divine design – a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter

preachinga sermon, based on John 15.1-8, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, May 3, 2015

O Jesus, our true vine, by your Spirit, bind us to you in all ways. O Jesus, our true vine, by your Spirit, bear in us your fruit today. O Jesus, our true vine, by your Spirit, abide us always. Amen.

IMG_0120“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”

This past week, early one morning, strolling the grounds of Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, the bed and breakfast on the west end of town my wife, Pontheolla, and I operate, I went out to see an old wisteria vine. Looking closely, I was captivated by its divine design; how its stems twined clockwise, counterclockwise, climbing, encircling, embracing, consuming the trellis. Standing back, I noticed how indistinguishable were the branches. I couldn’t tell where one began and another ended, where one stopped and another started; except that each, growing from the center, was connected and a part of the one vine.

Ah, thank you Jesus for this glorious image of Christian community!

In Eastertide, the Great Fifty Days between Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost, we are invited to explore more deeply the meaning of the resurrection. Last Sunday, listening to Jesus, our Good Shepherd, we focused on being in community, truly being community. Today, we listen to Jesus describe his community, answering his question: Who do I say you are? What is the nature of my church rooted in my life and ministry, death and resurrection?

On occasion, I sense myself being led to preach what I call a “teaching sermon” (though, we pray, all sermons teach!), in which I probe, poke a text of scripture, peering through it as a lens seeking to perceive what Jesus might say to us today. So, again, what is the nature of Jesus’ church? Of infinite characteristics, I offer three.

Mutuality. The church as a vine is one body of fruit-bearing folk abiding, indwelling in Jesus and interconnected, encircling, embracing one another.

But let’s be honest. A communal life of mutual interdependence, one with all and all with one, and common dependence on One, Jesus, contradicts post-modern Western notions of a muscular autonomy that champions the pursuit of personal and immediate family goals often lessening, if not excluding concern for broader social relationships and issues. And let us not forget American rugged individualism, proclaiming that we each have ability to pursue and attain success, which has been a hallmark of American civil religion for nearly 100 years.

Not so for Easter-people. Rooted in Jesus, we bear his fruit. We are his fruit. (What is that fruit? Hold that thought! We’ll get to it!) Individual wants and needs, intentions and choices, rights and accomplishments are not removed, but rather reformed, transformed through our corporate ministry as fruit-bearers.

Equality. The church as a vine is radically (I don’t mean crazy, rather, from the Latin radix, root, meaning to go back to the beginning as it was meant to be) non-hierarchical; if not in structure, then in service.

Again, let’s be honest. Ecclesiastical organizations, including the Episcopal Church, are built on a grid of orders of ministry that differentiate the branches – laity, deacons, priests, and bishops. I understand the biblical antecedents and historical evolution that bore the “fruit” of these developments. I also have seen the atrophy, witnessed the withering of the vine when the operative understanding is that the function of the laity, the congregation, is to congregate and the purpose of the ministers, the ordained, is to minister. And taking that false dichotomy one step farther, when the laity take charge of the church’s temporalities, bricks and mortar, money and bills, and the clergy, the spiritualities, Bible study, prayer, and worship; and rarely the twain to meet.

Not so for Easter-people. Fruitfulness is the common concern of the laity and the clergy, who are equal in God’s sight; who, as the divine gardener, through the Spirit, prunes and shapes the vine to enhance fruitfulness.

Accountability. The church as a vine has one calling, one raison d’être. To bear fruit. What is that fruit? To be as Jesus is and to do what Jesus does. To be and to do love.

Once again, let’s be honest. We live in a world of multiple distinctions and judgments about human worthiness based on age, sex, economics, race, and social status (the dynamics, some of which, we witness being played out in Baltimore[1]).

Not so for Easter-people. Whatever our worldly standards (and, yes, we, with our individual predispositions and perspectives and prejudices do have them!), all of us, who, by the Spirit, proclaim “Jesus is Lord”, are accountable to one standard: Love as Jesus is and does.

Three ante-penultimate, next to next to last words. Again, listening to Jesus: “Abide in me as I abide in you…Those who abide in me…bear much fruit…Whoever does not abide in me…withers…If you abide in me…ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Given the historic and current squabbles and schisms in the church, note that Jesus does not say abide in doctrine. Yes, doctrine – embodied in creeds and canons by which the church articulates what it believes and how it behaves – is, for those reasons, important, but doctrine will not save us. Nor does Jesus say abide in church structures and programs. Yes, these, which give shape and sense to our ministry, are important, but they cannot save us. Jesus says, “Abide in me,” for Jesus is the balm in Gilead “to make the wounded whole…to heal the sin sick soul.”

One penultimate, next to last word. We abide in Jesus by faith – active belief, dynamic confidence, living trust that Jesus is Lord. Though the root of our faith, Jesus, does not change, our faith can change, for, as we bear fruit, it grows.

One ultimate, final word. Really, a question. At Clevedale, on occasion, we prune and shape that wisteria vine so that it will continue in good health, growing and producing the fruit of its fragrant flower. What old thought or feeling, attitude or habit abides within my faith, your faith as individuals and as the community of St. Christopher’s that blocks my, your, our bearing more fruit of love that God, the divine gardener, through the Spirit, needs to prune?

[1] Rioting, spiraling for a time in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, yet another black person who encountered the brutality of law enforcement, truly was, is rooted in abiding despair over the lack of opportunity – educational, economic, and social – experienced by many as the common characteristic of their daily existence.

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2 thoughts on “divine design – a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter

  1. Paul, let’s be honest, this sermon was simply phenomenal! On my very first trip to Clevedale which was years ago now, being in the gardens was the closest I’d felt to God in years. I feel Him and His work throughout Clevedale’s Gardens – in every vine, flower, branch, tree, blade of grass and even in the water flowing through the fountains. Whenever I come to Clevedale I throw my bags down in my assigned room, then run out to have my talk with God!! It’s a deeply spiritual feeling I only experience in the beauty of outdoors.

    Being intertwined with communities can bring out the best and worst in us at times and as you pointed out we have recognize when and where we may need pruning (and how much we pruning we need too). I’m keeping this sermon!! The only other thing I need to say to everything you wrote is Amen!! And thank you!!!

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  2. Thank you, Loretta, BOTH for your sermon commentary (always appreciated!) AND for your testimony to your spiritual connection with and refreshment in God via the outdoors, in general, and through Clevedale, in particular. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I surely have found it true – and your words speak for me – in my new life here. So, to you, as you shared with me, I say, amen! And thank you!

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