The gospel of John opens with the disciples asking Jesus: ‘Rabbi, where do you abide?’ The rest of the gospel, in a way, would be an answer to this question. As the gospel comes to its climax, Jesus reveals fully where he himself abides. He abides as one with the Father and from now on, they are called to abide with him. But what does it mean to abide? And why did Jesus use this image of the vine?
The vine was one of the traditional images used in Scripture for Israel. Israel was the choice vine that God had planted (Isa 5, Ps 80). In planting this vine, God was clearing a space for his own Presence on earth. This Presence was the ultimate call and the gift of Israel to the world. The Temple, the one place on earth where you could encounter God himself. Unfortunately, this vine image in the OT, always appears in a context of judgment. This choice vine kept bearing bad fruit. The one good fruit it did bear however, was Jesus himself: the shoot that sprung from the stump of the tree of Jesse. This was God’s own work. And now, he was to be the new vine.
As he prepares to leave the earth, Jesus tells his disciples that they should abide in him, like a vine and its branches. But what does it mean to abide in Jesus? For the Jews, it was being born as a Jew that made them part of the chosen people. As the chosen people they were a people in covenant with God automatically, they had access to the life of God. And no one else could immediately participate in it. But now, there was to be a new vine, which emerged from the old shoot, that would spread all over the world. This is in other words, an image of the Church, the Body of Christ. And whoever was grafted into it, Jew or Gentile, could abide in it, and receive the life of the vine, which is of God.
To be part of the life of the Church, of course, is to receive and live its sacramental life. It is in being baptised that one becomes part of the Church of Christ, it is in the receiving of the Eucharist that one constantly is renewed with the life of Christ himself. Jesus himself alludes to all this. He tells Peter, that unless he washes him, he will have no part in him. It is in baptism, that we are washed by Jesus himself. His blood and his Spirit wash us and free us from our sins. It is here that we begin to abide by being part of the community of faith. And John is of course, writing all of this in the context of the Eucharist, the new Passover meal that Jesus establishes. While he does not speak of the institution narrative like the other gospels, he certainly alludes to them using the image of the Vine and the branches. Jesus will continue to tell his disciples, to abide is also to keep the commandments. There is an aspect of how you live your life. All of that is true and extremely important. But how we read, or hear this can make a difference. We can hear these as a series of tasks that I have to do. You might say, like the rich young man, ‘I have kept all this from my youth. I was baptised as a child, I have come to Mass every week, I have tried to be a good Catholic’. That’s a great start, but by itself doesn’t go very far. The danger is that Faith can become another ‘task’ that we do, alongside the other things in life. It becomes a burden and we can eventually drift away, because we don’t find this life-giving. But in reality, it is far more exciting – and challenging.
To be a disciple of Christ, which is what it is to be a Catholic, is to live the life of Christ on earth. As I mentioned, the whole point of Israel’s call was to carry the presence of God. While Jesus walked this earth, whoever touched Jesus, touched God. Jesus, as some theologians have described him, was the sacrament of God. When you saw him, you were seeing the face of God. When you touched him, you touched God. But as he prepares to ascend back to the Father, his presence is not to disappear completely. We would say, well, no, he left us his presence in the Eucharist. Of course, he did, what an amazing gift! But he left a presence which in some ways is more fundamental. He left his disciples, his Church, you and me. This is not to be dismissed as something ‘symbolic’. If Jesus was the sacrament of the Father, the Church – you and I – are the sacrament of Christ. When people touch you, they are touching something of Christ himself. The Eucharist, the life of the vine, the food of eternal life, comes to transform you and me to be that presence of God on earth. This is the fullness of the plan that God has been working from the calling of Abraham. He never intended to dwell in buildings. He always meant to dwell in the human heart. Which is why, in the early Church, the Fathers, never distinguished too much between the body of Christ in the Eucharist and the body of Christ, the Church. The Eucharist was actually called the Mystical Body – because it was mystery, as it encapsulated a heavenly presence and it summed up the mystery, the plan of God from the ages (Eph 3:3-6). Those who partook of the Eucharist were being transformed into the ‘real’ body of Christ. You and I. So that people were able to touch Christ by touching you and me.
This is the greatness and the glory of our calling. When we are aware of this, we can hear this command to abide with new ears. Our lectionary translates this as, ‘Make your home in me’. What comes to mind when you hear of ‘home’? It is a place of safety, a place of rest, of love, a place where you can be yourself. A place where you are accepted and belong. It requires effort to change a house into a home. If a mother or father reduced being a parent into a series of tasks they had to do every day, her family would come crashing down. It would be the von Trapp family from the Sound of Music. For the disciple, his home is to be Jesus himself and his Word. That happens in a constant dialogue of love with the Word of God, not just on one day when we come to Church, but something we do, because this is who we are. And as we breathe in his Word, we are transformed into his own image and likeness. And Jesus says, he wants us to be his home as much as being our home.
What would it be like, if everyone, who was baptised, was truly Christ in the world. How would the world be transformed! There are a lot of things we can do on earth, but how many will have eternal value? What will remain in ten years, let alone a hundred years time?Which is why Jesus says, ‘without me you can do nothing’. The only thing that will last is God’s kingdom. But it is something God wants to bring about through you and me, his new presence in his world.