July 17, 2011
(Wisdom 12,13 & 16-19; Matthew 13, 24-30.) (Family Communion + Baptisms)
I’ve just planted a patch of earth in our garden with wild flower seeds. I cleared the earth of weeds before I sowed the seeds, but now they’ve germinated, I don’t know whether what is growing are flowers or weeds. I’m going to have to wait until they’re much bigger, perhaps even until they flower, before I do anything about the weeds.
And if I did then decide to remove the weeds what could I do? Well, I could use weedkiller. Trouble is, I would be likely to kill off all the flowers I’d planted as well. Or, I could use a hoe. That’s O.K. when you have clear rows of sturdy plants, but, with flowers, you are likely to chop off things you want to keep. Or, I could pull up the weeds. That would be very time consuming; and I would risk disturbing the roots of the flowers, so they might die. So I think I’ll just enjoy whatever grows in that particular patch – and hope the bees and the butterflies enjoy them too.
When Jesus told this story about the man who planted wheat in his field, and then found weeds growing up, he knew what he was talking about. The decision of the farmer not to try to separate the two until harvest time was the right one. In a field of wheat, it would be extremely difficult to tell the weeds, which would probably be a form of wild grass, and would look exactly the same as the wheat until the ears of corn were formed. Much better to wait until harvest time to sort them out.
The story says the man’s servants thought someone had come deliberately and sown the weeds in the crop. But of course, in an open field, or even in a garden, it’s very easy for weed seeds to get mixed in with the good seed. They are brought by birds or on the fur of animals, or blown by the wind. In any open piece of ground, it is inevitable that both the good things you want to grow and the weeds you want to get rid of grow up together.
I don’t know whether you saw a TV programme recently which featured the Blue Peter gardener, Chris Collins, talking about weeds. He made the point that many of our garden flowers started out as weeds. Then someone thought they were attractive, brought seeds to grow in better soils, cross-pollinated them and selected plants for their best characteristics, and so produced garden flowers.
But he also pointed out that some garden plants have now become weeds. Things like Japanese knotweed, buddleia and rhododendron were introduced as ornamental plants, but then their seeds spread into the wold, and now those who maintain woodland and look after railway lines spend millions trying to eliminate them. He also pointed out how useful some weeds are – for dyeing cloth, and as medicine. So it does seem that the old adage ‘A weed is merely a plant growing in the wrong place’ has some truth in it.
Jesus, of course, didn’t just tell stories to entertain. His stories, which we call parables, usually had a deeper meaning, which he left people to work out for themselves. This story is about the world, and the way the Good News of God is sown like a seed in a field. It grows and produces a good harvest in spite of all the evil around it. God, who is the farmer, will sort out the good and evil when the time comes. No matter how many weeds there are around, they can’t prevent God’s abundant harvest of good.
Because Jesus didn’t explain what his stories meant we are free to find other meanings in them too. The church community for which St Matthew wrote saw the wheat and weed seeds as representing two different sorts of members of the church community. Some of them were inspired by Jesus, and their work was good. Some they thought were inspired by the devil (the enemy) and what they produced was evil. They hoped that the ‘good seed’ would be gathered in to God at the harvest on Judgement Day; but they expected that the ‘bad seed’ would be punished by being thrown into the fire.
In the story, Jesus warns his followers not to be too quick to judge which of his followers are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’. He doesn’t want them pulling people out and sending them away. In the story of the farmer, he is telling them they are like the servants, not skilled enough to judge. Judgement, he says, should be left to God. His church should be tolerant of different ways of expressing faith, and leave God to decide which is right. That’s something some people in today’s church need to realise too.
Jesus also didn’t talk much about God punishing people. Like the writer of our Old Testament passage from Wisdom, he talked about a God who was kind and forgiving, who never gave up hope that bad people could be turned into good people, and who was patient enough to wait for however long it took for people to accept the Gospel and turn from weeds into productive wheat. Jesus talked about a God who, like the farmer in the story, will spare everyone punishment if possible. In the story, even the weeds have some purpose. When they go into the oven they produce heat to cook the bread made from the wheat; and they ash to spread on the ground as fertiliser for the next crop.
