Friday, October 31, 2008

Beyond the Obvious

Mark 4:26-29
by Daniel Harrell

As election day approaches we’re back to the political sayings of Jesus, those verses printed with red in some of your Bibles. While some may think that coloring Jesus’ words red bodes well for Republican John McCain, the color is actually supposed to represent blood. A Christian magazine editor back in 1900 decided it might be a good idea to print Jesus’ words in red since Jesus said, “this cup is the new testament in my blood shed for you.” Blood―red―New Testament, you get it. I’ve been focusing on the red-letters of Jesus due to a book called Red-Letter Christians by Tony Campolo. He wrote it to coincide with the presidential election since in his view the sayings of Jesus carry political implications. My ongoing interest in these political implications led one emailer to ask, “Why is it really worthwhile to spend time as a church or a pastor on political things? Don’t they pass away? Being relevant is nice but there are plenty of worthwhile personal/moral/spiritual issues to talk about and plenty of those the culture needs to hear. Voting or politics or this country in one time and place is petty and parochial almost I think. We have hard things to do in loving our neighbor on a personal level and that clearly has eternal value and is hard enough. So why jump to issues that seem so temporary and I’m not sure how they merit even being part of a church effort at all, because we have more important things to do?”

I responded that while politics may eventually prove irrelevant some day, you could hardly argue that to be the case presently. Moreover, the Bible itself is stocked full of God’s interactions with governments be they brutish (as in Egypt, Babylon and Rome) or benevolent. Likewise, Paul and Jesus both speak often of issues like money, taxation, poverty, justice and war, all of which are clearly political. Moreover, words like savior, salvation, peace, gospel, church and Christ derive from the political lexicon of the Roman world. Gospel was what the Romans called their political propaganda and church was what they called their political assemblies. In pillaging Roman language, Jesus takes aim at Roman power. If all we do in church is view Jesus’ words through a grid of personal piety, we quickly sever ourselves from God’s public redemptive activity. How can any faithful Christian community do that?

Granted, my emailing friend was particularly wary of the ways church and government have become so entwined, sublimating any prophetic power to worldly manipulation. This is always a danger. And yet, the church that separates itself from the world renders itself irrelevant in ways that being the kingdom of God in the world never implies. The gospel’s intent is much more than merely one’s own individual salvation. Jesus did not get crucified for preaching about how to have a personal relationship with him. What got him killed was preaching about the imminent Kingdom of God, political language considered treason by the Romans and blasphemy by the Jews. To be the kingdom of God in the world is to be a visible countercultural community, a corporate body politic transformed by grace whose life together defies the status quo of the Roman empire or of any empire. To believe the gospel is to not be swayed by the seductions of military or monetary power. The Bible uses the word saints to describe such alternative communities, a noun meaning holy ones or set apart. But don’t confuse set apart with separate. Consider instead the King James Version which renders holy as peculiar. To be holy is not to be separate, but to be noticeably different: different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be when we lived just for our own selves.

The kingdom of God is political language alright. Yet Jesus’ red-letter words tonight do come off as more agricultural than political. They read like some description out of a seed catalog. “Plant your seeds and they will sprout with first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, put a sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” The farmers in the audience had to be thinking: “Tell me something I don’t know.” Actually, the main thrust of these verses seems to be that nobody does know how seeds grow, though that’s not totally true. We all know that seeds contain a tiny embryo under a protective coat, that when given the necessary amount of water and oxygen, and exposed to the right temperature, they will grow, break through the coat, and push their way up through the soil. A seed stores all the energy it needs to germinate, even though to look at a seed makes it difficult to imagine it as a living organism. It looks dead. The fact is that seeds have evolved the ability to remain in a dormant state until conditions are favorable for growth. Some seeds will germinate after hundreds of years if the conditions are right. What does this have to do with the gospel?

For one answer let me shamelessly plug a book I’ve written that has finally appeared up on Amazon and CBD (see right) entitled Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, (which, I know, for some of you sounds as ridiculous as politics inspiring faith). The controversy between Christian faith and science has been exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed to such ideas, I argue that shutting out science is not necessary. While Christian faith is grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus’ resurrection), God is not only present where science is silent. The expansiveness of the universe, the remarkable makeup of human consciousness, the beauty and complexity of organic life—all naturally explicable occurrences—are also understood by Scripture as manifestations of God’s handiwork. Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if he has no relation to observable reality? That the earth manifests the handiwork of God means that Christians can welcome accurate scientific descriptions (if not scientific interpretations of those descriptions). We should welcome accurate scientific descriptions as revelations of divine truth.

Which is sort of what Jesus is doing here by talking about seeds. More than stating the horticulturally obvious, Jesus makes a statement about God using creation as his illustration. We know from the previous parable of the sower that seeds represent the word, which for Jesus means the word both spoken and the word made flesh in him. Whereas in the sower parable a farmer spread the word (a farmer most interpret as being God given similar Old Testament analogies), here the sower is described as just a man, meaning that it could be anybody. Just as I throw a few seeds in my flower pots each spring, anybody can plant a seed in the ground. In time the seeds sprout, though you don’t know exactly why they do this (nor do scientists for that matter), until eventually, and automatically (that’s the Greek word for “all by itself”), they produce fruit for harvest. For Jesus to say “nobody knows” is just code for saying “God knows.” The emphasis on inexplicability emphasizes the activity of God. Just as everyday seeds grow and bear fruit as created by God to do, so gospel seeds grow and bear fruit, the fruit of new creation.

