But some…were teaching [that] ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’
to which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself,
unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him,
he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
I teach theology, and I can’t quite leave my day job behind when I approach the Mass readings. Still I am the theology teacher, thinking in terms of the Big Questions. And these three passages seem to shout out answers to the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ (A) Be circumcised. (B) Go to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. (C) ‘Abide’ in Jesus.
The thing about (A) and (B) is that they are so straightforward. Each could even be construed as a mark of (C), abiding in Jesus. Because, to be honest, to ‘abide’ in Jesus is not especially well-defined. Being a disciple of Jesus is about being joined to him, connected to him; and it is also to take part in his work, the mission for which the Father sent him: the salvation of the world. If we want to be saved, we have to become a part of Jesus. This is a radical claim, and one I do not pretend to understand fully. The body of Christ is not a metaphor; it is the reality of our existence as Jesus’ disciples, and it is a very great mystery.
Because it is such a great mystery, we have a lot of argument about what constitutes Church, and what marks Christians as Jesus’ disciples. It is tempting, on the one hand, to claim particular features that identify Christians–circumcision was useful that way. Either you’re circumcised, or you’re not. It’s a nice, clear marker. The temple in Jerusalem is equally handy–if you want to be sure you’re worshipping the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, go to Jerusalem. That’s where he hangs out. We Christians have some similar, but not so obvious ways of recognizing those who belong to our ‘tribe’. The other temptation is to deny any such markers, to say that Christian faith and practice can look different according to history, culture and person–infinitely so. The Spirit (who keeps us joined to Christ’s body) moves where it wills.
It’s a tricky business, this being the body of Christ. How do we know we’re still attached to the vine? How can we trust that others are a part of the same vine? ‘Abide in me’ sounds good, but it’s impossible to quantify. Here’s where I can’t stop being a theology teacher. I think that the two questions about the vine are very different ones. In discerning our own hearts, I think we have to be ruthless in ‘taking every thought captive to Christ’. Hold on, and don’t let go; and when you can’t hold on, ask Jesus to hold you. (Colossians 1: 17 says he’s doing just that.) In our relationships with others, we have to trust God and pray. It’s not up to us to tell the wheat from the tares, but to pray for the harvest. And to remember that the One whose body we are came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.