In the run up to the last major revision of the Episcopal Church’s canons on clergy discipline, in the first draft of those changes, there were, for the first time, provisions for the discipline not only of clergy, but of lay persons as well. Of course, this idea got shot down pretty quickly, for a lot of different reasons, and we are still without any formal process for disciplining lay people who misbehave in some way—except for one thing. In the fine print of the Book of Common Prayer, it says that if the priest sees certain kinds of behavior, and knows that the person exhibiting that behavior intends to come to the altar for Holy Communion, the priest shall—not “may”—the priest shall tell that person that he or she may not receive the sacrament without evidence of amendment of life.
Now, I have to tell you, I have never followed through on this, even though there have been some circumstances when I probably should have. In effect, this is the Episcopalian version of a disciplinary act that we associate more with the Roman Catholic Church—that is, excommunication. To be denied the sacrament of Holy Communion is a bigger deal than it might seem at first. To be ex-communicated means to be separated from the fellowship—the communion—of the Church, the Body of Christ. It is, indeed, to be cut off from Christ.
To the extent that we are at all influenced by the Protestant Reformation—and I think we all are, not so much because we are Anglicans as because we are Americans—we have a hard time wrapping our minds around something like this. We tend to think of Christian faith and church involvement as discretionary, voluntary. We can join a church when we find one that seems to meet our perceived needs, and we can leave a church when it fails to meet those needs, or we find another one that meets our needs even better, just like we choose a supermarket, or a health care provider, or our internet service.
And so, even if we are never excommunicated as an act of church discipline—and I hope none of us ever are—we still, I fear, have a propensity to excommunicate ourselves. In a small way, every time we miss Mass on Sunday for any reason that is within our control, we excommunicate ourselves. We cut ourselves off from Christ. On any single occasion, this does not do us noticeable spiritual harm. But one occasion has a way of leading to two, and two to three, and three to a bunch, and, pretty soon, missing Mass is a habit, and a habit of missing Mass does do us serious spiritual harm. It is voluntary excommunication, voluntary separation from Christ, or, in the language of today’s gospel reading, failure to “abide in the vine.” That failure may be active or it may be passive, but, either way, it cuts us off from Christ, because Jesus himself tells us, “I am the true vine.”
Jesus, the True Vine, tells us, “Abide in me and I in you.” We don’t use that word “abide” in our everyday English vocabulary anymore. It sounds kind of quaint, kind of exotic. What does it mean to “abide”? The place where we abide is simply where we live, the place which we inhabit. My home is my “abode,” because that’s where I abide. To abide in Christ is to share the life of Christ in a sustained, habitual manner. In the city of Springfield, there’s been an undercurrent of resentment against the present governor of Illinois and his predecessor because, even though Springfield is the state capital, and even though there’s a very nice home for the governor in Springfield, the last two governors have not chosen to abide there, but merely to drop in occasionally from Chicago. Visiting is not abiding. Abiding is sustained, habitual. We abide in Christ when we encounter him frequently in the sacraments—particularly Holy Communion, but also Reconciliation—making our confession—and, when are sick or injured, Holy Unction. We abide in Christ when we habitually immerse ourselves in Scripture, making the language and syntax of the Bible the language and syntax of our souls. We abide in Christ when we cultivate a habit of daily prayer, particularly the “official” prayer of the Church—Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, as they are known in our tradition. We abide in Christ when are faithful to the community of Christ—in your case, the community of Emmanuel Church and the Diocese of Springfield, taking the relationships we find in that community into the deepest places of our hearts. We abide in Christ when we are with Christ where he is in the world, alongside the poor and the marginalized, among them not as one who is served, but as one who serves. We abide in Christ when we allow him to make us apostles—those who are sent, those who are engaged in the mission of the Body of Christ, which is to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ.
But abiding is a two-way street. We stay connected to Christ and he stays connected to us. Just a few weeks ago I was at the Toddhall Retreat Center south of Belleville—no doubt some of you have been there—and I was admiring a beautiful grape arbor, a luxuriant vine that spreads out and covers a considerable area, but which can all be traced eventually down to a single trunk coming up out of the ground. Jesus is the trunk. Jesus is the trunk of the vine, and we are all branches of the vine, part of the marvelously complex and organic structure that shelters and shades the area beneath it. The vine is a powerful image, and reminds us compellingly that the Church is not really a voluntary society, a group of like-minded individuals, but an organism, something biological. It is, as one of our prayers puts it, a “wonderful and sacred mystery,” described much more effectively by poetry than by any prose I would be able to come up with.
The vine of a grape arbor, of course, does more than provide shade and shelter. It bears fruit. But once in a while, there’s a dead branch, a non-fruit bearing branch. As branches of the True Vine, as members of the organic Body of Christ, the fruit we are expected to bear is the fruit of love. But when we fail to abide in the vine, when we fail to abide in Christ, when we voluntarily excommunicate ourselves, we bear the fruit of apathy, which is to say, not-love. The opposite of love is not hostility or hatred. The opposite of love is apathy, failure to care. But the fruit of apathy, of course, is no fruit at all, and when a branch bears no fruit at all, proper horticultural practice is to lop it off—as it were, to excommunicate it. By warning us of this possibility, Jesus is not trying to scare us. He’s trying to encourage us to be fruit-bearing branches of the True Vine.
And when we do that, when we abide in Christ, when we abide in the vine, the fruit that we bear is indeed the fruit of love—love toward other parts of the vine; that is, our sisters and brothers within the communion of the church, within the fellowship of the Body of Christ—and love toward those who are not yet part of the vine, but who may yet be grafted onto it through faith, repentance, and waters of New Birth.
Christ is risen. Alleluia and Amen.