The story of the weeds and the wheat is a very good one for today, when we are going to baptise R and M, make them members of the community of the church, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit upon them to strengthen them to live good lives in the service of the Gospel. We hope and pray they will grow up to be wheat, rather than weeds in the world. It will be the task of their parents and godparents, supported by all the rest of us, to nurture them and to promote their best characteristics, so that their lives are good and fruitful. Baptism and membership of the community of the church is one way that we are strengthened to grow as good seed and defended against the competition of the bad seed.
But of course, the reality is that all of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes wheat and sometimes weeds. That is why we need God’s mercy, to forgive us when we go wrong, to patiently leave us growing and changing in the hope that we will all turn out to be fruitful members of the church and community, and to gently separate out the good and bad in us when judgement time comes.
Today as we support R. and M. and their family as they come to baptism, we will thank God for his mercy and pray for them and ourselves that we may grow into fruitful plants, which help to spread the Gospel of God’s love and contribute to an abundant harvest of good things for God.
Prayer for ‘weeds”
A prayer for those who do evil:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember them for the suffering they have inflicted;
remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to that suffering:
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this;
and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen
July 9, 2011
( Isaiah 55, 10-13, Matthew 13.1-23 )
The parable of the sower certainly rings bells for me at the moment. I don’t do a lot of gardening, but I’ve recently sown some wild flower seeds in a small patch of earth. First of all I had to clear it of weeds and stones to give the seeds any chance of growing. Then I had to net the patch, to stop the birds taking away the seeds before they had a chance to germinate.
Judging by the number of gardening programmes on the television, the parable will ring bells with other people too. We may no longer be a nation of farmers and agricultural labourers – but many of us are interested in growing things, even if only on our own small plots. So we will all identify with the sower in his problems.
And this, of course, was Jesus’ intention when he spread the message of the Kingdom through parables. As many of us were taught in Sunday School, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. As a good teacher, Jesus told stories about familiar things, which people understood. Their first reaction would be ‘Oh yes, I know all about that’ but then ‘ I wonder what he’s really getting at?’
Parables were meant to make one point only. In the case of the parable of the sower it is a message of encouragements. The farmer ‘broadcast ‘ his seeds, as was the custom in Palestine. His ground was of mixed quality, with some very shallow soil with rocks underneath, a path around the edge and had been cleared of thistles, but the roots hadn’t been dug up. Lots of the seed went to waste – yet his sowing still produced an abundant crop (even allowing for the oriental exaggeration in the story) for Galilee was a very fertile area. So Jesus is telling his hearers not to worry if their work seems to fail in some area; God will bless their work as they proclaim the Kingdom in word and deed.
Jesus ends the story with an enigmatic comment “Listen then if you have ears”. This is his sign that there is something more to what he has been saying than just a story. Jesus seems to have followed the old military precept ‘Never apologize, never explain’ when he preached the message of the Kingdom. He expected his listeners to do some work for themselves and work things out, so he didn’t give them the solution to the meaning of the parable.
So how, then, do we account for the next two sections of our passage: verses 10-17, which are an explanation of why Jesus used parables, and verses 18-23, which interpret this particular parable?
The second section tells us about how the message of the parable was received in the next generation of Christians, the time just before the gospels were written. Scholars think that Matthew’s church contained a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Matthew was very keen to emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus, and his continuity with Israel. He was also interested in how prophecy shed light on the ministry of Jesus. One of the questions that obviously puzzled the Jewish members of his community was why had so much of the Jewish Nation failed to accept Jesus’ message about the coming Kingdom? Why did the parables no longer speak to them with the power that they had when Jesus first told them? Matthew found an answer in the prophecy he quotes from Isaiah 6.
Matthew interprets this prophecy in a certain way, understanding it to say that it was God’s intention that the people of Judah before the Exile, and in the time of Jesus, should not listen to him and be healed. But it is not necessary to interpret the ‘otherwise’ in that way. Indeed it goes against all that we know of the nature of God revealed by Jesus, and the intention of Jesus himself, to suppose that he told parables to confuse all but his closest followers. The strong message of the Gospels is that he taught about the Kingdom to anyone who would listen, and in a way that everyone could understand.
This section, too, ends with a message of encouragement for the believing community, another beatitude: blessed are you whose ears hear, and eyes see what many of the prophets looked forward too.
The final section probably comes from the next stage in the growth of the Christian community, when the faith was spreading into the Gentile world. As Geza Vermes reminds us, in his book ‘Jesus the Jew’, in using parables, Jesus was using a typical teaching method of the Jewish rabbi. Jews accustomed to Palestinian teaching methods would have needed no explanation – but non-Jews would have needed every detail spelt out. Indeed, they might have expected it, since interpreting stories as allegories, when every detail meant something, was the fashion in the Greek world of the time.
