It’s hard to know where to get started when we are journeying with Jesus. For so long, it seems to me like our faith has been reduced to a matter of principles. Evangelicals in the 20th Century reduced it to fundamentals. C.S. Lewis wrote a book about the subject called Mere Christianity (I’m a fan of Lewis, but not so much what followed him). There may be some basic and important things about our faith, but thanks to the architects of the Enlightenment in Europe, it has sometimes been reduced to mental assent. In other words, our faith is just about having the right ideas in our heads, memorizing the right Bible verses, making sure the right creeds are recited and supposedly believed. In fact, for many people, you can’t be a believer until you agree to the right doctrine.
Christians, throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, spent a lot of time debating what the basics of Christianity were, the starting point if you will. Today, in the slowly adapting Christian subculture, we are still debating old issues. My class was embroiled in a discussion on Wednesday on a controversial subject, and it left me wondering if anyone else in the region would remotely be interested in our minutia. While Christians are engaged in a conversation that begins and ends in our minds, the rest of the country and especially the northeast of the United States, has a different kind of philosophical persuasion.
As opposed to considering and subsequently cementing a philosophy (one that can suffer no alteration or else it might break), I think postmodernists simply select the philosophy for the time and place that they find themselves in. That level of adaption can vary rapidly. Literally, someone can change their mind about something the next day. Who’s the more foolish? The person who resolutely doesn’t change? Or the one who is loose as a goose? Another question is what is better to plant a seed in? Cement or the air itself? It turns out both are foolish.
I don’t think I’ve had success living in either camp. The world is bigger than my brain, and it’s also bigger than my eyes. I try not to be so rigid with my ideas because they aren’t the things that define me. However, neither is merely my vantage point. The alternative community that we are forming here poses a different option: revelation. The truth is revealed in the body and that revelation happens in a process.
One way that we’ve expressed this journey and this process is in the Way of Jesus. It’s not just a website, but much of the content that I am talking about tonight is on that site. One of the sayings that may describe this process is that it takes a lifetime. The Way of Jesus isn’t about mental assent and it isn’t about consuming the most popular ideology of the day. It’s about entering into a body, into a tribe.
We are helping people “get from here to there.” You may be tempted to make this a linear process. But even the concept of linearity, the idea that you can only be in one place and not another, may lead you to judge yourself as better or worse depending on where you find yourself in this journey. Like many things, this is a both/and journey. We are always starting fresh in every stage of our maturation. Each of the four stages may be present in us—it’s more circular than linear.
Today, we’re in the ground. We are planted roots and seeds. Think sprouts and roots, breezes blowing in the change of season and scattering seeds, sun-greening leaves and lighting causing blazes, rain and river nourishing growth.
The image of planting seeds is an old one. The parable of the sower gives us a great image of faith. Let’s go to Matthew 13. Jesus uses a lot of agricultural imagery in this chapter mainly because his audience would clearly understand it. I think for the most part, even though we live in a concrete jungle, we basically know these images. Let’s start at v. 1.
The seed here is the word of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the word of God planted in the earth—the seed of reconciliation, the regenerative power of eternity in time. The image of seed and soil is not the only metaphor that makes sense in “earth.” God is our lover and we are his bride. His desire is for us and his seed generates new life in us.
In Matthew, the seeds that Jesus is planting are seeds of faith expressed in stories. They are sowed generously, since Jesus shares his stories publicly, but they only grow in certain hearts, in certain ears, among certain people. Matthew uses this story as a way to begin the parabolic discourse in his Gospel. Jesus is using stories to spread his seeds because not all ears are innocent, some cause trouble, some intend to trip him up.
Going back to the story, Matthew’s Gospel is all about this conflict that Jesus is having with the Jewish authorities who oppose him, who are threatened by him, who are interested in killing him. So, he is speaking in something of a code. The disciples actually ask this question in the same chapter—why do you speak in parables?—and the reason he lists is so that those who have ears can hear. Blessed are those who can hear these messages, who have a little bit of the seed in them.
If you look at the text itself you may add the interpretation of the words that you’ve heard before (or that Jesus supplies later on in the passage). But it’s a fairly straightforward image, but that’s all it is. Jesus doesn’t even make it clear to his public audience that he’s telling them a story that needs to be unpacked. Parables are interesting ways of delivering the truth. They don’t fit into the molds of the world, they are new, but they are intriguing.
Ben White, one of our pastors, shared with me this definition of parables from C.H. Dodd: At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.
It’s not meant to be clear, it’s not meant to be consumable. It’s not meant to offer us a simple didactic application, nor made into some edible allegory. It’s left to make us ponder. In some sense, that’s what faith in Jesus is like, too. That seed of faith that’s planted in you, it might take time to grow. Your expectation of it and its trajectory may not even help grow. You may assess and judge and think it’s bad seed and you’re a bad seed. Let it be. Receive it. Let it grow.
Jesus befuddles his disciples at this point, though, and so they ask him to explain the parable a little more. Let’s keep reading, now we’re at v. 18.
Jesus privately speaks to his disciples and offers his interpretation of the parable. Really, this is a meta-parable in many respects. It’s about listening. It’s about responding to God. In his analysis of the parable, it isn’t Jesus that’s making the people not listen, they just haven’t cultivated themselves as listeners. Jesus is trying to help his disciples listen to what he’s saying because they’ve proven themselves as loyal followers.
For the interested and the engaged, your seed is working and it’s growing. Thank God. He’s sustaining it. What do you do? You plant it. You set in roots, in a good and fertile soil. For some of us that means we need to uproot ourselves. That can be a painful process. There are so many things that we may need to be uprooted from, or to draw from the previous analogy, there are things that strangle us and our seeds. You can make a list of them if you like with me: our families, our loneliness, a bad relationship, our jobs, our mental health, our physical well being, a consumer debt. We may need to be uprooted because our ground is too rigid and won’t let us grow.
We plant and re-plant all through life—sometimes you get uprooted—it can feel raw, like you’re dangling. In these times, remember that there’s more going on below in the soil of your heart than you can see. Christ is at home in our hearts—renovation is messy—trust in Him. This takes time, but it comes as does the bearing of fruit in season. We can’t create fruit with our will or desire. It is the product of the process of staying at the water and letting our roots go deep.
Circle of Hope is a great place to be planted and replanted. Your cell is a good place to start your journey or even revisit the start of it or where you are. Sometimes even getting into a cell with people who are new to faith or enthusiastic about our mission might invigorate you. Those fertile environments are good for us. I think we are creating a culture of growth, personal and otherwise.
I think our community can help us feel comforted when we’ve been uprooted. Our leaders can help us know where our growth may be even if we feel dead. Jesus, as expressed in his body, can help us trust in Him and his process. You might even want to view the whole body here as a stream by which you can plant your water. It will take time to grow, but be gentle to yourself as you go through this process and know that you aren’t ‘stuck’ here, and that God could be using you and growing you in other areas of your life. Let your roots grow deep and be patient at they do, perhaps that patience to let the growth and the rootedness come when it does is part of the process too. Maybe getting there will get you where you think you should be.