Tag Archives: weakness

Unstoppable?

In a garden I used to tend, there was a terrace, made up of crazy paving, some years old. I liked it, but the cracks encouraged the weeds, so much so I sometimes ran the lawnmower over the paving to try and keep the weeds under control.

I am reminded of that by the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which Jesus tells in just 2 verses (Matthew 13:31,32).  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree . .”

The point is the growth, from a tiny seed that you can easily blow out of your hand, to a tree of 10 feet (3 metres) or more. It is an encouragement – the Kingdom of God seems so feeble!  What if people follow Jesus, what if they call themselves his disciples, and do what he wants?  That’s not going to achieve anything in the real world, is it?

Yes, it is.  When the seed is sown in a mind which has integrity and a desire for truth, then it grows, from an interest to a passion, from a passion to a purpose, and it gives strength and shape to a whole life.  When the seed of the Kingdom is sown in a community, there too it will grow, attracting the good and gaining strength, becoming not insignificant, but something of strength and beauty and usefulness.

Historians will be better able than I to chart this through history. I can only suggest that again and again Christian faith has been ridiculed, seen as perverse, obsolete superstition, fit only for the weak and senile. Again and again Christian faith has outlasted its critics, and inspired work for society and its needy.

For that is the other thing. The mustard seed does not only grow into a tree, bringing the encouragement of growth from insignificant beginnings, we are also told: 13:32 “. . when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  The tree doesn’t just please itself – it fits into God’s wider purpose. The Kingdom of God is not about our belonging to a club, but being part of something which serves God’s purposes.

Do the birds represent the Gentiles, who would come to faith as Paul took the Gospel beyond Judaism? Do they now represent those who need shelter and care in our society? Should we see the refugees or others needing a welcome as some of the birds in our local tree? Or perhaps we might look those on the edge of faith, stressed and pressured by the world we have made, needing the reassurance that God welcomes and loves them delivered by our smile and help.  (That is why I am involved with Christians Against Poverty, among other groups – see “Some Interests”)

The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  Like the weeds on my paving, some people will attack with mower or spray, but the growth can never be totally prevented.  We can hinder the process, producing a weak and brittle stem which will offer no support for any but the smallest bird without threatening collapse.  But there will be other seeds and trees to mock our failure. The Kingdom of heaven, often written off or ignored, is like an insignificant mustard seed, tiny, yet growing strong and useful.

Obey?

(A dialogue sketch on 1 Peter 3:13-22, a reading this Sunday, is available here )

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 and again “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;” John 14:21 – both included in this week’s reading of John 14:15-21.  It would seem that obedience is commanded, and indeed that the effective presence of the Holy spirit in a believer is in some way conditional on such obedience. In a past world, that would have seemed pretty straightforward.

But our culture has moved away from obedience, and is unclear whether to see it as a virtue. Perhaps for some it came from the Nuremberg war-crime trials, which established that obedience to superior orders is no defence – we must only do what we judge to be right, even if it means rejecting the orders of others. For others, the civil rights and protest movements will have reduced respect for authority, and psychological studies like the 1961 Milgram experiment (which showed normal volunteers capable of inflicting, as they thought, painful and even fatal electric shocks on people when encouraged to do so by an authority figure) will have strengthened objections.

So, does obedience still have a place in faith? I think so, though I want to take these objections seriously. What Jesus says is not “Do as I tell you”. In fact, what he tells us is not mainly simple instructions like “Pray for 10 minutes twice a day”, but much more complex things like “Love God and love your neighbour” (eg Mark 12:30-31). So these verses do not say “obey” but “keep my commandments” – keep, look after, be mindful of.

This isn’t the mindless obedience of the bayonet charge, doing because you’re told to. Quite the opposite, it is an invitation to value and practise things you know to be good.  This is clearer when we see that the condition is “If you love me, .” If we are familiar with the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and enthusiastic enough about them, are attracted to them strongly enough, find them to have greater significance and importance than others – then we are going to value them and put them into practise.

So, is there a place for obedience in faith? Yes. Don’t I just mean we do what we think is right? No.  We look at the life, works and teaching of Jesus, and find that important beyond other things. We value and apply his teaching, and in doing that we learn that we never do so perfectly, because of our own weakness, sin, and failure. We also discover – perhaps in other people – that sin affects our judgement. I can be rational, but rational about my own weaknesses – that is much harder.

So, as I think about what is right and what I should do, I apply the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible to my situation and culture – AND in those things I find difficult or tempting, I add extra weight to what they say, distrusting (but not discarding) my thoughts when they disagree. In other words, I find it necessary to obey more over things which tempt me, or which have caused me to fail in the past.