Divine Design

A sermon, based on John 15.1-8 and 1 John 4.7-21, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

At Clevedale, there’s an old wisteria vine that every Spring around this time bursts with new life; its stems twining clockwise, counterclockwise, climbing, encircling, embracing the trellis, the beginnings and endings of its branches indistinguishable, yet each, growing from the center, connected and part of the one vine.


What a natural image of the divine design of Christian community!

Last Sunday, listening to Jesus, our good shepherd, we focused on being in community, truly, being community.(1) Now, we continue our Eastertide exploration of the meaning of the resurrection…

For, as I’ve said many times, the central belief of the Christian faith, “Christ is risen!”, without which there is no Christianity, is too grand and great a proclamation to be confined to the testimony of but one Sunday of the year, Easter Day. Thus, again, I say, in Eastertide, these fifty days between Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost, we have an opportunity to plumb the depths of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.

Today, we hear Jesus, as the true vine, describing his community. Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”(2) So, in saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” in effect, Jesus answers his own questions: Who do I say you are? What is the nature of my church born from my life and ministry, death and resurrection?

Of infinite characteristics (for, as we’re talking about Jesus, who, as God, is infinite, I could talk all day and not exhaust the possibilities!), I offer only three. Each reflecting what was, is, and alway will be the counter-cultural character of Jesus’ church, which, yes, is in the world, yet not of the world.

Mutuality. The church, as branches of the vine, Jesus, is one body of fruit-bearing folk; like wisteria, interconnected, encircling, embracing one another.

This mutual interdependence, one-with-all and all-with-one and common dependence on One, Jesus, confronts, contradicts our post-modern Western notion of autonomy and American civil religion’s century-old belief in rugged individualism, both which value the self ahead of the community.

Not so for Jesus’ church. Rooted, abiding in Jesus, we bear his fruit. We are his fruit, which is… (Hold that thought; we’ll get to it!) Our individual cares and concerns are not negated, but rather reformed, transformed through our life in community, our life as community.

To put this another way, I, as each of you, am an individual. And by the right and truth of my existence, I have personal thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, hopes and ambitions. I also am with you. Therefore, as we are grounded in Jesus and bound to one another, my “I” will not, cannot be greater than our “we”.

Equality. The church, as branches of the vine, Jesus, is radically (from the Latin radix, “root”, meaning the beginning as it was designed to be) non-hierarchical.

Yes, the church, including the Episcopal Church, differentiates the branches of the vine between laity and clergy. And, yes, there are the biblical and historical roots that bore the “fruit” of this structure. Yet I also have seen the atrophy, the withering of the vine whenever folk, both laity and clergy, accept the false dichotomy that the function of the laity as the congregation is to congregate and the function of the clergy, as ministers, is to minister; thus, doing-to-death the life-giving, life-breathing qualities of mutuality and equality.

Not so for Jesus’ church. Fruitfulness is our concern as laity and clergy. Now, as a priest, my fruit may be different from yours and your fruit, as laity, may be different from mine. Yet you and I are mutual and equal in the sight of God; who, as the Divine Gardener, through the Holy Spirit, prunes and shapes the vine, prunes and shapes us to enhance our fruitfulness.

Responsibility. The church as branches of the vine, Jesus, has one calling, one raison d’être. To bear fruit. Of the countless ways to define and describe the fruit we are to bear my favorite is that we are to be as Jesus is and to do what Jesus does. Or in the words of today’s epistle: “As he is, so are we in this world.” Or, in short, to be and to do love…

In light of love, I must digress to say afresh what I’ve oft said. On the subject of love, we humans tend to speak of our feelings and how we feel about others. Not so for Jesus’ church. For our feelings come and go, rise and fall, wax and wane. And if our loving others is dependent on how we feel about them, then, doubtless, say, in moments of anger, we would not feel loving! However, God’s love, the love we are to share (and thanks be to God!) is not a feeling, but rather a Holy Spirit-given power to be benevolent, to do benevolence toward others, all others unconditionally, indiscriminately.

