It is probably not always uppermost in our minds when we hear the readings from the Bible Sunday by Sunday, but by and large as we listen to them, they are presented to us in the chronological order in which they were written. In our liturgy we hear from the Epistles (the New Testament letters) before we hear from the Gospels, because that is the sequence in which they came to be produced, and it was only much later that they were all put together in what we now know as the Bible. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (from which our New Testament reading comes this morning) was circulating in the life of the Church long before the Gospel of John, which we have just heard proclaimed. Although – of course – the actual encounter between Jesus and his disciples and the crowd that we heard about took place long before Paul reflected on the life of the Spirit in his writings.
Saint Paul in his Epistle is seeking to offer a guiding anchor to those who know some of the stories of Jesus, who have heard about them from others, or may even have experienced them first hand, but who do not have a worked out understanding of what all of this means for them, nor the benefit that we have today of hundreds of years of reflection by the Church, and Paul wants to say very clearly to those first Christians to whom he is writing, although life seems hard, and the difficulties are many, be encouraged, you are in Christ and so whatever it seems to you may be going on, always remember that the Spirit of God dwells in you.
I highlight this for us this morning because it is truly extraordinary, and not something that we can simply let us pass us by. This is Saint Paul’s message to us: because we are in Christ, you and me together, the Spirit of God dwells in each one of us. Paul is saying that – literally – the Spirit of God pitches a tent, sets up shop, moves into our neighbourhood. That is what dwelling is all about, and this is happening in each one of us. Just as in Jesus, God dwelt on earth and came amongst us, so by his Spirit he dwells in each of us now who are inheritors of his Kingdom. How, we might well ask, can that be the case?
Along comes the Parable of the Sower in today’s Gospel reading. As I have been reflecting on this great and well known story this week, it reminded me of the advice that a seasoned gardener gave me some years ago: when weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it is a valuable plant! In our Gospel reading Jesus says, of course, the exact opposite.
A sower, a farmer goes out into his field and sows the seed, not by accident, this is a deliberate act, and as he sows he uses the broadcast method that would have been well known to the first hearers of the story. The seed was scattered as widely as possible, tossed out in all directions, and only after the seed had been scattered was the ground ploughed, so it was impossible for the farmer to accurately know where he was planting. The seeds were thrown everywhere in the hope that they would grow somewhere. The seed is the Word of God: Jesus himself, God’s living Word being sown into the hearts of all who come into contact with it.
Some people hear it, but it doesn’t get past their ears. They don’t take it into themselves. It does not touch their heart or mind in any way and it quickly fades away. Some people experience it and rejoice. But when turmoil and trouble arises in their lives, the joy fades. The good news dies. Some people hear the good news, but their hearts are strangled by other priorities, and these things take over whatever change the good news might have worked in their lives. Some people hear the good news, experience it, and it bursts forth in their life. They find new life and new meaning in the world. They live as new and different people. They bring God’s love to the world in what they do and how they live, or as Saint Paul would say to us, some people hear it, experience it, and the Spirit of God dwells in them.
It would be easy for us, who are so familiar with this story, to miss how shocking and disturbing it would have been to Jesus’ first hearers. They didn’t imagine the Kingdom of God coming to fulfillment in the world in this way at all. Over many centuries the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, had come to expect and long for a day when God would act like a mighty bolt of thunder; overturning injustice and corruption and bringing about his reign of mercy and righteousness in a great and momentous awakening.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that is how things were to be? If suddenly we also simply knew what we currently only hold on to by faith. If structures and systems were changed to point us to live in the kind of world that Jesus envisages in his teachings, and that we believe are to be found at the heart of God. It would certainly be easier if God acted in that way! And yet Jesus says, it won’t be like that. God is at work, but he is working away quietly inspiring the spreading of the good news of his love in every place and at every time, and waiting for, longing for people to respond. Called, as we are, to share in this work of God, we would (if we are honest) prefer only to have to sow where we know that there will be a good harvest, rather than the harder and sometimes disappointing task of trying everything that we can think of to communicate God’s love to others, often with little response. Certainly when we look within ourselves, we know that it would be easier if we were somehow filled with all of the knowledge and understanding that we need, rather than having to grow slowly through our experiences of living, both good and bad. But what God himself is doing, the great sower of the seed of his Word of Life, is what we are called to do as well, for ourselves and for those around us.
The encouragement in all of this for us is that where there is a harvest, where the Kingdom does take root in good soil the yield can be exceptional, of lives transformed, of hope where there was hopelessness, of purpose where there was fear. “One hundred fold, sixty fold, thirty fold,” says Jesus, that is the yield that can be expected when the spirit of God dwells within us. When this seed of God’s love falls on the good soil, and is accepted and given attention, the returns will be more abundant than we could ever have imagined. Yes, the harvest that will be reaped will be so large, so extravagant that you will know that the Kingdom of God is here. But this sowing and reaping is happening one person, one heart, one mind at a time. One person receiving communion in their home, as a reminder to them that God and the Church has not abandoned them; one junior chorister learning about the beauty and creativity of God in this building which was made for singing; one client receiving assistance at emergency relief; one family being welcomed here as they celebrate the birth of a new baby at baptism; each of us as we grow bit by bit, week by week, year by year, into the likeness of Christ through our worship and learning and fellowship.
We might wish that it was more spectacular, but sometimes we forget how extraordinary God’s promise to us really is. Like a seed in the ground, God’s son Jesus desires to pitch his tent and plant his Word in our hearts and minds and souls so that we might truly become holy; that we might be in Christ, and God’s Spirit may dwell within us.