I am the vine, you are the branches

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, April 29, 2018 - 9:30am

 

We’ve all heard it before. ‘I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian-‘ says Jack  ‘I’m a good person, and I lead my life by Christian principles, why should I pitch up every Sunday? It doesn’t make me a better person.’

 

I’ve heard that many times. I can still remember by lovely grandmother, a staunch churchwoman if ever there was one, telling me as a boy, about the time someone said something similar to her, adding

‘And look at all the horrible people that do go to church.’

‘True,’ said my grandmother, ‘but just think how much worse they might be if they didn’t.’

 

It is fair enough, I think, to say that simply going to church does not make us better people. There are wonderful, kind, generous, selfless, loving people that I know and love who have never darkened the door of a church, just as there are many regular churchgoers that I have come across in my experience (though none here, I hasten to add) who seem to make a point of being horrible to people, often in the name of Christianity.

 

Indeed, its often said that a church is not a museum of saints, but a school for sinners. And there is much to be said for this view. We’re here precisely because we know that we are not perfect. If I examine why I come here week after week (apart from the fact that I’d get in trouble if I didn’t) it’s because I know that I need something. That I am incomplete if I don’t.

 

But more than this, the assumption that you can be a Christian without going to church rests on two false assumptions. One about what it means to be a Christian. The other about what it means to be the Church.

 

What does it mean to be a Christian then? Well, first of all, it means to have been baptised. To have left behind the life of this world, and to have taken on a new and eternal life. To have died with Christ, and to have risen with him into the Resurrection life – a life indissolubly united with God.

 

And this is important, because what our hypothetical Jack supposes is that being a Christian is something that you do. That you live your life a certain way, that you subscribe to certain principles. That you adopt a certain view of the world. And while this is true in a way, it is the wrong way round. The Christian life is most certainly a life of loving sacrifice, of forgiveness, of gentleness and generosity and kindness. But these are the things that signify a Christian because they flow naturally from the relationship that began when Christ claimed them for his own. They are the fruits of love.

 

‘I am the vine, and you are the branches’ says Jesus.

 

If we took pears and glued them to a pine tree, we wouldn’t have turned it into a pear tree, any more than we would make ourselves into a policeman by putting on the uniform. Being a Christian is something that we are not something that we do. It springs from God’s initiative and not our own.

 

And this means that we cannot think about the Church in the same way either. We cannot conceitedly suppose that it is a club for do-gooders, or people who like hymns, or who appreciate nothing more than being told what’s what by a person dressed as a Byzantine courtier. No, the church is the community, the communion, of those who, by virtue of their baptism, have been joined to Christ, and who express that union by coming together to share in his body and his blood. The Church, properly understood, IS the Body of Christ.

 

‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’

‘I am the vine. You are the branches’

 

The Church (capital letter), comes to church (small letter) to share in communion. With one another, and with Christ. It is not the only thing that we do. But it is the thing that makes us what we are.

 

Because of this, we cannot be Christians on our own, any more than a finger can exist separate from the hand to which it belongs. We cannot be Christians alone, any more than God can be God alone. We believe in a God who is fundamentally a communion of Love, a Trinity made whole and perfect in loving relationship between the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

And this is vital for us. As John pointed out in his epistle today, God is love, and has drawn us into his love by the costly offering of his own Son. Love is the sap that flows out from the vine and gives life to the branches. It is the life-blood of the body that we all inhabit, meaning that we depend on one another for our life, our health, our salvation. We stand or fall together. If my brother or sister is sick, I am sick. If I sin, I cause those around me to stumble. If you succeed in life, we should all rejoice.

 

This, I think, was best expressed by John Donne in his famous meditation in which he imagined himself on his sickbed hearing the funeral bell rung:

 

‘The church’ he said ‘is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’