A Reflection on the Gospel
for Sunday, June 14,
the Third Sunday after Pentecost
by David Somerville
Tubingen University’s distinguished Professor of systematics, Jurgen Multmann has developed a theology of salvation that comes from his way of understanding history. Controversial to some Christians, it is Multmann’s contention that it is through history that God reveals his presence with us. God is present both in the lows of our painful times and the highs in the moments of our pleasure. As we suffer and die, as this Sunday’s mustard seed parable implies, so does God suffer with us. From this we can infer that our God is neither immutable nor invulnerable.
Our God is not the God of Plato and Aristotle, whom the Greeks believed was the immutable unmoved mover, and above the passions of humanity. The Judeo-Christian God of our spiritual ancestors, by way of contrast, is the mysteriousYHWH, the breathing I am, who is author of our continuing history as a spiritual people.
The Hebrew Bible — especially next Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel — suggests that God expresses feelings of frustration, punishes in wrath or disappointment, but also repents of his indignation when his people return their focuses from their misguided idolatries to making their true God the center of their vision once again.
God, then, is one who gives of himself, and as God does that, he shapes the events of time into our story of salvation. It is the story of how we, his people, who are mustard seeds now, will inherit a destiny to become larger than just another lonely seed in its miserable, existential isolation.
Our world despises things of a small or shrinking nature. After all, how can one see a positive future in anything that somehow appears to be less today than it was the day before? To talk of ourselves as “little mustard seeds” is not flattering to the ego; and, of course, not to flatter the ego is one of the central points of the parable.
To obsess on the declining numbers in our church may undermine our faith and hope. What good would that do? None.
The 1990’s was declared by the Lambeth conference of 1988 to be the Decade of Evangelism. The Executive Council’s officer in charge of the commission on Evangelism at the time, A. Wayne Schwab, initiated several programs to implement the American portion of Lambeth’s vision. His programs included the Partners in Evangelism training and the E-Share publications.
Were there some other growth designers attempting to “engineer” additional programs to reverse the trend of declining numbers in church attendance, and if so, were they motivated by the unconditional love in the gospel, or was the motivation instead bound up with a created goal of measurable achievement? To put the question in other words, what were the expectations of some church leaders, and more personally, what performance expectations do we, the baptized continue to have for our church? How do we as a denominational community feel about the outcome of our evangelism ministries in the recent past? Have ambitious programs been developed that were out of sync with something larger in scope that led to moments of disappointing surprise at the continuing drop in statistics despite our efforts to counteract the trend?
As far as the Decade of Evangelism is concerned, I really don’t know how the original expectations on January 1, 1990 looked in the minds of our leaders. Nor do I know how the outcomes matched the original hopes by the turn of the present millennium. But I do know, albeit anecdotally, that some of us in ministry were both cynical and discouraged in attitude in the aftermath of it all.
In addition to the declining numbers, there are some other things going on today that are scary. Not only is the global climate changing once familiar weather patterns, but the cultural climate is very different from the way it was only a generation ago. And even then the 1960’s and 70’s were already going in directions that could not be discerned clearly with the guidance we were given by our teachers from earlier generations.
I remember as a young seminary student the confusion of the late 1960’s. Parents of former patriotic boy scouts were welcoming their sons home in coffins from a meaningless war while other young people were frying their brains with toxic chemicals in such places as the Haight Asbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Remember the flower children? To this day, I cannot be sure whether they were pioneers blazing a new trail, or simply running away from the terrors of postmodern civilization.
In today’s world, I find myself trying to sort out not only who or what I am in today’s climate of anxiety, but also in another changing climate — the changing climate within myself, where the body/soul continues to evolve. My body is aging, and it is not as strong as it was when I lived within the ivy walls of a 1950’s seminary building made to exude an English gothic look . (My room was of modern, economical cinder block and poured concrete. But the exterior had been dressed to Romanticize the Age of medieval Faith. That was then. What was once the Philadelphia Divinity School is now an abandoned ruin in West Philadelphia.
There are plenty of reasons in the first decades of the millennium that lies ahead to feel deep estrangement and lonely isolation. In this time also are many lives that are in a barren, spiritual wilderness. As I see it, this is our new mission field toward which God calls us, assuming that we have done the first thing first, the work of mutual encouragement to one another. There is a multitude of mustard seeds now unable to live to their full potential because they can neither live nor die, being isolated from a creation intended to nurture the seed’s metamorphosis without which the first and necessary “death” could not occur, so the new birth in Christ cold never be known.
We, who dare to be ministers of the Gospel have a growing field of seeds in need of cultivation. We can embark on this enterprise if only we remember again what we learned long ago from our family of faith — That the history of human life is God’s revelation that, as his Christ is within the mustard seed of ourselves, we are saved by him when we stop denying what we truly are —mustard seeds. We need not strive to put on airs, or try to make false impressions to our colleagues in ministry. No one among us is any larger than just that — a mustard seed! That in a nut shell, or rather, the shell of a seed is the end of all of our individual mortal lives as we know them in both senses of the word, end: Our bodies will end as ashes and dust, but hopefully not before the other kind of end, namely God’s merciful revealing of his purpose for us onetime mustard seeds to be a people in his larger, resurrection stature.
The implication is that God is quietly crying out to us to stop killing him by denying the truth of what we are. We do that by a life in service to others, who are also mustard seeds — not with the intention of obtaining for our own ends power over others, of course, but by bettering the circumstances of our neighbors through the generosity of our companionship with them. By doing that, we begin to relinquish some of our smallness to become something larger. I believe that the mustard seed is one good way to picture what Jurgan Multmann had in mind when he wrote that “We find the Kingdom of God with Jesus when we enter into community with the poor, the sick, the sorrowing, and the guilty, recognizing them as fellow members of the Kingdom”. In other words, mustard seeds.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/