Hence the allegorical interpretation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation reinterprets the parable. The seed changes from standing for the good news, to standing for different sorts of people who receive the good news. Some are unresponsive and easily tempted, and the message never takes root in them. Others have a shallow faith, make a start by then give up when things get hard. Some cannot withstand temptation; but there are still enough whose faith takes root to bring great results.
Now I know that some people are worried by being told that parts of what is written in the Gospels may not be the original words of Jesus. They imagine this is equivalent to accusing the Gospel writers of telling lies. But this is not the case.
We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Jesus when he taught. We believe that the Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures when they wrote. We believe that the Spirit will inspire and guide us when we read, if we ask her to guide us. But the Spirit’s inspiration will not override the normal and natural processes of our human minds.
Whenever we read anything, what we understand is the product of a complex interplay between what was originally said, how the writer interpreted and recorded that, and what we bring to our reading of the passage from our own culture, education, experience and situation. So, people from different cultures and from different times are bound to ‘hear’ different things.
It is the task of Biblical scholars (also inspired by the Holy Spirit ) to unravel the different layers of interpretation contained in the Bible to help us in our reading and understanding. This is not just a modern thing. The scholars of the Jewish nation said of their Scriptures that they had several layers of meaning: first of all there was what was called Pshat – the plain and obvious meaning; then there was Remez – or hint – the implied meaning, referring to the Torah and Jewish history; thirdly, there was Drush – the meaning found by philosophers; and lasting there was Sod – the hidden meaning, accessible only to the mystics. So we should not be surprised that God’s Word, conveyed to us through the pages of Scripture, has a new message for each generation of the Church.
If we go back to the parable of the sower, we will read it with our modern knowledge of agriculture. We do not sow seeds and grow plants in the same way that a Palestinian farmer would. God has given us knowledge through science and technology which has changed the way we grow things – mostly for the better.
So also with the Bible and the message of the Kingdom; we are free to read and reinterpret it anew for each new age.
How we do so will depend on our outlook and our personality; but our reading will always be limited by our understanding that the primary message is about God and the kingdom. So I want to offer you a reading of the parable of the sower, informed by our knowledge of the world today, to answer our questions about the way we should spread the Word of God – our seed – today.
Some of the seed falls on the path. Paths are made of earth that is trodden hard. For me, this ground stands for the down trodden peoples of the world; for nations where there is no freedom, for groups in society that are discriminated against. In this sort of situation, the forces of evil find rich pickings. Before the seed of the gospel can take root in this ground, the soil needs to be dug up, turned and loosened – so that the air of freedom and the water of encouragement can circulate, and the plants that come from the Gospel seed can send down roots. In these situations, the work of sowing the seed of Gospel truth will involve first preparing the ground by working for social justice.
The shallow soil with rock beneath speaks to me of those people who are dead inside – who are unable to receive the good news of God’s love because their spirits have been killed by self-hatred, low self-esteem, shame and past abuse. On the surface, these people may seem to be fine, fertile ground – but though their relationships may begin well, they always self-destruct, as their roots come into contact with the dead area inside. There will need to be long, patient works of preparation, often by carefully trained experts, before the Gospel seed can take root here: breaking down the hard rock, clearing the remaining stones away, then enriching what is left with the new topsoil of unconditional love and compassion and acceptance.
The seed which fell among thorns represents perhaps the most common ground in which present day evangelists try to sow the gospel seed. People nowadays lead busy lives, crowded with demands , distractions and temptations from work, from their social life, from the media and the internet, from within their family. Often they can find no space for the seed of the Gospel to take root. It will not be much good just hacking at these ‘weeds’ when they show above the ground.
That would be to do as the Palestinian farmer did, destroying the obvious weeds above ground, while leaving the roots to sprout again, grow up and take over. We need to dig deeper, into the fabric of society, and help to clear away the roots from which these social weeds spring. Also, we can provide – perhaps at first only bit by bit – areas and times of peace and freedom from demands, where the Kingdom can take root a few seeds at a time, and the crop can begin to bear fruit.
But, even this interpretation of the parable of the sower comes back ultimately, to the central message of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. In the church, ‘small is beautiful’. Our efforts may seem small, our results unspectacular in the eyes of the world. But where God is at work through us, nothing can prevent a glorious harvest.
