Sermon for Second Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 14 June 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Ezekiel 17.22-24; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34
“Privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
I cannot hope to be able to explain everything in the space of one sermon, but let me at least try to explain something about the readings we have just heard. At first hearing, todays epistle, part of Paul’s reproof of the Corinthian Church, and the gospel with its parables about seeds, seem to have little in common. But if we dig deeper, we find that they share a background, a context, of opposition of one kind or another.
Paul plays such a dominant role in the life of the Church then and ever since, that it is difficult to imagine serious opposition to him. But opposition there was, and this was more than just disagreement over theological issues – although there was certainly that. As has been the case again and again in the Church’s history, doctrinal disputes are often accompanied by personal criticism. So, in the church in Corinth which he had founded but from which he is now absent while he continues his missionary travels, there seems to have been a whispering campaign by later arriving preachers who not only preach another message and in a dramatically different style but also draw attention to his failings and shortcomings.
Paul defends his apostolic ministry to a congregation beset by these spiritual enthusiasts (1Cor 4.8; 13.1) and pseudo-apostles boasting of the superior credentials (2 Cor 5.12; 11.13) by giving the Corinthians a point of view from which they can discern authentic ministry from its counterfeits.
The two seed parables in today’s gospel come quite early in Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus – but they are responses to the opposition from the religious authorities and influential groups of believers like the pharisees, which was already manifesting itself even at this early stage and which will reach its climax in the passion.
What could a provincial preacher, even one with a good line of folksy parables, have to say that would impress the priestly aristocrats of the Temple, the scribes and teachers of the law with all their book learning, or the sophisticated sermon tasters among the pharisees; the smart West End congregations of the day? After initial outbreaks of enthusiasm, crowds drift away as quickly as they gather; especially when something demanding and hard is said.
And Mark writes not only to record things from the past but to encourage his own church in the present as it faces the reality of apparent failure and persecution; or at least the lack of the spectacular success it might have hoped for. To use Paul’s words, he wants them to be “of good courage.” The growth of the kingdom is something dependent primarily and ultimately, not on human activity and talent, but on the grace of God.
Paul’s opponents, the “super apostles,” men with more “zing,” were out to build their own reputations at the expense of his. They boast “in outward appearance and not in the heart.” Public displays of spiritual ecstasy, speaking in tongues, seem to confirm the Spirit-filled character of their proclamation. But unlike them, Paul refuses to establish his apostolic authenticity on basis of such experiences. For Paul these are personal worship directed towards God (cf. 1 Cor. 14.2,28), not something to be used as a marketing tool to enhance ministerial reputations, as if true piety can be measured by the breadth of a grin or the level of applause. The kingdom works not through the sensational and the spectacular but through self-giving love.
So, he points them to a proclamation of the Gospel that is sober and thoughtful and frank: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” (2 Cor 5. 13). Earlier he had written, “For we do not proclaim ourselves but Jesus Christ, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake.” The apostle is fully aware that he, as much as anyone, “must appear before the judgement seat of Christ…” He makes his appeal both to God, who knows his motives and his conduct, and to their consciences. He asks them to judge the charges made against him in the light of their experience of his ministry among them.
What motivates Paul and his co-workers in the ministry of the gospel, if it is not fear, much less financial reward or popularity? It is “the love of Christ” (v.14) which “controls”, constrains them, compels them, impels them urges them on, as various translations try to capture the richness of meaning in the word. This is not, first of all, Paul’s love for Christ, but Christ’s love, not only for Paul and his fellow-preachers, but “for all.” Christ’s passion for all becomes Paul’s all-consuming passion for Christ: “…he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised for them.” 5.15).
Since the death of Jesus Christ, a new way of being has entered into the world: “He died for us that we might die to ourselves.” (Calvin). All boasting about externals is put to death; what comes to life is service to others, the service which is owed to Christ. Those who embrace the message of the cross “live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” The death and resurrection of Jesus mark the decisive turning point in God’s relationship to the world and the humanity’s relationship to God.
“From now on therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer.” From that has come not just a new way of living “no longer for themselves”, but a new way of knowing, “no longer from a human point of view, no longer according to the flesh” (v16). Both are so radically opposite to the way “this age” (4.4) thinks and acts that Paul can say, “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
This new way of knowing sees Christ, understands him, only in the light of the cross and resurrection. It sees others too as God sees them: as those for whom Christ died and was raised; those who are beloved of God. Just as Christ is not just a tragic hero in the past, so no one is a hopeless case, no one is beyond redemption, because he has given his life for all.
The crucial test of all Christian preaching, what we say about God, and all conduct towards others, is not whether these demonstrate their power in ecstatic spirituality (2 Cor, 5.13), but whether they proclaim the cross of Christ as God’s power to remove what prevents us from knowing and serving those in need (5.14-15). Such proclamation, in words and deeds, is the defining hallmark of authentic and apostolic ministry of the word.
The parable of the mustard seed teaches not just the disciples, but Mark’s church after the resurrection, later generations of Christians, and us, that the kingdom of God often works through small things rather than the spectacular. The results do come – but not at times we can predict by the application of this or that renewal programme.
Do these parables, especially the first one, suggest that we should be entirely passive in the face of the mission challenges, the statistics of decline we hear so much about, which face the Church in Britain and Europe in our own day? “Will there be any Christians left?” as the stark headline of a magazine article last week asked.
After the farmer has sown the seed, he does not sit around doing nothing. He gets on with the daily business of life. So the Church and its missionaries sow seeds of faith and let grace take its course, just as nature takes its course with seed. We cannot predict what the results of say: an encounter with someone at the church door or in the courtyard; at a wedding or a funeral or a baptism; a conversation with someone at work or where we live about our faith or some serious question, might be. It can take sometimes take years for such seeds to germinate in the soil of people’s hearts and minds.
But the farmer’s role is to be there when the harvest is ready to put in the sickle. Experienced farmers know the signs of when the crop is ready for harvest, usually because they have learned them from their fathers. They watch attentively for them. We learn the signs that the seeds of the gospel have come to maturity in the school of our forebears, Jesus and Paul and others. We learn them in the round of worship and prayer, scripture and sacrament, companionship and conversation, of attention to both God and to people, in which the ongoing life of the Church immerses us. That is the apprenticeship, the schooling, which teaches us how and when to sow, and how to wait expectantly and hopefully for the signs that God’s grace has done its work and the crop is ripe for harvest.
If the love of Christ is what controls us, urges us on, impels us, then we will both have the courage to sow the seeds of the gospel and to wait patiently but expectantly for the signs that they have borne fruit which can be harvested.