“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you.” John 15:1-5
What do we mean when we say that the Christian life is best understood as our participation in Christ? This morning I want to look at this, but first we begin with this quotation: “Centuries are required to change mentalities… you don’t get a change in mentality by introducing a few fads.” So wrote Bernard Lonergan who had no time for the habitually inattentive, quick fixes, or laziness when it comes to our common life in the Body of Christ.
For close to 500 years Protestantism has represented the Christian life as a transaction between an individual Christian and God. God has a wonderful plan for your life and when you ask Jesus into your heart the transaction is on. It is entirely individualistic as well as being entirely unmediated. Both the individualism as well as the notion of an unmediated relation to God are alien to Biblical religion. What do I mean by “unmediated?” Mediation is equivalent to the word “means,” as in the “means of salvation,” or the “means of travel,” or the “means of administering a medication.” If I receive a flu vaccine, the means of appropriating, of getting the medicine inside of you so that it can jump-start antibodies that will provide immunity to the flu, is through a syringe and a needle. The hypodermic needle is the means, the instrument of mediation. The means of your travel from your home to Church this morning was an automobile. The means of salvation is the sacramental life of the Holy Catholic Church beginning with baptism where by one is engrafted into the Body of Christ and then one begins to feed upon the other means of grace, most especially the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass. But Protestantism has now for several hundreds of years presented an unmediated relationship to Jesus. It is a matter between you and Jesus and nothing else. That is why, for many Protestants, the Church comes in third or fourth place, behind God, family and frequently behind country. What I am saying and have been saying for years is that is heresy and it is a danger to your soul’s well being. There is no such thing as an unmediated relationship with Jesus Christ and his Father. The only way to have God as your Father is to have the Church as your mother. Our relation to God comes about through specific “means of grace” and those means involve a combination of the materials of creation and the Words of Jesus as in Baptism. By the way there is no such thing in the New Testament as an “unbaptized Christian” though many Protestants today treat baptism as an accessory. Furthermore there is no such thing in the New Testament as an “individual Christian” who exist apart from the life of Holy Mother Church.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.”
“Centuries are required to change mentalities… you don’t get a change in mentality by introducing a few fads.” The reason I continue to preach on participation is because most of us, most of our lives, have marinated in this dangerous cocktail that I am calling “transactional salvation.” And we have to be intentional and forceful to change our mentality on this matter. But our lives and the lives of our loved ones depend upon it.
According to the Apostles the restoration of all things is the destiny of creation and creation’s destiny is tethered to humanity’s destiny and humanity’s destiny is tethered to the destiny of the Body of Christ. God has willed to bring about the restoration of all of creation through the Body of Christ which is the Church. How do I know that? I read the Bible. Salvation is not a matter of feeling warm and fuzzy or getting emotional relief from my sins and misdeeds. The restoration of all things is destiny of creation and creation’s destiny is tethered to humanity’s destiny and humanity’s destiny is tethered to the destiny of the Body of Christ. This is the biblical vision of salvation.
It is important for us to remember all this and to keep our wits about us because the world is coming apart and everything is changing. Some people cannot wait for change but when it comes they soon grow restless and begin lurching for the next new thing. In reaction to that, other people and communities abandon the world for enclaves of their own design, determined to live in a past that no longer exist. The Church is in the world but she is not of the world. She should not be dragging her scattered children from one hip cause to another, exploring now these new options, then these new possibilities, nor should she withdraw to navel gazing and pretend to live in a world that no longer exists. How should Holy, Mother Church behave? She should prayer. Prayer is the answer, not because prayer is the means of getting what we want out of Jesus, but rather because prayer is our destiny, our life long labor of love, diligently and responsibly performed in the Church till Jesus returns and restores all creation. Some of our labor of prayer and worship is immediately satisfying while much of labor of prayer and worship may be experienced as unsatisfying, but being satisfying or unsatisfying is finally of no importance. This has nothing to do with utility or getting something useful out of it. This is our destiny — root and branch — everything is a matter of our participation in Christ.
But what does it mean to say that your Christian life is your participation in Christ? When I say, “Christian life,” I have two Christian lives in mind: First of all I mean the life of Jesus Christ himself — his human life, death, and resurrection, which is the historic spring, as in fountain, the oasis, the Olive Tree and the Vine of all Christian life. Jesus’ life is the single most important human life ever and his death is the key to the ultimate meaning of all life. When I say, the “Christian life” that is the first thing I mean. The second “Christian life,” is the individual Christian’s life as a member of the Body of Christ.
