The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s123g09 Sunday 11 14/6/09
'the kingdom of God .. is like a mustard seed' Mark 4.30,31
It is interesting that if you were to hear most preachers they would describe the kingdom of God as a kingdom where everyone loves one another. Here was Jesus speaking to all and sundry, when he could have got his message of love across to the greatest number of people, but instead he spoke to them in parables, and obscure ones at that. And let us be plain, they were obscure. We are told that he had to explain them to the disciples later even they didn't understand them! And perhaps they remained in the dark, as we are not given those explanations.
What a great evangelical opportunity was lost! Jesus could have really begun to make his message of love plain to one and to all. And he lost this opportunity.
In fact if we are to take our gospel today seriously, not only does Jesus not commend love to those who hear him, but also he made no attempt to recruit disciples. He does not speak about the necessity to follow him, or make plain any other action needed on the part of those who might join his cause. He speaks about the kingdom of God as if it were entirely independent of human response. The seed is scattered, it grows and it is harvested. Even when the harvest is just shade for birds' nests it is still a parable of the kingdom.
Mark is the first of the gospel writers and Matthew, Luke and John are thought to have had Mark in front of them when they wrote their gospels. It is salutary to realize how little teaching Mark has in his gospel. D. E. Nineham notes that Mark has only two or three examples of Jesus' teaching: Mark 4:1-34, (perhaps) 7:1-23 and 13 (commentary St Mark p 125). These are, in turn, the parable of the ground on which the seed falls, the controversy about washing of the hands, and the destruction of the Temple and the setting up of the desolating sacrilege. And if we accept that the second is controversy rather than teaching, the point of the first and the third is that we can only watch as events unfold.
The word love does indeed occur in Mark's gospel, but only twice:
Mark 10.21: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'" and
Mark 12.29-31: Jesus answered the scribe who asked the question, "'The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself.""
Clearly in the first Jesus is responding to an earnest devout rich young man, and bids him to renounce his wealth. It is not a general prescription for all rich and poor alike. The second shows that Jesus was not saying anything different from what was already set down for those who sought to do God's will. He didn't need to teach love, because love was already the foundation of their faith.
Indeed the word 'repent' is only used twice in Mark, once by Jesus in Mark 1.15, and the other by the disciples in Mark 6.12. This command, so 'fundamental' to the proclamation of the gospel (?) is only used once by Jesus, in Mark's recollection. I note that when Jesus calls his disciples he never asks any of them to repent beforehand.
Much of these reflections come from the extensive teaching about love in John 13-17, but this is to the disciples alone.
Jesus basic proclamation to the crowds was to watch and take note of events as they unfolded. They didn't have to do anything, it would all happen without any assistance from anyone. But happen it would and it was worth taking note of. Essentially he had no message to the crowds, inviting, expecting or commanding them to do anything. And I note that the vast bulk of 'christian' preaching is about inviting, expecting or commanding ordinary people to change their ways. I recall once, long ago, being complemented on a sermon by a member of the congregation, which puzzled me. As I reflected on my words I realized that they propounded a strong gospel which **others** had to hear and amend their ways accordingly! It was a long time ago :-)!
The people with whom Jesus clashed, were those who wanted him to proclaim a religion that did invite, expect or command ordinary people to change their ways. And Jesus made it quite plain that it was precisely these people who had to change their ways, not ordinary people. There can be no other explanation for the events that followed. It was this preposterous demand that the religious people amend their ways that incurred their wrath and hatred.
The incarnation of Jesus was a true incarnation of unconditional love that came with no invitation, expectation or command. It was those for whom God always came with invitation, expectation or command **for others** that this message was so scandalous. Jesus was incarnated into the lives of 'ordinary' people (though we are all extra-ordinary) without expectation that was so unexpected, so radical, but so humiliating for those who purported to be better than others. Like that earnest rich young man who wanted to be better than others - he is invited to be incarnated with others, to give up those things that separated himself from others.
The lack of teaching to the crowds is entirely because of the incarnation. He had come to be with them. He continues to come to be with us - all of us. He comes to our families and friends, those who are our enemies, those who do not think like us, believe like us, worship like us, or live the sort of wholesome lifestyles we do. He comes with no invitation, expectation or command except the recognition that in coming, he comes to all.
I have sometimes reflected how odd it is that we spend so much time preparing sermons to deliver each service to people who think that the words are not for them, but for those mythological people who don't come to church :-)!
And this is good news for me too. For I don't have to worry about how many 'hits' I get on my web-page or how many people are on my e-mail list. The kingdom is happening all around us. It is not dependent on me or my following. We can but see it happening in the lives of ordinary people and rejoice that this is so.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"