July 3, 2011
(Habakkuk 2, 1-4; John 20, 24-29)
It’s possible nowadays to have a very professional looking greetings card made by a commercial company, using photographs yo yourself have taken. I wonder how you’d feel if someone sent you a birthday card with a very unflattering photo of yourself on the front? Not very pleased, I would imagine.
But that it seems to me is what we have as we celebrate the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle today. The passage we heard from John’s Gospel paints a picture of Thomas, as the only one not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples, so the only one who failed to receive the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins. What is more, he is portrayed as the only one who did not believe the testimony of his fellow disciples, and who refused to believe in the resurrection until he had actually seen for himself, prompting a rebuke for his unfaithfulness from the lips of Jesus. It really can’t be seen as a very flattering picture.
It is very difficult for us to celebrate the lives of the New Testament saints, because we know very little about most of them, apart from the ‘inner four’ of Peter, John, James and Andrew, and, of course, St Paul. Apart from his inclusion in the lists of the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, Thomas appears only in John’s Gospel, in three incidents which each portray him as someone lacking confidence in Jesus’s words and showing doubt.
In John 11, when Jesus resolves to go to Bethany after Lazarus’s death, and his disciples argue against going because of the opposition of the Jews, Thomas says, “Let us go so we can die with him”. This could be seen as loyalty to Jesus, but is usually portrayed as a failure to believe in the divine power of Jesus, which can overcome all opposition, and even raise his friend from the dead.
Then, in John 14, during the Last Supper, when Jesus says he is going to the Father, and that the disciples know the way he is going, Thomas is the one who objects that they don’t know where Jesus is going, so how can they know the way. Again, Thomas is shown as having little understanding and little faith. Jesus responds with one of the great ‘I am’ sayings, in which he implicitly claims that he is God.
Then, finally, we have this story in which Thomas expresses doubts, Jesus has supernatural knowledge of his doubts and his request to see and touch him, and as soon as Jesus appears, Thomas believes, and acknowledges him as “My Lord and my God”.
Several scholars believe this was one of a number of later additions to the original resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel, since no-one in the earliest New Testament tradition would refer to Jesus so explicitly as “God’.
One is prompted to ask why there is such a negative portrayal of Thomas in John’s gospel. Thomas has not been a significant figure for most Christians in recent church history; he is just one of the Twelve. But, in the Apostolic Age, he seems to have had more importance. There are legends that he travelled to evangelise Syria, Persia and India. The Mar Thoma Church, which still exists, traces its origins to the visit of Thomas to the Malabar coast of Southern India in AD52, and believe he went on to be martyred in Mylapore. His followers were known as Nazraani Margam (followers of Jesus of Nazareth in the Way) and were mostly Jews. Only Gentile followers, originally were known as Khristianos.
The Church knew of writings attributed to Thomas, a gospel, acts and an infancy narrative, for many centuries, but they were known only in quotations, mostly by writers who regarded them as heretical (though some of the more colourful stories from the infancy narrative, like Jesus turning children into
goats, were favourite subjects for mediaeval stained glass windows). However in 1945, a full text of the Gospel of Thomas in Coptic was rediscovered in a manuscript that was part of a cache of manuscripts found hidden in a pottery jar in Nag Hammadi in Egypt. It is thought they were placed there by the monks of a nearby monastery after Bishop Athansius of Egypt (him of the Athanasian Creed) drew up an orthodox canon of Scripture in 367 AD and ordered all other ‘heretical’ writings to be seized and destroyed.
When scholars examined the Gospel of Thomas they were amazed to find that, far from being strange and heretical, about half of the 114 sayings had close parallels with passages in the Synoptic Gospels and John. For instance the saying about taking the log out of your own eye before the splinter out of someone else’s is there, as are versions of the parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed, the Thief in the Night and many more. Some scholars believe that Thomas’s version of these may be closer to the words Jesus actually spoke than the versions we have in the Gospels.
So why didn’t Thomas end up in the New Testament, whereas books like John’s Gospel (which paints a very different portrait of Jesus and his teaching from the one we get in the other three gospels) did? Thomas’s Gospel has only sayings, dialogues and parables, and no stories of Jesus’s birth or childhood, or his trial, death, resurrection, or of judgement. But Mark has no birth stories and no resurrection appearances either. Mary Magdalene is prominent among the disciples in Thomas, asking questions and being the subject of a strange final saying about making females male to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but she appears in other gospels too.