But how does the particular, historic life of Jesus the Messiah become, for me and other Christians, the single most important human life ever? How does his life become, for me, the true meaning of life? And how do we appropriate Jesus’ life and meaning so that his life becomes our life and his meaning becomes our meaning?
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death…” Romans 6: 1-4
I have attempted over the last few weeks to connect old narratives of participation to the new narrative of the Vine of Christ in order to grasp decisively the nature of participation. And now we must apply what we have learned about participation, what it means to be in someone – we need now apply that to Christ himself and our participation in his life.
Participation is not a matter of ourselves as individual free agents making a transaction with God, but it is a matter of our life together, each of us as members of the Body of Christ and members one of another because we are baptized into Jesus. You will recall that we were in Adam when he disobeyed God and sin and death came upon this earth and since all humanity participated in Adam we too are “in” sin and death. We have also talked about how God called Abraham to fight back against sin and death not by giving him more commandments, but by promising him that he, God, would use Abraham’s family to redeem creation and that would begin with a son. Abraham was well beyond fathering a child, but he believed God and it was “reckoned unto him for righteousness,” which means that he and God were in covenant. Animals were killed and that covenant was sealed by blood sacrifice. But the reckoning of righteousness, the covenant with God was not with Abraham as an individual person, it was reckoned to everyone who was “participating in” Abraham, in other words the seed of his future children. They were as much in the covenant with God as was Father Abraham. This is the Abrahamic Covenant but Paul calls it “the Promise.” The upshot is, to be reckoned righteous means being in the Covenant which means being a child of Abraham. This is the reality of participation.
The Promise God made to Abraham was to his seed who were in Abraham. Jesus is the Seed of the Promise, the actualization of the Abrahamic Covenant. Through his faith in God the Father, Jesus brought the Promise to maturity and finality: Jesus is Israel and through his unwavering faith in his Father, he went to the Cross sealing the actualized Covenant not by the blood of a lamb, but by his own blood shedding and from the wood of the Cross has sprung the Vine and we are grafted in and now feed upon the life giving nourishment of the Vine.
We who believe in Jesus are members of God’s covenant family and children of Abraham, siblings of Jesus Christ, and we are being saved by the faith of Jesus. It is not merely what Jesus did that saves us, but it is Jesus’ faith in his Father that gives ultimate meaning to what Jesus did. Regardless of how dark his world became, Jesus believe the Father’s would promise. This is the distinctiveness of Christian faith and exactly what we observe in both Abraham and Jesus Christ. Their faith, their trust in God is unconditional — a joyful devotion to the promise of God and his omnipotence. Jesus, in the moment of his deepest personal darkness, did not cling to his life, but he did cling to his Father’s faithfulness. This is the faith that saves us, not our own faith, but the faith of Jesus in the unchanging faithfulness and power of God. We appropriate Jesus’ faith by our participation in Jesus.
But how is the Christian life a life of participation in Christ?
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” John 15:4-5
Paul assumes the Romans and Galatians already understood that water baptism is the instrument by which we were miraculously incorporated into Jesus Christ. Incorporation has the same meaning and reality as “being in another person,” as Isaac was in the loins of Abraham before Isaac was born. Through baptism the God of the New Covenant seizes each of our live and and binds all our mutual destinies to the destiny of Jesus Christ. This creates a new relation between Christ and the baptized, a relation of personal incorporation, of personal indwelling. Our baptism is our birth from above, a new birth into a new family –- the very family that God promised to Abraham and thus through Jesus we are made members of Abraham; and so baptism is the mediating instrument, the means by which our participation in Christ begins. Just as Abraham’s family was in Abraham and his unborn children will partake of the Promise, so the baptized child is in Christ partaking of all that Christ has achieved. Just as Isaac could have said, “I was with my father Abraham when the promise was made and his promise is my promise,” so Paul could say, “I am crucified with Christ…” and “so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death…” Jesus did not merely go to the Cross in order to satisfy justice, he went to the Cross because of his faith in his Father and his love of Abraham’s Family. Jesus slayed sin and death by permitting wave after wave of its horrific sea to beat down upon him and as the breakers of evil did their worse to the Jesus, as they spent their rage upon him, St. Paul says that you were in Jesus participating in his death. And when he was raised from the dead you participated in his resurrection. Everything that matters in life matters because of the life of Jesus Christ: