He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
The vision which Christ gives us of the Kingdom of God is powerful. Like seeds, it finds its home where we would not expect. Like wheat it grows up out of nothing into a full bloom. Then, from that one singular plant, many more may be born. The reduplication goes on and on, a harvest of one batch producing – not only fruits – but the means for another harvest entirely. Lest the image of wheat proves too specific for us, Christ paints the picture another way. The Kingdom of God is like a tree that, born of something small, spreads out and makes itself large – providing shelter to all that seek it.
These two images are not the only way that Jesus gives us insight into how God’s kingdom grows, but they are often the ones we bring to mind. The idea of the mustard seed in particular sticks with us. It was so compelling an image, that Jesus uses it elsewhere to describe our individual faith. The miniscule seeds of mustard, the fledgling trust of God we demonstrate through faith, these things whisper to us and show us something deeply relatable. Parabolic speech has this advantage for us, we seek after images more readily than words. We cannot say definitively what the Kingdom of God is, but we can say what we it is like.
The deep mystery of faith is that it seemingly works independent of our attempts to grow or squash it. It is grown in us by the grace of God and nurtured by the environment around us. Though we certainly have some part in its growth – some of our greatest backsliding can happen surrounded by Saints and other times we simply stumble into holiness unwittingly. Spiritual growth can come from discipline, but it seems that God holds something that catalyzes our growth. The grace which we receive is the beginning and end of our Spiritual journey and without it we are like grass that withers, trees that never grow beyond saplings.
The personal understanding that we form concerning growth must also be made plain in our communal ethics of the same. If we wish to see the Kingdom of God expand, mature, and shelter all the world, we must not see faith as happening only in our hearts. The work of faith is communal, the Kingdom is defined by a people called to be together and work toward the same divinely appointed end. We have to seek the Kingdom together, because definitionally it is not a monolith. No, the Kingdom is found wherever the Spirit is at work, whenever the seed is planted and permitted to grow.
The seed which is planted is the believer, having received the word they are thrown into the world to go forward and grow. As they mature, they produce fruit, the nutritive aspect of God’s kingdom is made clear. The believer not only brings about other believers but supplies the earthly needs of those around them. The hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the lost find comfort. Grain is grown to sustain life and so the Kingdom meets the needs of those within it. As we grow together, we ought to care for one another. If we cannot do this, we will wither away.
A division emerged in the 1900s in, mainly American, theology over whether the business of the Church was in saving souls or helping the poor. Jesus was clear – it is in both. We cannot tolerate starvation and poverty and we cannot blame the victims of either for their situation. The Kingdom is the grain that sustains all people – it gives the word of God for the soul and tangible aid for the body. To neglect one calling of the Church for the other is to forget how high the expectations really are. Like wheat we must produce abundance, but like wheat we must not keep that abundance to ourselves where it will perish. We must send our bread upon the waters that it may return us after many days.
Yet, the kingdom is not just a place for nourishment, nor is it kept to a single location. Whereas the first parable of today’s scripture can be read to mean that we individually must grow up together and work to produce a harvest, the second casts the entirety of God’s kingdom in a different way. The Kingdom is described, not as multiple seeds, but as a single seed. From this one seed grows the massive sheltering presence which gives a home to all who seek it. Jesus speaks this parable early in his ministry, when the disciples are few. The Kingdom has potential to grow large, but at present Jesus looked out at a handful of early members. The small seed had been planted – now it would only be a little while before it grew.
The last message we shared together spoke of the danger of schism, but here we see Jesus lay out the wonderful alternative to breaking apart. Jesus asks us to imagine a tree, and from that tree many branches spreading out to cover the earth and give shelter to those beneath it. The ideal of differences in the church is that, even if it causes us to part ways, our differences should not stop us from accepting one another. The rise of ecumenical dialogue over the past sixty years has led to a resurgence in our understanding that Baptists, Methodists, and any other denominations are not truly separate – but all answer to one God.
We are beginning, fragile though our understanding is, to see the branches we stand upon all have one source. If we look at our personal convictions and expressions of faith, we can likely see how we ended up where we are. I could not be a presbyterian – I will not ever be convinced of Calvinism. Likewise, I could not be a Pentecostal, the fire of the Spirit does not burn in that way within me. Yet, though I am thoroughly Methodist, I can acknowledge God’s ownership of both groups. I can look to my time working in the D.C. Baptist Convention and to my time attending a Pentecostal Church, and my Presbyterian colleagues and see the Spirit shining through them. We share one source, and if we could only acknowledge that we would accomplish much in this world. I sit on my Methodist branch, another soul on a Catholic one, but our roots are in Christ alone.
The radical nature of this of this is not relegated to denominations or even congregations, we all have unique features as individuals that can bring people in to be sheltered by God’s love. Think of the labels you apply to yourself. For example, I would describe myself as a nerdy alt-rock fan who can best describe their personal aesthetic as “Eldritch Prairie Home Companion.” I like reading, British Murder Mysteries, and science (mostly chemistry honestly.) My politics include – actually no, my manuscript here just says, “Best not get into that on your way out.” So I’ll trust my past self and move on. Still, you get the point. We are all called to be part of the Church and as a Church, as a charge, and as a denomination we offer chances for people to meet God and know God’s love in ways we would not if we all alike.
Now, today we have discussed how these two parables can give us insight into the growth of the Church. On one hand we grow into a source of material and spiritual help to the world, by being that source of help. On the other we grow by being diverse and allowing diversity of personality, viewpoints, and even certain points of doctrine to give shelter to all who seek after Christ. Both these perspectives are dependent, at their root, on God’s grace. If we do not thoroughly apply ourselves to depend on God, then we will go adrift.
Jesus casts the growth of wheat as a mystery. Like the farmer, no one can look at the Church and instantly know what caused it to be as it is. The best laid evangelism and discipleship programs can be overthrown by chance and the most haphazard attempt at service may be the most fruitful. The only definite steps we can take is to live as Christ taught us to. If we do this, then growth will come. Let us feed all the world and let us shelter all manner of people. Let us pray earnestly for God to bring growth to the seed that has been scattered from the hand of Jesus. Let the Kingdom grow from something small to something great. Let God be blessed this day and always. – Amen.