Outside the Kingdom?
April 17 2006
Mark 4:26-32 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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."33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
One of the difficulties of being church is the question of belonging. Friends told me of shifting to Whyalla, a 'company town' and beginning to attend church. After two or three weeks someone took them aside and suggested they should attend another congregation because this one was ''the managers' church.'' There is no place for this in a christian church, yet the church is where I have learned some nasty lessons about insiders; just as nasty as the ones I learned outside.
Despite our proper dislike of exclusivity, there is a clear sense of belonging, or not belonging in Mark. It has to do with seeing- or not seeing. Of perhaps it is knowing and not knowing. We see the young man in Mark 16 at the tomb in his robes of the elite. We see the crowds and the disciples not understanding the parable of the sower, but Jesus telling his disciples the meaning and explaining, essentially, that some are not destined to see.
We see it again here: 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. There is an inner exclusive group.
I wonder if part of the reason we struggle with this issue is that we have sometimes have so little to protect and hallow! Our experience of God is so shallow, and the power of our worship so diluted, the idea that someone might not "see," seems like the hubris of the ''managers' church,'' rather than the plain fact of the matter! Do we seek to democratise the faith because we have not seen a greater mystery where democracy does not apply?
In its bones, and at base , Christianity is a mystery religion. It has rejected the worst exclusivism of the Gnostic Sects, but still we 'see' and believe, and know that some do not 'see.' There will always be a tension between loving and serving the world, and being gentle, compassionate, and not patronising, to those to whom we can only speak as ''they are able to hear it.'' Indeed, I wonder if the trouble in many congregations is that so many people have been given positions of authority, when they clearly did not see. In a book review titled ''After the Resurrection,'' Robin Griffith-Jones says of Mark, Mark's whole Gospel is a parable; and those who heard it in his day as a straightforward narrative were those, in Mark's own terms, outside. His Easter story is not written as evidence, to persuade his readers of Jesus' resurrection; it sends them back to the story's start, to see unveiled there the Jesus, at once earthly and risen, whom they had not recognized before.
It was with this in mind that I jumped from Chapter 4 to the Easter Day reading. It was a taking stock of progress so far. But it also raised clearly for me, the sense that this gospel was written for insiders, something I struggle with.
The tension is in the two parables of the kingdom which this essay begins with. They are told to people who barely understand (at best.) Yet the Kingdom will grow and put(s) forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
I understand the Kingdom to be the realm of God, a reality where the Consciousness that comes to us as we live a Jesus life spreads into the world we are living in. To use the old language, the hopes of heaven are translated to the here and now. We live the life of Jesus and yet have little control over what happens. We "sow the seed" in our living, and yet the growth of the kingdom remains a mystery, and in a very real sense has nothing to do with us. (This is something church growth planners might do well to remember; what exactly are they planning?) And the kingdom will grow to give shelter to all the birds of the air....
You see I added the word all. It is the natural sense of the greatest of all shrubs. The kingdom is for the world.
So as Christians, perhaps we can live with a spirit not of exclusion, but of "Come and see what I have found!"- or perhaps it would be truer to say, ''have been given!" We would protect what is precious because it is life giving knowledge, not because we are protecting our own little Jerusalem.
I was once in a church which welcomed people with open arms. Then the power brokers would ascertain if the newcomers were 'like us,' and give them the seal of approval or else, reject them. This was Jerusalem- interested not in people, but in power and status. Newcomers were not welcomed as people who had discovered the glory of God, or the life changing power of a Jesus life, or even as seekers. They were potential members who would ensure the survival of the congregation. As such they had to be people like us or else we would have to charge. This tawdry little Jerusalem rejected some of its best members. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Luke 13:34
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.