Religious teachers may have taught a particular method of prayer or taught their followers to lead a particular kind of lifestyle to purify their lives and please God. The Jews taught that adherence to the law was the way to please God and lead a good life. Others may said you had to have a particular form of knowledge to be enlightened. Maybe you had to be ascetic to escape the suffering of this physical world. Perhaps you had to believe certain dogmas, obey certain rules, engage in certain rituals or make sacrifices of one kind or another to please God and win prosperity and peace.
Jesus Christ fullfils all these religious ideas, but he transforms them from the inside out by saying, “I am the vine. You are the branches. If you do not remain in me you can do nothing. If you remain in me all things are possible.” The writings of the New Testament abound in this idea. St Paul says we “participate in the body and blood of Christ,” and “into Christ you have been baptized.” St John’s mystical writings repeat in the gospel and his epistle over and over again, “You are in Christ. He is in you. Remain in Christ and he will remain in you.”
This organic unity of our lives with the Christ life is the unique difference between Christianity and every other religion. This existential reality in which we genuinely are united with Christ is only possible because of who Christ is. No other religious teacher could possibly have suggested such a revolutionary idea because no other religious teacher had the power to make it happen–even if he had thought of it. It is only because Jesus Christ is the Son of God–risen, ascended and glorified–that it is possible for him to graft us into his life and make our life one with his.
This is the revolutionary message of the Christian gospel, and the worst thing we do time and again is to fall back into the easy trap of turning the clock back and turning our faith into a list of rules, rituals to be observed, doctrines to be believed or a set of table manners. Whenever we turn our religion into a list of duties and dogmas and doctrines only, we undermine and destroy the power of the gospel.
Why is the Catholic Church in America confused, demoralized and impotent? Because too many Catholics have turned the religion back into a list of duties, a way to be respectable or a way to make the world a better place. The gospel today is very clear. You can do all these nice things, but if you do them in your own power and not in the power of the Vine–then they are worth nothing. Doodleysquat. Zilch.
In fact, they are actually counterproductive because they are a counterfeit Christianity. A religion of good works and not the power of God inoculates people against real Christianity. Only in the power of the Spirit, only being and remaining one with the Vine can true Christianity and the fullness of Catholicism thrive.