Mark 4:26-34, The Word Implanted Sprouts and Grows
[June 14, 2015] This is the second Sunday to follow Trinity Sunday, the third since Pentecost. Last Sunday the gospel text introduced the family of Jesus, where he has made his true hearth and home. A line was drawn between them and those who thought they understood much more than they did and judged Jesus on the basis of their blindness to the reality of him.
If the Gospel according to Mark teaches us anything, it is that we are blind and do not know it, confident instead in what seems “obvious” to us, and that reality, while there, is impossible for us to grasp without denying our own soul. Apart from the way of the cross, we can neither grasp the reality of our sin nor the reality of the incarnation (who Jesus is). We are locked in the vault of the world, caught up in a hall of mirrors, the delusions out of which we have constructed a false self, which in turn contributes to the integrity of the world around us. We cannot extricate ourselves from it.
How we escape the world is instead by the initiative and kindness of God who comes to us via the Holy Spirit, planting a smidgeon of truth in us, a little seed, that grows … It is by the divine word, coming to us inwardly by the Spirit, carried by the linguistic kernel of the Gospel. At least, that is that with which the gospels are concerned. Like a seed that can split open a huge rock, eventually that little seed of the word can break open the delusions of our self and expose it to the sun of God’s holiness and love.
It is not easy to “renounce the self”, “take up one’s cross,” and “lose our soul.” It is the path that Jesus himself took. This was the meaning of his baptism and testing in the desert. It was how he “bound the strong man” so he could then plunder the strong man’s house. He became a penitent who heard the call of the prophets of Israel and placed himself under the judgment of God, loving the holiness that judges all that is, and loving the One whose holiness it is. He entered into complete solidarity with us as a sinner, not of course having sinned, but putting himself in our place, on a level with us, loving us not as the sovereign that he is innately but as a friend. Indeed, his renunciation involved hiding that sovereignty and taking the place of a servant (of God, God’s slave) in all things.
And he calls us to do the same. This is the key to discipleship. Here is our Redeemer, who has redeemed us and whose redemption is our only salvation, and calls us to himself that we might follow him, follow in the way he leads—which is the way of the cross.
So we are glad that you have come to Jesus and own him as your Savior. But have we? Or have we merely fallen for an image of Jesus made more according to our own liking? Well, God’s grace begins its work in us in our ignorance, and in the beginning it is hard to tell whether we have really heard Jesus and come to him as our Redeemer, or have been swayed by another just phantom, a creation of our imagination (or the imagination of others). Our enthusiasm may grow, but what is it that is growing? Sometimes there is all kinds of lush growth, but the growth of the seed of the word may actually be quite small or not even there. It is possible even for all that lush “Christian” growth to choke the little sprout of God’s word that is struggling to grow, or for the little seed of God’s word to have never really penetrated the soil at all and to already have blown away by the time all this growth takes place. Sometimes those hard places in our soul, those ideas and prejudices to which we attach and hang on to for dear life, actually prevent the seed from ever penetrating into one’s spirit where its roots needs to take hold.
When Jesus calls people to come to him and makes him their own, his disciples, he calls us to follow him on the path that he has taken in the world, to renounce our self, to take up our own cross (an implement of shame, rejection and death), and to place ourselves in solidarity with all others under the judgment of God as a penitent, one who freely and with trembling humility acknowledges one’s own sin and implication in the world, who loves God and loves God’s holiness and relies on the mercy and forgiveness and grace of God for all things, living—as Jesus did—in the joy of it, knowing our sin but knowing also the love of our Father. This is the path we are called to follow, and it is on this path that our growth takes place.
The two parables in today’s gospel text concern growth, the growth of the Word in the world. It seems to me that the farmer is our Lord Jesus who has with abandon cast the seed of the Word (the Gospel) upon the field of the world into the soil of human hearts. The Holy Spirit causes the growth; which happens in a way that is imperceptive and mysterious. We are still the sinners that we have always been, and we are still enmeshed in the world, even if only by our past conditioning, and yet the Word has worked in our spirit through the Holy Spirit and, both from pressing within and by outward suffering, has broken down the hardness of our soul, and its life has begun to permeate the character of our soul; a change begins to be seen. Moreover others are affected and (eventually) softened by this change, and the Word—when given the opportunity by its expression—begins to reach out and implant itself in others.
