this happens today!  Serious sins like hatred, adultery, fornication, self-abuse, artificial birth control, homosexual activity—even missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation: these are now socially-acceptable sins that are committed a lot more than they’re confessed.

But avoiding and/or dealing with mortal sin is only half the story.  As Christian “branches” on the vine of Jesus Christ we also need nourishment (just like branches in nature need nourishment).  This is where prayer comes into the picture, and it’s also where we can learn a few lessons from the analogy with today’s social media.

I think it’s safe to say that many Christians do send “tweet-style prayers” or “text message-style prayers” up to Jesus every day.  You know what I mean . . . the quick one-liners: “Jesus, help me!”  “Jesus, heal me.”  “Jesus, give me strength!”  “Jesus, get me out of this mess and I’ll never do anything bad for the rest of my life!”

Now there’s nothing wrong with prayers like this.  In fact, many of the great saints have spoken about the importance of talking to God throughout the day in precisely this way—especially by praising him and thanking him and professing our love for him.

But if that’s as far as it goes, our relationship with Jesus won’t amount to very much.  Common sense should tell us that.  Think about it: if all you did was tweet and text-message a particular friend, without ever having a more extensive conversation with that person, how deep or strong would your friendship be?

They might know what time you took a bath every day, but that’s about it!

“Staying connected” to our earthly friends requires more than tweeting and texting.

And so does staying connected to Jesus, the heavenly vine.

But fear not, my brothers and sisters, as Catholics we have all kinds of opportunities to do this.  They’re actually built into the very fabric of our religion.  For example, I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy eating with my earthly friends as often as I can.  Well, as Catholics we have the opportunity to “dine” with Jesus at least once a week here at Mass in order to intensify our connection to him.  Perhaps you’ve never thought of Mass as “dinner with Jesus”—but in a very real sense that’s what it is!

And he himself is our food!

I also like to call my friends on the phone and have conversations with them that are a lot longer and deeper than “tweets”.  Doing that makes our friendships stronger.  Well the same applies to our friendship with Jesus.  This is why we need to have a regular prayer time every day that goes beyond those one-liner prayers. 

(I would say at least 15 minutes.)

But face to face contact with our friends is always the best, right? 

Well, in a certain sense, isn’t that precisely what Adoration is?  As one man put it, “When I go to Eucharistic Adoration I look at Jesus and he looks at me.”

There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

Finally, there’s the importance of our Christian friends in helping us stay connected to Jesus. 

Hopefully we all have Catholic, Christian friends.

Here’s an interesting question: What would have happened to Saul of Tarsus without his good friend, Barnabas?  As we heard in today’s first reading, the Christians in Jerusalem wanted nothing to do with Saul, even after his conversion!  They didn’t trust him; they didn’t believe that he had really converted!

Only with Barnabas’ help did all of that change.  He talked to the apostles and somehow convinced them that Saul’s conversion was genuine.

Without Barnabas, Saul of Tarsus might never have become St. Paul!

So the bottom line is this: We live in a world where it’s very hard to stay connected.  It’s hard to stay connected to our friends and to develop strong relationships with them (even with all our social media), and it’s even harder to stay connected to Jesus and to develop a strong relationship with him.  But the good news is that both of those things are possible, if we work at them.

Every day.