Fruitfulness or Fire

Fifth Sunday of Easter

When I was travelling up Rt. 250 toward Greenwood earlier in the week listening to the radio, I caught an interesting story of a United Methodist pastor from Tallahassee FL who admitted for the first time in public that she had lost her faith. And she did it before the American Atheist’s convention in Bethesda MD last March, claiming that she was now an atheist. Teresa MacBain received a standing ovation which lasted a couple of minutes. Emboldened by her audience’s applause, she shared more details about her struggle to finally admit her loss of faith. She was raised the daughter of a conservative Southern Baptist pastor. She felt called to church ministry as early as the age of six. She had many questions about the bible and its many confusing and conflicting ideas. And “she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.” (link) Sounds to me like she did believe there was a God, but regretfully had fallen out of love. She felt she was living a double life. So when she finally realized she couldn’t keep facing her church each Sunday and tell them things she didn’t really believe, when she prayed for the sick and didn’t believe in the God she was praying to, she knew the charade had to end.

Nine years. She was pastor of her congregation for nine years. If she was any good at what she did, she would have touched many lives. In a weird way, I admire the courage it took for her to stop living a lie, as she calls it. If she had any genuine faith at all, walking away would be a truly painful choice to arrive at. I imagine she started out genuinely enthusiastic and determined to dedicate her life in service to the Gospel. Somehow she gradually became disillusioned, much like a married person feeling a loss of love, or realizing there never was any real love to start with, that it was missing all along, that she was merely going through the motions. I imagine she struggled with the implications of her choice. She was aware her public admission might cause some real hardship and awkwardness. For instance, her own parishioners and perhaps other Christians would reject her, especially in the mostly evangelical Christian setting of Tallahassee. Her church superiors would demote her to an outsider status. Her friends would reevaluate their friendship and no longer treat her as such. “Sometimes, I think to myself,” she said. “If I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.” (link) Somehow she did not consider the sense of betrayal her parishioners might feel, the anger and hurt at hearing in the news of her rejection of faith, the disappointment at her total disregard for their shared journey (nine years), and that any spiritual or human connection with her was hollow. A person with her stature among the community of believers could have spared the people she loved much anguish if she had just stepped down from her post without all the fanfare. Instead, she thought only of herself, that she would unload the burden she had been carrying for so long, maybe secretly hoping others would come to their senses and follow her lead.

I imagine if any authentic self-respecting Christian regarded their following of Jesus Christ as merely being like sheep, and blindly following, and not knowing the truth, it would be tremendously liberating, once enlightened, to finally be rid of that burden. But true discipleship, the authentic following of Jesus Christ is not about being like sheep or blindly following and not knowing the truth. It is not about accomplishing a set of tasks such as saying a bunch of prayers, or going to church, or dropping money in the collection, or feeding the hungry or visiting the sick. Following Jesus will include those essentials and more, but they are not the foundation and core of discipleship. The authentic following of Jesus Christ is about welcoming God and encountering him in the deepest recesses of our mind and heart, possessing him but not in a selfish manner, being possessed by him but without the loss of our freedom, discovering him while not dispelling all mystery, and being fed by him without exhausting his abundant mercy and grace. If my discipleship was nothing more than a system of merits and demerits, if all I do is go through the motions, if I act like a Christian just for show, that relationship is not nourished and cared for, and it will wither and die at some point. I will only be able to pretend for a time. But if my Christian witness is firmly rooted in the true vine that is Jesus Christ, and if I draw life-sustaining nourishment from his life-giving Spirit, then that witness produces a plentiful harvest of compassion, honesty, faithfulness, joy, forgiveness, humility, service, chastity, peace – a harvest to last unto eternal life.

At the beginning of his ministry, Paul was not easily received. He abused and persecuted the followers of Jesus, dragged many of them to court, sent them to jail. And now he claimed a change of heart? His was a journey in the opposite direction: from unbelief to true faith. And no one would trust him, not the Christian community he persecuted, nor any of his persecutor friends. But God chose him and grafted him to the vine that is Jesus Christ, and for many years to come, Paul would bear abundant and lasting fruit in service to the Gospel. We too have been grafted to the vine that is Jesus Christ. But we can only bear lasting fruit if we remain in him, if his life flows in our veins, if his spirit dwells within our minds and hearts.

Teresa MacBain, the United Methodist pastor turned Atheist, and some like her think the only options they have with God are to “follow blindly” or “burn in hell.” Far from it. Jesus encourages us to remain in him and “bear fruit.” But branches that do not bear fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire.” It is no threat. It is not something God does to us. Rather, it is what we do to ourselves when we profess faith without making an effort to translate into action the faith we claim. “Bearing fruit” is not primarily about knowing or understanding. It is about putting into practice what Jesus himself taught and lived. It does not mean we will be free from doubt or anxiety, that faith and religion will make complete sense, that arriving at total trust in God will be without struggle or challenge. The bible is one among many useful tools for those who wish to follow Jesus Christ. But possessing a book is no guarantee of authentic discipleship. More importantly, we are not simply proclaiming Jesus Christ with our words. We are proclaiming Jesus Christ with our lives. “Let us love not in word or speech,” John tells us in the second reading, “but in deed and truth.” If we genuinely proclaim Jesus Christ with our lives, we remain in him, and he guarantees we will bear abundant fruit.