Trinity 2 – Mark 4.26-34
Rev'd Daniel Irvine
Today we come across a most familiar image from our gospels, the parables of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed. And I am going to apologise in advance for getting a bit technical today, but I hope you’ll see the need for it by the end.
You see these parables, or ones very similar to them, appear throughout the gospels, likening the kingdom of God to the growth of a seed, a mustard seed or the action of yeast or leaven within a batch of dough.
The common nature of these parables across gospels are important because it helps scholars to trace back these examples to the earliest days of the faith, even to Jesus himself.
It is hard to sometimes get into our minds that the gospels were firstly not written as histories but secondly, they were not written during the lifetime of Jesus, nor the likely lifetimes of any of the 12 Apostles, no matter to whom tradition attributes their creation.
It is a universally regarded fact amongst biblical scholars that Mark was by far the earliest of the four gospels, written most likely in the mid to late 60s C.E, but possibly the early 70s. Matthew and Luke follow in later 70s and 80s, with John written no earlier than the mid-90s and possibly as late as 110 C.E.
What this means is that sayings and teachings that can be attributed to the earliest days of Christianity are important to detect, as are the latter developments of the early church and its reactions to its own growth and development.
It is important because of the priority of the message these parables convey.
A farmer plants a seed, a mustard seed is sown, a woman leavens some dough…
The dough rises to form bread to eat, the seeds germinate into grain to make the bread and the mustard seed, from such small beginnings turns into a shrub that is almost considered a weed, overpowering the surrounding plants to make a place where birds can even come and nest.
Does the woman make the bread rise?
Does the farmer make the seed germinate?
Does the Sower somehow make the mustard tree branch out?
The answer I think is no.
These things seem to happen on their own accord, without any real input from the subjects of their respective clauses apart from the initial action.
And to such can be likened the kingdom of God!
Growing, rising, all without people really knowing how or why.
To me this is an important image and message, because it seems to run contrary to another message that we hear an awful lot these days, from many Christians and even our own Diocesan leadership, about what we are doing to “grow the Church”, often spoken almost as an accusation than a question.
You may have even heard Bishop Keith speak and preach at great length on Matthew 28.19 or what is commonly known as “The Great Commission”, and that is fine.
Except it seems to be determining the whole of Diocesan policy and direction, which is less fine, (albeit understandable given the fact that the movement begun by Jesus has become an organisation that needs to now support and sustain itself).
The determined focus on this one passage is even more unmerited when it is examined and found to be one of those much later additions to gospels, added by the early Church at least 50 years after Jesus lived and not found in any other of the gospels.
(You need to bear in mind that a similar verse sometimes found in Mark is part of an ending that was added by some scribes years after even Matthew was written).
The verse in Matthew gives itself away by referencing the Trinity in the baptismal formula, something that was a much later development in theological thinking as the Church grappled with its understanding of how God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit might be related.
But the biggest problem perhaps, with the emphasis on one particular verse is that it somehow shifts the ability to grow the kingdom from the mystery of God, conveyed by our reading today, to Us, which I simply don’t think is true to the teaching of the historical Jesus.
Now this is by no means an invitation to absolve us, as followers of Jesus, from playing our part.
Seeds still need to be planted and dough still needs to be leavened.
But the growth itself needs to be left to God.
When we become obsessed with trying to work out how we are going to grow God’s kingdom we place undue stress and weight on ourselves by trying to claim a role that is rightfully left for God.
What might even be worse still is that when we become obsessed with trying to take on God’s role for ourselves and make numerical growth the aim of all our efforts, then we forget to play our part in the real mission of God!
This mission is not to grow the Church so the kingdom somehow can be realized, as some would have us think, but to live as if the kingdom is already amongst us, to help the poor, feed the hungry and make whole and restore those who are hurt, lost, and broken.
The proof, if you need convincing, is in parables like Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 and the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46.
In Luke, The Rich Man ignored the plight of Lazarus and suffered for it accordingly.
In Matthew, those who called out “Lord, Lord” were not saved because of any unbelief but because they failed to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, give clothes to the naked, or welcome and invite in the stranger. (Those Christians in successive Federal Governments would do well to think on that one for a bit).
And I suspect that if we spend more time following in the footsteps and example of Jesus, more time being salt and light to the world around us, then we may be surprised at the growth God brings from the seeds we plant and the leaven we mix, even if it doesn’t always reflect our congregation sizes.
Of course, I may be completely wrong, but I know where I’d prefer to put my efforts, and my conscience, I think, would be satisfied to fail in trying to follow the footsteps of Jesus than to succeed in most anything else.
So let us pray:
Dear Lord, Almighty God and Father, we ask you to guide and strengthen us on our journey as followers of your incarnate Son. Help us to always walk the path he has shown us and to follow the example he has given us. Taking our own parts as members of his body in working towards the fulfilment of your mission and leaving to you those things that are rightfully yours. We make this prayer in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.