A final word. Really, a question. At Clevedale, annually, we…well, Pontheolla prunes and shapes that wisteria vine so that it will continue in good health, growing and producing the fruit of its fragrant flower. As I never will ask of you what I will not ask of myself: What old thoughts and feelings, attitudes and habits do I have, as an individual, and do you have, as individuals, and do we have, as the community of Epiphany, that block our bearing more fruit of love? To put this another way: What is it in me and in you and in us that God, the Divine Gardener, needs to prune?


(1) John 10.11-18
(2) Matthew 16.15, Mark 8.29, Luke 9.20

Photograph (4/28/18): Wisteria vine at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Spartanburg, SC

7 thoughts on “Divine Design

  1. Sooooooooo, Paul this sermon almost knocked me off my feet. I am writing a blog post now about a gift of nature I was given almost two years ago upon Tim’s death that I almost let die because I was too focused on myself. So when I read this sermon about pruning… I instantly thought of the last few weeks of my life… and what I’ve neglected…

    Mutuality, Equality, Responsibility….I’ll remember these three words… Because the way you explained them, that we are all intertwined and equal and we have a responsibility to bear fruit, spoke volumnes to me. I need to prune my focus on myself, and tend to my responsibilities to the larger world. The church where I spoke yesterday is host every Wednesday to the homeless community in Waukegan, Il. They provide a hot cooked breakfast (the other participating churches only provide a cold meal on their days of the week), overnight accommodations and activities for attendees and a bag lunch to go for a later meal. This congregation is older, YET the step out and work with their community.. They have relationships with folks they know who aren’t able to afford a place to live though many of them have jobs. They take care of their mutal relationships with the residents of Waukegan, they treat those less fortunate as equals AND they take responsibilty to ensure that individuals and families have a hot meal one day a week in conjunction with other churches who fill out the rest of the week.

    I have lots of relationships … some new, some old.. but I haven’t done a good job with them of late.. I’ve kind of just let them go, not nurturing and watering or pruning them so they will continue to live and not die. Jesus died for us so that we could live into your three worlds… Mutuality, Equality, and Responsibility. I’ve really been focused on myself, my sadness, my goals…I needed something to kick my butt out of this place I’m in. You just gave me three words that may help do that… Now I’m off to go prune a few things.

    Much love!


  2. Thanks, Loretta…

    (btw, go to my FB page and see the video/audio of the sermon. A parishioner recorded and shared it with me. As I watched/listened, I immediately was reminded how what is written and posted as text invariably differs from what was said in real time. After all these years of public speaking, it never ceases to amaze me how often this happens AND that it happens!)

    As I continue to reflect on my question as to what God may need to prune from my life – my thoughts and feelings, my habits and attitudes, etc. – so that I may bear more and good fruit, it occurs to me that it is far easier to ask the question than to answer it. Perhaps that is because my being aware and knowledgeable of what needs to be excised from my life is not always that obvious; thus, to be aware and knowledgeable requires an inner (constant!) discernment that, perhaps, is beyond my power (and, indeed, desiring!). Nevertheless, I continue to ponder my question.

    As for you, I trust that you, with your characteristic care for others and for yourself, will arrive at the discernments necessary for you to do the most faithful thing(s).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. YES, the live version is much different. Thanks for alerting me to the video.

      I trust answers to your question will come for you as well.


  3. Paul, I so much appreciate the careful distinction you draw in this sermon between love as feeling and love as power. That is so helpful to me, particularly in the days in which we are living, in which feelings are so often drawn or driven to extremes in many, many people. There is so much anger, even rage, that seems to be picked up from the very air around us and aimed with deadly fervor toward those with whom we disagree or whom we suspect of not “being like me.” Your description of love as the “power to be benevolent, to do benevolence toward others, all others unconditionally, indiscriminately” is such an astonishingly reviving, liberating idea. It’s a way in which I can allow myself and others our legitimate feelings without being trapped or controlled or enthralled by those feelings, as I think we all too readily believe we are. It is so useful to be able to understand my own anger and the anger directed toward me by others as human responses, but also to understand that those responses do not and must not control what I choose to do with and about them.

