2 Corinthians 5:6-10
I don’t know if you watch Gardener’s World. On Friday Monty Don was talking about potting up seedlings, which reminded me that was a job that I needed to do. His yarrow seedlings were just right – the roots had reached the bottom of the plug, but no more. Alas, his basil seedlings had become plug bound – he had left it a little late, and too much root had grown. He said you have to wait until the seedlings are just ready to pot up, and then waste no time – get on with it!
I imagine, however, that if we watched Gardener’s World and Monty told us that this was the week for sowing dandelions in our lawn, or nettles in our lettuce bed, we might wonder if he’d caught a touch of the sun. Except there hasn’t been any sun…
It would be a strange thing to tell us to plant weeds in our carefully cultivated gardens or window boxes. But that is the story that Jesus tells us today. Someone sows a mustard seed. And you have to ask why. The mustard plants that grow in the Holy Land are invasive weeds. True, their seeds are used for flavouring, but you don’t need much, and there’s always some growing out by the roadside, disregarded most of the time. But you want to keep it out of your garden or your field, because it would quickly take over. It’s not something that anyone would grow on purpose.
And yet, in the parable, someone sows a mustard seed. Stranger still, it grows into the biggest shrub of all and all the birds of the air shelter under its branches. Well, mustard isn’t that big, really. It’s a thin straggly plant about six feet high, and wouldn’t provide much shade for anything.
So we enter the mysterious parallel universe of the parables. Much of the teaching of Jesus in the first three gospels takes the form of parables, and they are more than just metaphorical stories. They describe reality differently from what we are used to. They challenge our perception and our priorities. They invite us to enter a deepened awareness, a new consciousness, of something that Jesus is holding out to us but that we can’t grasp in terms of life as we know it. The parables are windows into a new and different reality.
What reality is that? It is the reality that led the first Christians to record these teachings of Jesus in the first place. The reality of the risen Lord, the living presence in their midst. The reality of the life that had burst victorious from the tomb, from the place of apparent final defeat. The reality of their own lives being transformed by the deathless, utterly loving life of God.
It is that reality which undergirds the whole gospel. The resurrection, the life of God breaking in to the world in the place of rejection and defeat, is the key to understanding everything in the gospels and indeed everything in the Bible.
Which is I think why a number of the parables are about sowing seed, with its resonances of death, burial and resurrection. Jesus himself makes this link in John’s Gospel, where speaking about his death he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” St Paul in 1 Corinthians uses the same imagery to speak of the resurrection, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.”
So it’s significant that in this parable of the mustard seed it is a weed that is sown. The disregarded, roadside plant that you wouldn’t want in your garden becomes an image of Jesus who was despised and rejected. The rubbish seed that no-one wants is thrown into the ground. And, miraculously, it rises, and becomes a great tree, giving shelter to all creatures. Just as Jesus, raised from the dead, becomes the one in whom all will find their true life and true home.
The resurrection reveals the Kingdom of God and opens the Kingdom to all believers. “What can we say the Kingdom of God is like?” asks Jesus. The Kingdom is God’s rule, God’s justice, God’s life, enacted in the world. The Kingdom is everything as God intends it to be. In the Kingdom all that has been wrong is put right, and there is no death, because it is the world fully alive in God and there is no death in God.
In his teaching Jesus talks about the Kingdom both as something that is to come, and as something already present, for those who have eyes to see. In the Jewish tradition of the temple the Kingdom was the hidden reality at the heart of creation, always present but concealed, waiting to be manifested like a seed hidden in the earth, biding its time.
In Jesus God’s kingdom has become real in the world. In his human life God’s rule, God’s life, entered the world. In his resurrection the Kingdom has triumphed in the place of rejection and defeat. The discarded seed has become the Kingdom of God. The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone. As St Paul says in Romans, Colossians and Ephesians, this is the mystery which was hidden for past ages and has now been revealed in Jesus.
That reality has always been present, whether people have been waking or sleeping, aware or unaware. But now Jesus has risen, the green blade has burst from the earth, and the harvest has come. The Kingdom is revealed, and all people may enter in.
And the harvest of God’s Kingdom always begins on the edges, at the margins, in the place of rejection and defeat. Because that is where the Kingdom has entered the world in Jesus.
In our own lives, where is God at work? Where is God’s Kingdom becoming real, for us? Is it when we are comfortable, at ease, unchallenged, satisfied with ourselves, when we think our life is what we make it? I don’t think so. Is it not rather in the times of loss and sorrow, the times of emptiness and failure and disorientation, the times when we know we come with empty hands to receive our true life from God?
So too with those we welcome and serve in the Church. It is no accident that the attention of the Church – if it is being true to its calling – is so often on the margins of society, the rejected, the excluded, the misfits. This is not just because we feel sorry for people. It is because that actually is the priority of God’s Kingdom. It is where God is bringing about his rule and his new life. And if the rich and the comfortable and the at-ease get into the Kingdom it will be hanging on to the ragged coat tails of the poor, the despised, and the rejected of the earth.
So when we pray, as Jesus taught us, “Thy Kingdom come”, we are praying for that reality of God’s rule and God’s life to take root and fill the land. We are praying for it to become real in our own lives, and in those around us, so that the world can be transformed by the risen Christ. And we are praying for a new awareness, to be enlightened so we can see God’s Kingdom, the mystery hidden through past ages and now revealed in Jesus Christ.