The Whole Life of the Church

From “The Vine and the Branches,” Repton School Sermons, 1-4 (1910)

THE little group, who had just shared with the Lord his last supper upon earth, had left the upper chamber, and were crossing the temple court. There in front of them, trailing over the Temple Gate, was the great Golden Vine, the type of the life of Israel, entwined about the sanctuary of God. And, as they look at it, our Lord begins to speak — surely, with a hand pointing to this vine and with a gentle smile upon his face — “I am the true vine.” It is the last of those seven parables of his person and mission, introduced by the words “I am,” which are given us by St. John. In Christ the disciples were to find the fulfilment of that long search and hope which the Old Testament records through lawgiver, historian, prophet, and psalmist. All that life is summed up and completed in him. He is the true Vine.

And we, his disciples, are the branches. He is not the trunk or the stem, on which we grow. He is the whole vine, whose branches we are, for we are members of Christ, limbs of his body; we are not something alien from him which is grafted on to him; we are part of himself. All through the New Testament this astonishing doctrine is given an emphasis which no words of ours can possibly exaggerate. But what does it mean? How shall we even begin to understand it?

The Society which Christ founded to proclaim and carry on his redeeming work does not depend for its true life and character on the people who join it; that life and character are given to it by Christ. The Church is, in St. Paul’s phrase, his body — the instrument of his will and Spirit as his fleshly body was in the days of his earthly ministry. The Church was founded by the life, the teaching, the death, and resurrection of Christ; it was not made by men; its first members did not construct it, but joined it; and if it should happen that through the infidelity of men the Church should cease for some years or some centuries to exist, yet even then the first man, who, by reading the New Testament, became a disciple of Christ, would not be a second founder of the Church; he would merely join the one Church, holy, catholic, and apostolic, to which all the saints belong. There is and there can be only one Church; however multiform its organization, however varied in degree of adequacy its interpretation of the fact of Christ, still in its adherence to that one fact it is one, with a unity made not by its members but by Christ when in utter loneliness he bore the Cross from Jerusalem to Calvary.

Christ is the whole life of the Church; there is nothing we can bring to it; our function is to receive life from him, and express his one truth, realize his one purpose, according to our capacities. For though we can bring nothing to the Church s life, each of us has part of that life entrusted to him. So St. Paul tells the Corinthians: “Now ye are the Body of Christ, and members each in his part.” There is some part of the Church’s life which waits till we are willing to live it; and many of us are not willing.

William Temple (1881-1944) was an English bishop and theologian, and an influential advocate for ecumenism and social reform. He taught at Oxford before serving as a headmaster and a canon of Westminster Abbey, and then was Bishop of Manchester and Archbishop of York, and, finally, Canterbury. Repton School Sermons is an early collection, published when he was the school’s headmaster. Temple is commemorated on November 6 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.


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