    I was at a presentation last fall in which the speaker talked about hatred being a legitimately-evoked response to some human behaviors. I found myself choking a bit on that statement, because I don’t like to think that I am capable of hate, but the speaker then went on to say that if righteous hatred is allowed to remain hatred and to be acted upon as hatred, even to those who have perpetrated hate-worthy actions, it is purely destructive and equally as evil as the actions evoking righteous hatred. He explained that hatred as a raw response serves a useful and moral purpose, but only when it is converted to righteous anger and then is used to fuel reasoned, rational, and proportionate, if intense, words and actions in response to the hate-worthy actions of others.

    I think this is related to what you said in your sermon. We as children of God must not act on our raw emotional responses and feelings; we must convert them to something that is under the power of our will, which if we are cognizant of our heritage as children of God, is informed and contained by our relationship to the Divine. Therefore, benevolence must become and remain the bedrock of our response to any human actions or words, even if those actions and words stem from hatred or evil. We are not rendered powerless by evil, but the quality upon which we must call in order to respond to it is, at its heart, benevolence. Am I understanding rightly? I’m being kind of blown away by the power of these thoughts.

    I’m thinking that I may finally be coming to some dim understanding of what non-violent resistance actually means and what it ultimately calls for. I will admit it frightens me that I have not understood it in this way before, but it also frightens me that now I think I’m starting to see what it requires. I’m starting to think about the pruning that may be necessary in my life in response to these realizations.

    Thanks for giving me some idea if I’m on the right track here, Paul. And thanks for your provocative words in this sermon that started me down this road tonight.



    Liked by 1 person

  4. My dearest Karen, no…or rather, yes, we are NOT powerless in the face of evil. By God’s Spirit’s empowerment and, thus, enablement we can respond to evil – e’en with our feelings of hurt and anger – with good, that is, the love that unconditionally, indiscriminately acts in and with benevolence…

    As my days on this earth increase, I know mine end of life in this world draws closer. Hence, I want…I will my response to all I face be that of the embodiment of God’s love.

    With love and respect and admiration,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Paul,

      I went to sleep last night thinking about the things your sermon had stirred in me – seeing what it means to love even “enemies” in a different light and calling on a different quality within myself than I ever had ever understood before. I woke up this morning still thinking about them. In addition to your affirmation above, I opened the brief daily email meditation I receive every morning from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, and here is what it said:

      “Never wish them pain.
      That’s not who you are.
      If they caused you pain,
      They must have pain inside.
      Wish them healing.
      That’s’ what they need.”

      Najwa Zebian

      I don’t know who Najwa Zebian is, but her/his words seem an apt and timely coda to your sermon, at least the portion of it that reached off the screen and so strikingly took hold of me yesterday. Jung would call this synchronicity. (I love observing such “coincidences” in my life.) I prefer to see it as the way God and the universe shape, reinforce, and continue to create who and what I am destined to become.

      I will try to live in the light of my new understanding of the power of God’s love and my own today, Paul. I wish a rich encounter with that love to you today too. Again, I thank you for continually opening my eyes to new things.



      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Karen, always for reading and commenting. For oft it is, for me, that you and Loretta, in your observations (1) call/cause me to see something in a new and different way than I had imagined (or could have imagined, given my long-sought and, now, long-materialized/realized and predisposed worldview) and, more marvelously still, (2) call/cause me to see more clearly what I had intended through my words of which, when first writing and speaking, I was not conscious.

    Thank you for sharing the words of Najwa Zebian. As I oft say to Pontheolla when she asks a question for which I have no ready (any?) answer, “Check Saint Google!” (Who could have imagined, years ago, that today we would have at our virtual and literal fingertips access to a world-and-beyond of information?) I checked. Zebian is a Lebanese Canadian author, poet, and educator, whose passion for poetic expression, according to her bio, was nurtured by her early delving into literary world of Arabic novels and poetry. I will read more of her. Thank you, Karen, for introducing us!

    As for her words, they speak volumes to me of how to operationalize (incarnate!) God’s Love. And it is by no means a facile thing to have compassion for one who causes hurt through the recognition that s/he is in pain. Nevertheless, this is the hard road of tough love. And by “tough love”, I do not mean in the now common sense of meting out hard lessons to and for those one loves, say, in the case of a parent with an errant child. No, I mean that to love as Jesus loves is hard…tough to do…verily, to be. Yet it is the calling of all who follow him.

    Love always,

    Liked by 1 person

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