“Storied into the Christ Mystery”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (NRSV)
It seems to me that Christians often use the term kingdom of God as synonymous with heaven. And while we take both of these mysteries on faith alone, and while we speak of both of them metaphorically, the similarities pretty much end there.
Jesus speaks far more often of the kingdom of God than he does of heaven. And God’s realm isn’t some ultimate Eden or Shangri-la. The kingdom of God is Jesus’ metaphor for a way of holy living in the here-and-now. To inhabit the kingdom of God, we deliberately, and with significant effort, sacrifice, and shortcoming live the life of Christ—the life of radical grace in which we celebrate all life as holy. That means working for justice for all peoples, loving one another as God loves us, and caring for the earth as stewards who recognize the eternal and immutable interdependence of all things.
While that may sound like pie-in-the-sky, it calls us to the hard work of nurturing the creative, relational, human community which the Holy Spirit is always forming and re-forming. Our experience of this beloved community happens as we participate in it, as we release pride, fear, and greed, and approach everything we say and do with Christ-like gratitude and generosity. These interactions become the turning of soil. They’re the scattering of seeds of justice, kindness, and humility, after which we “sleep and rise night and day.” That is, we let go of the need to control outcomes. We simply trust that God gives growth to whatever God plants.
I was talking with Cari Gregg last week, and she seemed a little overwhelmed. That happens to virtually everyone at the beginning of something new. Like a farmer standing over a brand-new field, Cari doesn’t yet understand the potentials or the needs of the soil. Nor has she experienced the rhythms of the climate. While I didn’t think to use Jesus’ agrarian metaphors, my advice to her was, essentially, to go out into the field. Let her shadow fall across it. Get to know it. Visit the kids and their parents. That’s how we scatter the seeds from which God creates things like mustard plants, oak trees, and youth groups.
When farmers plant their crops, they usually have some purpose or vision in mind. Ultimately, though, planting is an act of faith. The weather does what it does. Farmers come and go. To plant is to trust that, come what may, God is the life-force, the heartbeat, the eternal yes within all living things, and God will grow what a given field has been gifted to grow. And sometimes, by grace, God reveals purposes that we don’t anticipate.
The house two doors down from us was sold over a month ago, and the new residents haven’t moved in. The yard, which the previous owners had seeded, and re-seeded, and tended with care used to grow only grass. As the earth reclaimed the yard, though, several kinds of wildflowers flourished, daisies in particular. I’d never seen any indication of such gifts beneath the surface of that manicured yard. But there they came, bright, healthy, and even edible! (Pro-tip for eating daisies: They taste much better when bathed in ranch dressing.)
“With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them.” Apparently, there were plenty of parables Jesus told that never got recorded. He walked about, constantly telling these short, simple, earthy stories and implying that crucial insights on the meaning of life had been planted in each one. The problem was that Jesus didn’t reveal those secrets to anyone except the twelve disciples. Mark says that Jesus spoke to the people only in parables, and let each person understand as they were able.
The telling of parables is itself the sowing of seed. And each day, hearing hearts could be good soil; or they could be hardened paths, or rocky ground, or thorn-choked jungles. So, Jesus kept telling the stories and allowing the Spirit to give the growth. His teaching was an act of vulnerability, as well, because, from day one, many hearers’ hearts grew only the weeds of fear and resentment.
The Greek word from which we get our word gospel means “good news,” but not everyone hears goodness in Jesus’ words. Any time a prophetic voice speaks to God’s radical grace and field-leveling love for the entire Creation, those who have become dependent upon the privileges of status and wealth become defensive. That was certainly the case among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. In Jesus’ teachings, their hearts heard a threat to their hold on political and religious power. We can imagine them feeling especially threatened when Jesus spoke in parables that many of them couldn’t understand, but which many of those who were poor, marginalized, and exploited did understand. And it would have surely rankled these wealthy, powerful men to see people they had manipulated for personal gain being affirmed by Jesus’ defiant kindness and energized by his selfless love.
This is where the difference between the Kingdom of God and whatever heaven may or may not be comes into play.
Now, while I’m not denying or dismissing heaven, no one knows for certain what happens when our human bodies die. Yes, we have the witness of scripture. Yes, there are the claims made in books like Heaven Is for Real and Proof of Heaven. Nonetheless, the post-mortem mystery is entirely a matter of faith, and the best we can do is trust the boundless grace of God. To dangle people between heaven and hell and call it proclaiming God’s good news is to exploit both the gospel and the people with whom we share it.
Jesus’ primary concern for his followers transcends their deaths. He wants them to realize a vision of God’s kingdom as an earthly reality, something in which they—in which we—participate daily and on both personal and communal levels. Jesus calls us into fields of service in which we help sow the seeds of faith, hope, love, and justice.
It’s been said that Jesus told so many parables that he became one. And maybe that’s what he wants us to become—human parables. Since our bodies do, quite literally, rise from the earth and return to the earth, we are truly earthen vessels. We are soil in which God has planted seeds of wholeness and holiness. So, we have an intimate and immediate stake in living according to the ways of God’s justice and peace. Our bodies and those of our neighbors, the bodies of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field,” all depend on the ability of humankind to see ourselves as inseparable from and responsible to all that God has created.
Again, that’s the point of Jesus’ parables.
He stories us into the Christ mystery.
He calls us, as parables, to live as signs of God’s realm of grace.
He invites us to inhabit and to welcome others into the kingdom of God which is already here-and-now. Today.