The gospel we have just read describes communion; in fact, it insists on communion.
Firstly, what is communion?
Communion is the oneness of love in which God lives in himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our God is not a lonely God; he is three divine persons in one God. We call this the Blessed Trinity. I like to image this for myself as a kind of whirlpool of love between the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
So we see that the notion of communion has its origins in God. God, in the three divine persons, is the perfect communion of love.
Now, let your mind go back to the family of man after the Fall of Adam and Eve. One could hardly describe this family as a communion of love; quite the opposite. Man had rejected God and now found himself trapped in a hopeless and destructive state of alienation from God, from others, from himself and from the natural world.
Fortunately, however, God in his goodness did not abandon his creation. He came among us. He entered the prison in which we had locked ourselves and from which we had no escape. He came to us as one of us; like us in all things but sin ( Hb 4:15). He came among us in the person of his only-begotten Son, Jesus.
Jesus came, sent by God, to set us free. In other words – to draw us, to invite us, to make it once again possible for us to enter into communion with his Father. We might say, Jesus invites us to enter the whirlpool or, as the Gospel so tantalizingly bids us: Make your home in me.
However, and we need to be quite clear about this, Jesus forces no one. He did not come to ‘drag us’ into communion. He came, firstly, to make it possible and, secondly, to call us to it. It is an invitation to communion, which will be accepted by many – but not all.
Those who do accept are those who, gathered around Jesus and in communion with him, will be called Church; the Christian Community.
And so, now we must ask: How do I enter into communion with Jesus? St John, in the second reading, makes it clear beyond all dispute: Whosoever keeps his commandments lives in God and God lives in him.
Not only does Jesus invite us into communion with him, and hence his Father, but he insists on it for two reasons. Firstly, so that we might live: Anyone who does not remain in me … withers; and secondly, so that we might bear fruit: Whoever remains in me … bears fruit in plenty.
The privileges of remaining in him are fourfold. We will be ‘pruned’ (by the expert hands of the Father); we will give glory to the Father; the Father will grant our prayers; and we will truly be disciples of our Lord.
The call to communion is universal, that is why we describe the Church as one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic. But the call is not heeded by all. Those who do not answer the call, who are not ready to accept the conditions of entering into communion namely, ‘keeping the commandments’, exclude themselves from communion with him.
To express his desire for communion with us God could find no better analogy than sacramental marriage between a man and woman. It is in this communion of love between a man and a woman that God wants us to understand our communion with him. Just as a man forsakes all other women, and a woman forsakes all other men, in the bond of marriage, so we must forsake all other Gods in our bond of communion with the blessed Trinity.
Just as the communion of man and wife, therefore, is exclusive so, too, is our relationship with God exclusive. This simple statement can be especially challenging to those today whose mantra is that we must be inclusive. We are a universal Church, not an inclusive Church. We are not one, holy, inclusive and apostolic Church.
The reality is that those who are not willing or ready to enter into life, or to remain with Christ in his Church exclude themselves from this communion. For anyone to pretend that they are in communion, despite their refusal, would be to deny that our response to God’s invitation in Jesus is essential.
The gospel describes communion; it insists on the necessity for communion; it warns of punishment for those who refuse communion or leave it through sin. This punishment is not meted out by God, it is a natural consequence of the branch refusing to remain a part of the vine.
Jesus came to us last week as the good shepherd with arms stretched wide to embrace us all and draw us into his flock. This week he presents himself as the vine, willing to nourish with eternal life all those who remain in him as his branches. The image is extraordinarily appealing. As it sinks into our consciousness we become aware of what it is we are being offered
I am the true vine.
You are the branches
The Father is the vine grower.
The image becomes a metaphor whose logic is inescapable.
Branches without fruit are cut away and thrown away. They wither. They are collected, thrown in the fire, and they are burnt. In case we are hard of hearing or just slow learners the process is deliberately and carefully spelled out: cut away, thrown away, wither, collected, thrown in the fire, burnt.
Branches that do bear fruit are pruned to make them bear even more.
If nothing else the metaphor does violence to our worldly, way of ‘independent living’. What’s more, it robs us of any temptation we might entertain of making a distinction between living and bearing fruit; they are co-terminus. The branch which does not bear fruit forfeits its life.
Jesus offers a straightforward model of human existence which leaves no room for self reliance, self-directed pride, or doing things ‘My Way’. And a final, ‘in your face’ indignity is set before the nonbeliever, it is all done ‘to the glory of my Father’.
The exemple of dependence and the need to be ‘connected’ to God by obeying his will is one that Jesus himself wholeheartedly lived, and the ‘fruit’ of salvation which he bore is a direct product of his flawless attachment to God’s will.