Some interpret this parable as an encouragement to share the gospel with everybody because who knows, it might actually take root. Like spreading a few seeds in your garden, spreading the word should be natural and normal. Of course talking about seeds rising out of the ground is one thing, comparing that to a man rising from the dead is something else. Sure, Jesus could say it and have people believe him, but he could do miracles too. For you and me it just sounds too, well, peculiar. Ironically, this may be one reason we don’t talk about it so much. For years I’d been good friends with this guy whose lifestyle and values I readily interpreted as being shut off to any talk about religion. He didn’t like to talk politics either. He’d voiced his suspicions of Christianity, which was why it took me as long as it did to come clean about being a minister. I waited partly because I didn’t want our relationship to get goofy, with him acting all weird once he found out I was a saint. But mostly I wanted to build up some trust so that when I did talk about Jesus we could actually have a conversation as friends instead of him feeling like a target. Not that I ever expected to see him in church or anything. Are you kidding? I became his quaint little pastor buddy whom he knew he could call if ever he needed a wedding or a funeral or Red Sox tickets (we pastors get discounts). But then one night after church, I’m shaking hands at the back, and out strolls my friend, this devilish look on his face. “Liked your sermon, dude,” he said. Who knew?

In light of our missions conference that starts next Sunday, I should probably mention that this is why we send actual people into the world instead of just shooting off emails. The gospel spreads when real people spread it―real people who have been really changed by it. Not that you yourself can change anybody else. It’s God who does it, which again, I think is Jesus’ main point here. God does it in a way that defies human understanding and sometimes even human perception. God makes things happen even when we’re not seeing it. No way people could have seen in a crucified Jesus any viable alternative to Roman power. No way could anybody have seen the grace of God either. All anybody could have seen in a crucified Jesus was a criminal cursed. But just like a seed that looks dead in your hand, bury it in the ground and it comes to life.

I spent this past week in Kansas City at the theology conference where a participant asked the presenters, all New Testament scholars from across the theological spectrum, whether it mattered that Jesus actually rose from the dead. If his goal was to establish an alternative to Roman rule, and by extension an alternative to all worldly power, who cares if he resurrected? Can’t we just heed his wisdom and get the same political and personal results? The scholars shook their heads. Even the ones who didn’t necessarily believe people could rise from the dead insisted that without the resurrection Jesus’ wisdom is nothing but lunacy. The resurrection validates everything that Jesus taught and everything he did. We’re used to seeing depicted as part of Christian iconography an empty cross on a hill, but travel any road in ancient Rome and it would be lined with thousands of crosses, warnings to everyone of what happens when you cross an empire. Thousands and thousands of men were crucified, it was how Rome kept the pax. Crucifixion was not an extraordinary event. It happened all the time. But not resurrection. That only happened once. Resurrection is all that matters.

Without the resurrection, “love your enemies” is idiotic advice. Why love the person who wants to hurt you? The same with going last or being humble or storing your treasure in heaven. Without the resurrection, all that leaves you with is getting left out and run over, without any treasure on earth. And why care for the poor without the resurrection? Sure, it’s a nice humanitarian thing to do, but isn’t that energy better spent taking care of yourself? After all, without the resurrection, this life is it. You better make the most of it and live it up. And don’t even talk about forgiving people without the resurrection. Why bother? Write them off! Be done with them. And don’t bother with feeling guilty about the bad stuff you’ve done and wanting to be forgiven yourself. Without the resurrection, that ain’t happening. Sure, Jesus may have died for your sins, but if he didn’t rise from the dead and declare victory over sin and death, you might as well say Elvis Presley died for your sins. People called him the king too.

It is the resurrection that exalts Jesus high above every name, so high as to compel every knee to bow in worship and obedience to him. It is the resurrection that proves God’s ironic power through powerlessness, the power of life through death, for Jesus and through Jesus for us too. Life out of death is God’s design. True for his creatures and true for creation too. Biology posits that there would be no life without death. If you’re willing to view the evolutionary epic as a positive process whereby the negativity of death is redeemed for the sake of new life, then you can see in it a reflection of the way God acts act to redeem the negativity of death due to sin. Just as the death of an organism will allow for its flourishing reproduction and continued genetic life (not that the Bible would put it this way), so does the death and resurrection of Jesus result in the flourish of God’s kingdom until that day when all things are raised and made new and death is no longer required. Jesus said in John’s gospel that, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” More than stating the horticulturally obvious, Jesus is describing the way God works.

“And as soon as the grain is ripe,” verse 29, “he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” Now the image of harvest is a common Old Testament image of divine judgment, only here in Mark, the image is not one of a grim reaper but a glad reaper. The word has done its work, as sure as any seed planted in good soil. Perceptions of insignificance and weakness to the contrary (seeds really are little things), the kingdom of God by the will of God grows and flourishes even now. Christians comprise a body politic, a body of Christ politic, the true green party, a community garden fertilized by faith producing the spiritual fruit of love and joy and peace and hope, not as personal attributes, but as public acts. Christians are people who love their neighbors and forgive their enemies, who preach hope amidst sorrow, who instill joy in the little things and make peace and do justice and speak truth and care for one another with evident beauty. These acts do seem small and insignificant, but again, isn’t that the point?

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