13 July 2008 at :00 am
“And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.’” Matthew 13:3.
The four readings from Holy Scripture appointed for today present powerful messages for those who have ears to hear. The passage from Isaiah and the Gospel Reading from Matthew 13 deal with bearing fruit by allowing the word of God to dwell in us richly. Psalm 65 is selected for its message on this same theme. The passage from Romans 8 deals with the Holy Spirit’s implementing the work of Jesus and thereby effecting for us “what the law could not do,” that is, to give life – resurrection life in union with Christ Jesus.
In the parable of the sower, the original focus was on the different kinds of soil and the final harvest with special attention on the fate of the seed in the various kinds of soil.
The four types of soil are:-
- The hardened footpath
- The rocky, shallow soil
- The mixed soil
- The good soil
The seed that fell on the hardened footpath remains on the hard surface without engaging the soil. Consequently “the birds came and ate them up.” In Matthew’s interpretation, the seed is the ‘word of the kingdom.’ The hardened footpath soil represents anyone who hears the word but fails to understand it. The failure to understand is a Matthian emphasis which recurs in verse 23 in relation to the seed in the “good soil.” In the first three soils, the seed faces challenges which eventually prove to be barriers to fruit bearing. The failure to understand may be directly related to the inability of the seed to interact with the trodden pathway which could be compared with our human tendency to display a lack of openness and a failure to engage due to preconceived ideas, fixed attitudes and dispositions. Persons in this category hear God’s word but fail to bear fruit because they are not truly open to God’s outreach.
The seed that fell on the rocky shallow soil sprang up quickly but the shallowness of the soil prevented it from taking root and it eventually withered away. The challenge faced by the seed in this soil was the lack of space for adequate rootage. The soil in this instance represents the person who makes an inadequate response to God’s word. In some instances, the response is primarily emotional or superficial thereby lacking in depth. Faith that lacks deep roots and firm foundation fails to survive the various challenges that life confronts us with. This soil provides us with perpetual reminder of the danger inherent in conventional religion devoid of genuine commitment.
The seed that fell in the mixed soil or the thorny soil had to compete with the thorns and were eventually choked by the thorns. The challenge to the seed in this soil was to co-exist with the thorns without being devoured by them. “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” The message from this soil is very relevant for contemporary Christians as we pursue discipleship by being ‘in the world but not of the world.’ Our greatest challenge is to be found in our willingness to resist the lure and appeal of our cultural environment. St. Paul addresses this issue in Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” If we are not diligent in being attuned to God’s word, we will easily fall into the trap of accommodating the world and its values. Such accommodation always results in a decrease in effective mission and ministry.
The seed sown in “good soil” produces an abundant harvest. “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundred fold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (v. 23).
Matthew identifies the sower with Christ. For Matthew, Jesus accompanies his church throughout history. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:18). Jesus is himself the one who is present and active in the sowing of the word. “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. (13:37). Jesus will finally be the judge who separates faithful from unfaithful disciples. “The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.” (13:41).
One contemporary commentator offers the following summary of Matthew’s interpretation of the parable. “The message of the parable is not an exhortation to work hard to bring in the harvest … the seed has been sown by the Son of Man who accompanies his church throughout history. The harvest is God’s doing, and God is faithful …. The word encounters many difficulties between its original sowing and its eventual (but sure) harvest… although the responses and actions of believers do not effect the final coming of the kingdom, the choices they make are ultimately important, for they determine which side they are on at the final harvest… the purpose of God remains sure and will be fulfilled.” The Church is privileged to participate in God’s mission and the faithful in every age have found solace in the affirmation that the purpose of God remains sure and will be fulfilled.
This affirmation should be acknowledged by all of the bishops of the Anglican Communion as they assemble at Canterbury this week to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference at a time when there are several challenges to the growth of God’s word as found in the Communion and in its mission. Anglicans across the globe are aware of the serious challenges facing the Communion and are praying for a better future for the worldwide Communion.
Despite the clear and strong statement from the Gafcon, there is still the lingering fear that a split in the Communion is inevitable in the face of conflicting views on important issues related to doctrine, ethics, church order and discipline. The Anglican Communion, comprised of thirty (38) autonomous provinces, is home to two different approaches to the major challenges facing the Communion. Both seek to sustain and strengthen the Communion that binds together the various provinces. Each, however, conceives the nature and purpose of the Anglican Communion in a different way. In my description of these two divisions within our Communion, I am indebted to Doctor Philip Turner who describes the two groups in terms of a pluralist stance and a confessional stance. Both groups will be represented at Lambeth. According to Turner, “for those whose stance is pluralist, a communion grows from and is expressed in common forms of worship and service. It can subsist in the midst of quite different expressions of belief and moral practice. It can be expressed most effectively not through common confession and moral practice but through common worship, hospitality, mutual aid, and partnership in mission.” For those who take a confessional stance, “communion requires agreement about the fundamentals of Christian faith and life. Communion grows from and expresses a shared faith and form of life.”
The Windsor Report produced and published by the Lambeth Commission recognized and affirmed that there is merit in both stances. It reads in part “Communion … subsists in visible unity, common confession of the apostolic faith, common belief in scripture and the creeds, common baptism and shared eucharist, and a mutually recognized ministry.” The same paragraph goes on to say, however, “In communion, each church acknowledges and respects the interdependence and autonomy of the other.” The Windsor Report insists that differences are to be sorted out over time through the practice of “mutual subjection” within the body of Christ. “Forbearance and restraint provide a space in time for the resolution of disputes that might fracture the peace and unity of the church.” For those who hold the pluralist stance, the issue is not forbearance but tolerance, charity and mutual hospitality. Critics of the pluralist stance are right to object that there are versions of Christian belief and practice that so distort its witness that tolerance of difference serves not to protect communion but to destroy it at its foundation. For those who have a more confessional stance, mutual subjection requires at a minimum restraint in respect to theological innovation and openness to correction.
Both of these stances will be engaged in a critical evaluation of the draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant. The proposal for such a Covenant was suggested by the Windsor Report and pursued by a specially appointed Covenant Design Group. The Covenant seeks to provide the Communion with the following:-
- A restatement of the essence of Anglicanism in the form of mutually agreed Affirmations and Commitments. It addresses the question of Anglican Identity for the benefit of Anglicans and others.
- On the basis of the Affirmations and Commitments, the member churches who sign up to the Covenant agree to hold each other accountable.
- A mechanism for dealing with disputes within the Communion. The way proposed by the current draft of the Covenant “is that of common belief and practice expressed in common worship, common ministry, mutual support, and open hospitality, all sustained by the practice of mutual subjection expressed by forbearance and restraint over time within a conciliar polity. This is the way that indeed pervades the witness of the New Testament, but it is a way that cannot prevail through time unless commonly understood and commonly supported.”
As the bishops engage in common prayer, common study and common deliberations, let us pray that they may be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that they may discern the will of the Lord of the church that “we may be one” and that we may more intentionally engage in his mission for his church and his world.