St Peter's, Westhampnett


Associate Rector, St Peter’s, Westhampnett
10 June 2018 – Trinity 2

READINGS: 1 Samuel 8: -11
2 Corinthians 3: 14 - 5: 1
Mark 3: 20-end

Today is the Second Sunday after Trinity and tomorrow is the feast of Barnabas the Apostle and, when I was thinking about what I wanted to say this morning, I thought it would be good to talk a bit about Barnabas.

Barnabas is not one of the original twelve apostles but he emerges as a significant figure in the Acts of the Apostles. Here is the first mention of him in Acts, Chapter 4, in the context of the life of the first Christians.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

It is clear that Barnabas became an important leader of the early church. Like Paul, he came from the Greek world, rather than that of Palestine, and it was he who introduced Paul to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem. He was sent to Antioch from Jerusalem, probably because of his Greek background. The life of the early church was not easy and Barnabas’ help was much needed in Antioch, where Jewish Christians struggled in their relations with non-Jewish converts. As we know from Paul’s letters, one of the most difficult issues for the early Church was the differences between those who came from Judaism and those who did not. The idea that all believers are one in Christ was a hard lesson for many to learn, including Paul himself.

I think what is so heartening about the picture of Barnabas that emerges from the brief texts we have is his whole hearted and generous commitment to the church and his generosity. His faith is followed immediately by action; he sells his land and gives the proceeds to the cause. In gratitude the others name him ‘son of encouragement.’ What a lovely title! They must have felt so full of thankfulness to him. The message those first Apostles preached brought joy to many; but their cause was not easy, and persecution and danger followed them everywhere. They must have loved Barnabas for his simple, straightforward support and encouragement.
There is a message here for us too. Being an encourager and enabler is something that all Christians are called to be. We are called to build up, not to break down. We are called to be generous – with the hopes and aspirations of others, as much as with their material needs. I think this is easy to overlook. Material needs are always there and, of course, they require our generosity. However sometimes it is the support of the generous word that is needed just as much: praise for a job well done; kindness when someone is low; a tolerant response to someone who tries our temper but who we know acts aggressively out of inadequacy or fear. This is at the heart of Jesus’ words to his disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (15:12). The image of the early Christian community that is depicted in John’s Gospel and in Acts is one of interrelationship, mutual love and rootedness in Christ. The Holy Spirit moves within this community because at all times they keep their eyes focused on Christ and that focus informs all their actions. Because of this they ‘bear fruit’, that is they act generously, unselfishly and supportively towards each other. They act in love, in a way which builds up the community and communicates love to others. Such a community is not built around narrow ties of blood and family, or individual accomplishments, choices or rights, it is built around corporate accountability and the abiding presence of Jesus. This is exactly what Jesus refers to in the final part of our gospel today from Mark. The crowd listening to him tell him that his family is outside asking for him and he says: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who are sitting around him, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
The text sound harsh and has often been misinterpreted. But Jesus is not saying that he does not care for his own family. He is saying that, for those who follow him, there are a wider set of values and responsibilities which go beyond the narrow individual confines of family loyalty. These wider values make all who do the will of God my brother or sister.
This challenges our contemporary Western understanding of personality, individualism and self-expression. It also challenges our instinct to sectarianism and exclusiveness. Putting personal interest aside for the sake of others is not part of the abiding message of self-assertion with which we now live. Ecumenism is also, sadly not at the top of the church’s list of priorities. I cannot claim that this message is an easy one. I think the only way that it becomes possible to live it, is when we focus on the breadth of God’s love as revealed in Christ. You will remember the radical inclusiveness of Pentecost: the Spirit of God is poured out “upon all flesh”. No-one, is outside of God’s saving gift. It is that which should inspire us in our own actions to build up community and show God’s love to others.

Associate Rector, St Peter’s, Westhampnett
17 June 2018 – Trinity 3

READINGS: 1 Samuel 15: 34-16: 13
2 Corinthians 5: 6-17
Mark 4: 26-34

If you are lucky enough, as I am, to have a garden, you will, I am sure, have experienced that moment when you go out to look at it and find, that a plant, that was a mere nothing the last time you looked, has sprouted and grown beyond all expectation and is reaching for the sky. The mixture of surprise and joy you feel at this, is new each time it happens – it is something you rediscover, year on year and it gives you hope.

Our Gospel passage for this morning from Mark touches on this experience. It is part of a series of parables often referred to as the Parables of the Kingdom. They all start in the same way – Jesus says ‘The Kingdom of God is like…’ and then he tells his listeners a parable.

You would expect, from such introductory words, that what followed was a straightforward explanation; but parables are not straightforward things. They both reveal and conceal. Jesus is often asked why he uses parables – he does not usually explain his parables to the crowd who listen. Indeed, if there is an explanation in the text it is likely that it does not represent the words of Jesus at all, but is the interpretation put on the story later by the early church itself. The whole point of parables, in the hands of a master teacher, which Jesus clearly was, is to challenge and provoke discussion. They are not simply allegories. They do not have an absolute key or a series of ‘points’ which, once grasped, makes the whole thing clear. Parables are means of disclosing new truth that cannot be reduced to straightforward, discursive language.

