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 in the person of his only-begotten Son, Jesus.
Jesus came, 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 says: Make his home with us.
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 the 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.
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
Jesus says: 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 example 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.
It’s a story that is told about Jesus, who returns to heaven after he has risen from the dead and he goes back to his Father.
And he returns to heaven and there is an angel, Saint Michael, waiting at the gates, and he’s kind of confused.
He says, “What are you doing back here, Jesus? You’re supposed to be down there saving the world, making a whole new world possible. And here you are. What was it, only a couple of years and you’re back already?”
And Jesus says, “Well, I couldn’t do anything else, you see. What they did was they killed me. They put me on a cross and killed me! And here I am and I’m back now.
“But don’t worry, I have lots of disciples who are following me and they are going to take my place.”
And then Angel Michael says, “But Jesus, suppose they don’t want to take your place, suppose they don’t take your place, what other plans do you have for the human race?”
And Jesus says, “I’ve got no other plans. It’s all in their hands.”
It’s kind of a light way of looking at a very serious subject.
Jesus is here, Jesus is with us, but we are his hands, we are his feet, we are his eyes, we are his voice.
And we talk and reach out to each other in the simple ways.
Yes, of course, it is Jesus putting into practice the plan of healing and saving the world.
At the same time, it is we who are given, when we open our eyes and our ears but most of all open our hearts and commit ourselves to this wonderful work.
God needs men and women to do his work.
This is the way God will save the world. He needs us. He needs us just as we need God. And that’s the way it is.
The meaning, of course, is that He not only needs us, but He loves us. And not only do we need Him, but we must learn to love Him and to love the children that He calls His own.
One element is missing when we think of our mutual dependence, our mutual need, our mutual respect for God: we need God’s love to become fully human in this world and God needs our help to become fully God in this world.