"I don't need to go to church to be a Christian." So I'm often told. Well, let's see about that.
It's easy to miss the point of Jesus' famous words about the vine if we lose sight of when and where he said them. Does anyone know, I wonder? Well, despite being five weeks into Easter, we are now being taken right back to Maundy Thursday, because these are words from Jesus' homily at the Last Supper, his after-dinner speech, if you like. And so, all this talk about 'vines' has some context. There's an empty chalice sitting on the table, from which the disciples have all drunk. There is the blood of the Passover lamb that was shed before the disciples ate it earlier on, and we know, but they didn't, that there would be more blood yet to shed: the blood of the new and eternal Paschal victim who was talking to them there and then.
There's context to Jesus talk about vines being cut away, too - the ones that do not bear fruit and do not abide in Him - because, as we know, on that night of the Last Supper somebody had just walked away from the table. Someone who had been part of the vine but had been trained away in the wrong direction. It's Judas, of course, that cipher for those of us who are grafted into the body of Christ and yet fail to bear fruit.
So what of it? And what has it do to with today's Eucharist, with the reading from Acts about the baptism of Philip, or with the Collect about God's grace "going before us" ("pre-venting" us, as the old Prayer Book has it)?
The answer is all in the context I've just mentioned. For in baptism, are we not washed clean of our sin by the blood of the Lamb, shed for us on the Cross? And despite our falling away, like Judas, are we not brought back to grace time and time again by drinking the blood of that Lamb and eating His Flesh, here at Mass, week after week?
Our Reformers pared the Christian Faith back to the two essential sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Yes, it is true that in baptism one is made a Christian, grafted to the vine and regenerated, promised eternity. But it is also true that we all fall away. To shift metaphors, a coal taken out of the fire soon loses its heat. And so Our Lord gave us the other, essential commandment, to come together as a community and take and eat and drink: to remember Him and so be re-membered in Him, re-grafted into the vine so that we can continue to bear the fruits of His sacrifice. In the words of the Collect, if Baptism is God's grace going before us, then the Eucharist is His continual help.
[This communal emphasis is, it must be said, pretty much the opposite of the lives our modern, "progressive," society encourages to lead. Despite being better connected than ever before by mobile phones, email and social media, the time we spend in thrall to them means that there has never been a lonelier time to be human: but these gizmos are not the cause of the problem, just an symptom of the self-obsessed milieu we live in. In a world where there is no real truth to trust in, whether it's religious, political, national or whatever, it's just me and my beliefs versus everyone else's: everything is just a matter of opinion. My Tweets and Facebook postings are either preaching to the select converted or shouting into a void: either way, it's still all about me, me, me. Even the Girl Guides' new vow, airbrushing God out of the picture, mirrors the tendency: a promise to develop my beliefs and be authentic to myself, with no external reference, no need for anyone else to interfere. The world is just a background for my selfie.]
[But the self is not enough. We need trust, trust in God, and we need to trust Him in one another, especially when we gather for Communion in one Body, washed in one blood, branches of one vine.]
The communal nature of our religion should not come as a surprise. God, after all, is three. One cannot be a Christian alone.