GROWTH BEHIND THE SCENES
Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday after Trinity the 14th June 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Ezekiel 17: 22-end 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17 S. Mark 4: 26-34
2 Corinthians 5: 14-15 “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
The readings selected today point us to the fact that where the progress of God’s Kingdom is concerned, things are not always as they immediately may seem to be. Growth of an important sort may take place out of sight and behind the scenes, and only afterwards does the extent of it become evident. This is true about quite ordinary things of course. The growth of a child is invisible to the eye, and then it seems all of a sudden that that child has become fully a man or a woman. The restoration of a society after a hurricane is scarcely discernible while it happens, but all of a sudden things seem to become normal. The travails of the science or mathematics teacher in trying to connect what seems evident to his or her mind to the unfolding mind of a child seem at the time to be unending and unprofitable, until all of a sudden the light of comprehension dawns and progress is possible. It is true of course about negative things, like the development of a disease or a tumour, or the infestation of a kitchen or a wardrobe with cockroaches. It is better to catch them early, but they have a way of creeping up on you before they are revealed as a serious issue.
The two parables our Lord uses in the Gospel today are of seeds that are scattered or sown, and as such are left to do their own thing, so to speak. They begin very tiny, but in due course they sprout and grow. Whatever the gardener or the farmer contributes then to their growth is not given any part in these parables. There is the period in which whether growth takes place or not does not depend upon him. Between the initial and final activities of sowing and reaping it is a matter of confidence in the vitality of the seed and in the fruitfulness of the interaction between seed and soil. Jesus said that the tiny mustard seed grows into a tree that is larger than the other plants in the garden. Behind the scenes the seeds of the Word of God or of Christian teaching or example will take root and become in time a force to be reckoned with wherever they are planted. Obvious and immediate growth may not be evident, but that does not mean that nothing is happening. That can be true of course of the Church, be it an individual congregation or the Church as a whole. If it is the seeds of the Kingdom of God that are being scattered, we may be sure that there will be some large trees eventually.
The Lord could have had in mind the words of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel in our first lesson when He used the parable of the mustard seed. Ezekiel had spoken not of a seed, but of taking a young shoot from the top of a cedar tree, and planting it out in order for it to become a great tree itself. Ezekiel prophesied that the Lord Himself would do this to show that by His power the high could become low and the dried up or powerless could flourish. Ezekiel was saying in the form of an allegory that a new prince from the Davidic line of kings would be appointed in the place of a discredited king who had broken solemn agreements. It is always part of the prophetic outlook that real growth or changes may be occurring out of sight to spring forth at a later time.
This prophetic outlook is actually embodied in the whole Christian world-view. The death of Jesus on the Cross was in immediate terms the most horrific thing imaginable, and in those immediate terms it is, as St. Paul says elsewhere, a stumbling-block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek. St. Paul says that he himself once regarded Christ in this sort of way, or in his terms “according to the flesh”. But the death and the Resurrection of Jesus were the key behind-the-scenes moves through which mankind could be created anew. In today’s passage from 2 Corinthians, St. Paul describes that new human creation as a life that is controlled by the love of Christ. The love of Christ controls us, he says, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. Now what Paul is describing is the new perspective, the new and radically different world-view that we as Christians are called to take on, the flourishing of the mustard-seed, so to speak, that has been planted within us. The cost of discipleship is the cost of dying. Christ has died not only in our place, but on our behalf. Since He died on our behalf, that means that in Him, we have died. But He was raised from the dead too, and in His Resurrection those that are His have been raised to life too. Paul concludes that those who live, do so no longer for themselves, but for Him. We no longer look at people and life in the old way of humanity. We have taken on the new world-view of Jesus Christ. All this is part of what is meant by being a new creation. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.”
It is tempting, isn’t it, to put this all down to what we might consider to be St. Paul’s extravagant ways of expressing himself. Most of us are probably painfully aware that there is much about our own personal life that doesn’t seem to be as different as we might think it ought to be from those who register little or no belief in God that are all around us. How can we possibly think of ourselves as participating in a “new creation” when we see the boldness of unbelievers and feel all the humdrum pressures that not only are common to humanity but seem magnified in ourselves? How can we think of ourselves as being a new creation when we ourselves are tempted and battling with sin of one kind or another? Well, the themes of the Word of God today can help us. First, let us remember that this is a work in progress, not one that will ever be quite completed on this side of eternity. The words of St Paul can come to our rescue again. “So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight” - verse 6 of 2 Cor 5. Although Christians are not “away from the Lord” in an absolute sense, so long as we are in the body we are to a degree separated from Him. The new world-view must always be maintained and renewed through faith, rather than by sight. It is by faith and not by sight that we can say, “the old has passed away, behold the new has come.”
But let us remember too about the seed of the Kingdom of God that becomes eventually a force to be reckoned with only by its hidden growth. We are not permitted to see all that is taking place behind the scenes, in the way of transformation. The mustard seeds and the plant-food, so to speak, of faith, our baptism and all the means of grace have been bestowed upon us. We are not permitted to see the growth that is taking place that will eventually blossom and bloom in eternity. Let us not doubt that our destiny is to be controlled by the love of Christ, who died and rose again for us, that we too might live for Him. Let us not be daunted, and in faith at every step, choose our destiny.