Both Thomas and John have a great emphasis on knowledge and on light, but whereas in John the light is in Jesus, in Thomas the light is in everyone. In John, people are saved by believing the ‘truth’ as defined by the gospel, and in particular in John’s account of the things that Jesus did and said. In Thomas, Jesus says that the evidence for the truth is here in the world, available to everyone, and the disciples need to work things out for themselves.
There is evidence from the history of the Early Church that there were many different groups of Christians who believed different things about Jesus and ‘The Way’, who had different church structures, and different ways of accessing the truth about God, and who honoured different apostles and their writings. These co-existed, although as we see from the New Testament letters, some groups’ beliefs were condemned by others. Elaine Pagels in her book on the Gospel of Thomas called ‘Beyond Belief” puts forward the argument that the stories told against Thomas in the Gospel of John were put in to discredit those groups in the church who followed Thomas, and their practice of seeking knowledge of God through direct experience.
It may surprise many who love St John’s Gospel to know that this book was at one time considered unsuitable for inclusion in the Bible, as were Revelation and the Johannine Epistles. However, Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons in the 3rd century promoted the belief that it was written by the disciple John, brother of James (a position strongly contested by many present day scholars), and he also argued that there could only be four true Gospels, since, just as the throne of God seen by Ezekiel was held up by four living creatures, so the Word of God was supported by four pillars, the memoirs of the apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He resolved to hack down all apocryphal and illegitimate writings, which included the Gospel of Thomas.
It was only in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire and ‘orthodox’ beliefs were defined by the Creeds drawn up by the great Church Councils like Constantinople and Nicaea, that some groups were declared heretical, and their writings not just opposed but destroyed.It was about the same period that the canon of the New Testament was decided, and the list of books included the four Gospels championed by Irenaeus, and the other Johannine writings, but not Thomas’s Gospel, most copies of which were destroyed.
All this may seem like a squabble from nearly fifteen hundred years ago, with no relevance for the church today. But throughout Christian history there continued to be a suspicion of believers who encountered God through visions and prophecy, and an insistence that only those visions that conformed to orthodox belief were acceptable. There also continued to be disputes between different groups of Christians about what was orthodox belief and practice, and those disputes were at the root of the great splits in the Body of Christ, like the Reformation.
Disputes in the church continue between exclusivists – those who maintain that only those who believe certain things or follow certain practices will be saved – and universalists – who believe that God is too great to be contained within any one human system of belief, and that a God of love will provide many ways to salvation.
This division is still very much a live issue in the church. Some of you may have heard of a writer and preacher named Rob Bell, who was accused of ‘universalism’ (a dirty word in some Evangelical circles) because his latest book ‘Love Wins’ said that God wants everyone to be saved, that the Bible suggests it’s what people do rather than what they believe that God is interested in, that a God who condemns people to eternal torment cannot be a God of love, and that heaven, Hell and Judgement may be as much present in this life as they are in the afterlife. This goes against the beliefs that many Evangelicals hold are central to Christian faith.
This debate is also very alive in the Anglican Church at the moment. Some groups of Anglicans maintain that there are beliefs and practices that put you
outside the limits of God’s people and that churches who allow these must be excluded from the Anglican Communion. These groups take the Bible as the only standard for Christian behaviour and don’t think that tradition or the use of reason are important. Others would argue that in a worldwide church there is room for a variety of beliefs and practices, all of which can be considered ‘Anglican’, and that reason and modern knowledge can change what we believe about God and Christ. They would say that the Holy Spirit is still active, leading the church into truth. There is a debate going on at the moment about whether we adopt an ‘Anglican Covenant’ which would provide a mechanism for excluding those churches which do what others disapprove of from participation in Anglican structures. If you’re interested, there will be an open Deanery Synod meeting about the Anglican Covenant in October.
St Thomas attracts me as a saint to follow precisely because he doubts, and asks questions, and doesn’t just accept what other people tell him is true. I’ve been intrigued by the parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and by its difference from the canonical gospels, and by the alternative message of Jesus that it contains.
So happy Feast Day, Doubting Thomas! Long may you continue to be the patron saint of those who ask questions and seek direct experience of God, free from dogma and exclusiveness.