The Parables of the Kingdom all have a common theme, although they develop it in different ways. It is the image of the sowing of seeds and of growth. The most famous of them is of course the Parable of the Sower. The two parables in today’s Gospel continue this theme.

The first parable is set in a familiar world for Jesus’ Palestinian audience – the planting a crop. A sower scatters seed on the ground and leaves it to grow. And day on day, from near invisible beginnings, it does grow until the ripe stalks of grain are ready for harvest. How this happens is mysterious - and the sower need do little, but be patient and wait. He appears strangely passive while the seed is growing. Surely he should be tending his field shouldn’t he and keeping the weeds away? But no he simply waits. He acts quickly to harvest it, however, the moment it is ripe – Jesus’ audience would understood that – you do not leave a good crop to burn up in the field in the blazing sun.

The second parable is the story of the mustard seed. A mustard plant is an annual herb – it was well known to have very tiny seeds but it produces quite tall, leggy plants. By no stretch of the imagination, however, can it produce a large shrub in which the birds can nest. Jesus’ listeners would have known this too – the story has got of hand somehow – it started in the ordinary and known world but it has progressed, in a sentence, to the world of the extraordinary and visionary.

So what are we to make of these stories? Well first of all, as I said at the outset, any explanation offered is not definitive – these parables have been read and understood in a number of different ways over the centuries. Secondly: since Jesus says they are about the Kingdom of God we cannot know what we are looking for in these stories unless we understand that term? Here we are at a disadvantage because this is figurative language which Jewish listeners would, in part at least, have recognised. The Kingdom it is not a place – it is a way of taking, theologically, of the dynamic process that is God’s action in history; from the beginning of creation to the final judgment yet to come. When Jesus tells these parables, he is talking about the way in which God’s purposes are being fulfilled in the world and of course, implicitly he is talking about his own part in that – since they are being fulfilled through his ministry. So, these stories are also about understanding and recognising who Jesus is.

Mark has placed these two stories together which suggests that he understands them as conveying similar meanings. In both cases, the growth of the seed is rapid and certain, but in some way secret or hidden. In the first parable, the sower does not do anything – the earth itself produces the crop – the implication is that God alone controls the mysterious process of growth. The growth and potential is there, even when the shoots are tiny, and long before the full ear of grain finally forms itself. Perhaps the meaning here is that the Kingdom of God can be present, like the seed, long before the appearance of ripe fruit; not everyone will notice it, but no one will have difficulty recognising the ripe fruit. For the early Church, beset by persecution and disbelief, this story must have been a comfort. God’s purposes, they are told, will not be defeated and are being worked out, even when nothing seems to change or move. Not everyone notices the seed thrown on the earth but the Sower knows that it is there and that it will grow.

The story of the mustard seed is similar. The image of a great tree was classically used as a symbol of empire – its roots delving into the earth and it branches reaching up to the heavens. But in this story the seed is tiny and the tree is just a humble shrub – how can this tell of the majesty of God’ kingdom? But it does, we are assured and all will find shade within its branches. It has grown improbably from a tiny mustard seed and can be found, not in an imperial garden, but in a humble herb plot. Glory and majesty have come unexpectedly from obscurity and insignificance – they can be found in a place where no one would normally go looking for them.

Well, over the centuries the institutional Church has tended to take these parables and apply them to itself; it has made them parables of the life of the Church. They have frequently been taken as an allegory of the natural, unstoppable spread of Christianity, from tiny beginnings, to a great faith throughout the world. So, the Church is the tiny seed that has blossomed into magnificent growth – the repository of God’s presence (His Kingdom) in a hostile world. Of course, there is some validity in this interpretation; but caution is also needed. When you look at these parables you can see that God’s presence is frequently well hidden from those whose business it might be to discern it. Instead, it is found in the most obscure and surprising places – in places which are too humble to be noticed, in contexts which are too unclean for contact. So there is undoubtedly a warning in these parables – a warning about seeking to institutionalize God’s purposes – His plan for the world’s salvation is wider and greater than the Church has over the centuries sometimes been prepared to admit to. His grace knows no boundaries and embraces those whom the Church has frequently rejected.

But I think we can also take heart from these parables. Firstly because, they remind us that God’s presence is most easily discerned away from the limelight, at the humble grass roots of things in the ordinary everydayness of living. In what we have here as a community – in the contacts we make with each other – in the way we take our faith, nurtured here, out with us in our individual daily lives, to touch the lives of others. In what we take with us, as we move on to new places and new beginnings. The Kingdom is there – it is getting with its growing and spreading often unobserved – certainly away from all the fuss.

And secondly because, at a personal level these stories tell us that nowhere is too humble or too mean for God to inhabit. We can bring to him those parts of ourselves we feel to be unworthy; the things we are ashamed of; our weaknesses and failures; the fears we hide from others, and even from ourselves, and He will dwell there too. He will inhabit the sad and lonely places of our lives, and, if we allow it, His presence can transform them into something more generous and glorious than we could ever have imagined.
The Kingdom is present here and now but what it will finally be we cannot yet fully know. We in hope and we keep praying – “Thy Kingdom come.”