When will the “grain” be ripe? When will the full grain show itself in the head? In other words, when is it time for the harvest? Before we can answer that, we might ask to what the harvest refers. The harvest is a time for celebrating with thanksgiving all that God has given. The grain has ripened, it is harvested, and now it is offered to God and celebrated with thanksgiving in a shared feast. When we have matured, our fruit is now ready to be shared with others as a harvest. It seems to me that this is the nature of ministry—within the church and vicariously for the world. How little today’s churches give opportunity for most of this harvest to be expressed and shared! It is because of the pettiness and tyranny of those in “ministry,” who often lack any spiritual credentials, however much credit they have acquired world-wise.
Perhaps here the harvest refers to something a little more abstract than that. For the church (and the disciple) lives in humiliation now; we are sinners in solidarity with sinners, interceding for the world and bearing the love of God to others in the way of the cross. Our maturity takes place along this pathway. At the harvest we are resurrected and begin to partake in glory. Though the character of God is itself humble, and that humility is never left behind, our glory is that we begin to partake in the nature of God in a more manifest way, for now our participation is hidden from the world. All that the world can see now (as manifest) are the works of the Holy Spirit, unless the Spirit opens a person’s eyes and they begin to see what is outwardly hidden. The harvest is when the church shifts from “church militant” to “church victorious.” And perhaps that coming into immensity is what the next parable refers to.
The mustard seed refers to our small beginnings in grace. We may be quite cocky and think we have almost immediately come to know everything but at that point our faith is really just a mustard seed. And collectively the church had humble beginnings too. But with time it begins to grow. (Growth is the common theme that links all these parables.) However, the actual church remains humble in this world even though it may have numerical growth. Yes, it became something great in the Byzantine and Roman worlds, and that served its growth, but even in those times the church expressed itself in humility and, indeed, in poverty. The growth in power resulted in incessant arguing which wearied the world and made room, in the providence of God, for the expansion of Islam. However we see this, the church with its bullying and violence was no longer fit and people took the opportunity to escape it, however they struggled internally with their love for Jesus (Islam still honors Jesus). Islam swept through Northern Africa where was the stronghold of both Byzantine and Roman Christianity (Alexandria and Carthage), and Palestine and Syria, etc. Whether Christianity in the East (China, Mongolia, Tibet, etc.), where it was also strong and where it was likewise violently overtaken by the eleventh or twelfth centuries, had acquired the same weaknesses or whether it was simply overcome by force, I do not know.
The mustard tree is like the growth of the tree in Ezekiel 17:22-24. The branches of the tree speak of the kingdom’s international expansion, and the birds of the air speak of the family of nations (the gentiles). The kingdom of God can expand even if the church remains humble. God is at work in the world and not only the church which bears the testimony of Jesus. Many outside the church respond to Jesus and the Lordship of Jesus has sometimes great sway over them even though they do not come to the faith. This parable could refer to that. However, Christianity has also spread in our days (the last two centuries) throughout Africa and Asia, and the influence of the kingdom of God affects more than the churches and believers in those continents. Even in secularized Europe and North America, Christian values continue to dominate those cultures. It does so alongside an anti-Christianity (a depersonalized, institutionalized, and technological—“technicized”—version of these values and hence “anti” in the sense of pseudo), a resurgence of popular paganism (which often conceals within it Christian creation-values) and blatant materialism, violence and greed (the opposite of Christianity though often in its name).
But the most obvious meaning, after the Constantinization of the church (even though it still continues to this day, though with its feathers plucked), is that the growth of the tree refers to after the coming of Christ in glory, in the days of the resurrection, the days of the kingdom, prior to the enfolding of time back into eternity. A change will take place in the structure of the universe itself, of which the little flock of the church presently is only a harbinger by its testimony to Jesus and his resurrection. Though we have died, we will be raised, our persons somehow intact, and we will live again, but this time in conformity to Christ’s own resurrection. Not only we, but creation itself will experience this so that eventually the entire creation, everything in heaven and on earth (the invisible and the visible) will partake in the glorification of the resurrection. Nature will at last be divinized (in the sense that the definition of Chalcedon, 451, defines). Before that day, however, the resurrected church, which now is only a mustard seed, will become a great tree reaching out to the ends of the earth, giving a home for all the birds of the air to roost. Is not this the picture in the Book of the Revelation, chapters 21—22, where all the nations of the earth continually enter the New Jerusalem (the Bride of Christ) by its gates and drink of the water of life and eat the fruit of the tree of life for their healing, with the invitation to stay? That picture indeed fulfills the meaning of this parable. Could Jesus have intended less by it?