“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Conflict is very much part of the human condition. From childhood sibling rivalries to disputes between nations, we all experience conflict at some time.
Conflict resolution is something that nations and international organisations spend time and money trying to achieve, whether it’s trade talks, peace keeping initiatives or stopping invasions and acts of war. It’s also part of the corporate culture. Staff are trained in resolving conflict and how to “leverage” (an awful corporate word) the energy of conflict to achieve corporate goals and get conflicting individuals working as effective teams.
And here we have a first-century church’s blueprint for conflict resolution. This group of early Churches, founded by Matthew, are told how to cope with church members who have behaved badly and will not accept correction.
Because you are all familiar with scripture, I’m sure you have spotted disconnects. Who is really talking here? When the gospel writer says the unrepentant who will not accept correction should be viewed as “a tax collector or a Gentile”, we experience a little intake of breath – tax collectors, gentiles, weren’t these the very people Christ deliberately sought out? We begin to suspect we’re listening to Matthew rather than Jesus, and it’s Matthew who is now the leader of a thriving early church, writing years later, (and perhaps sounding a bit like an Archdeacon on a visitation). Matthew is attempting to provide leadership and structure to churches and a method for imposing necessary discipline.
Then there’s the difficulty of translation, the New Revised Standard Version, like other modern bibles, leans towards the use of inclusive language. Here Matthew talks of a “church member”, sinning against you. The original Greek has: “if your brother sins against you…” a world of difference. When we talk of brothers and sisters, we are already pre-disposed to a climate of love, this is not just a question of attending the same church, this is about togetherness, like siblings, perhaps falling out, but making up, understanding one another, loving one another.
The third difficulty is what the passage leaves out. By stopping where it does, we get an austere view of the early church and conflict resolution, or perhaps I should call it reconciliation. What is missing is forgiveness, the reconciliation that turns the tax collector and the gentile from one who is outside the pale into the one who is seeking God, who may fail and fail again, but who understands instinctively the very core of Jesus’s mission, his proclamation of divine love. Read on and in verses 21- 23 we come to Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive – as many as seven times? Christ’s answer, “not seven times but I tell you seventy-seven times”, points us back to the heart of the gospel, love.
In today’s passage from Romans we have a succinct “mission statement”, an overview of what Christianity is. In three short verses Paul gives us the heart of the gospel. Its simple imperative is that we love one another. All of the laws, which mainly tell us what we must not do, they can all be summed up in one positive thing that we must do – we must love one another.
Because, if we love our brother and our sister, we will not steal from them, we will not lie to them, we will not commit adultery against them, we will not covert what they have, we could never, ever murder them or harm them in any way – we love them.
And in loving them as ourselves we eradicate arrogance, pride, any need to be superior. We love everyone else as we love ourselves, and in doing that we are committed to justice, to equality, to breaking down barriers, to being with those we don’t necessarily understand but whom we see as a brother or sister in Christ. Reconciliation, justice, truth, all come from love.
And the Church that is inspired by the Holy Spirit and Paul’s imperative is truly alive, truly itself, no fudging, no evasion.
It means that the Church is, without trying, attractive to others, welcoming them in, being full of joy and laughter. It means that justice and reconciliation are of paramount importance. It means being aware of the world’s hungry and that the rest of the world appears not to care. The total wealth of the world’s four richest individuals is still more than the total wealth and income of the world’s 48 poorest nations. Translate that into human misery juxta-positioned with a picture of human over-indulgence and arrogance. OK, I know, Bill Gates is having a good stab at giving away much of his wealth, and many philanthropists are doing the same. But if we truly love one another as we love ourselves, the result must be that we cannot stomach this blatant injustice, we cannot go on eating while millions starve.
Being truly alive to the Gospel and to Christ’s love means barriers must be broken down. Being truly inclusive is about more than language, more than political correctness. Breaking down barriers means opening ourselves to God’s love demonstrated through the incarnation – living out the redemption of humankind through Christ’s saving grace, not just our own acts and good works.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
If, by the simple act of two or three of us being together, not just physically there but together in his Name, in love and inspired to live the gospel – if by this simple act, HE is there, actually there, among us, that is an awesome prospect. It means we have no excuse. We simply open ourselves to that love, to that way of being, and Christ is among us, along-side us. What possibilities, what wealth, what grace, what love are ours, openly and freely on offer to us.
Holy Spirit, inspirer, creator, lover. Move among us and within us. Show us who we truly are, who we can truly become. Shake us and mould us. Amen.
Is this a story about faith? Perhaps. Is this a story about Peter? Most likely. Peter is the disciple with whom Jesus most often engages when he is trying to teach the twelve about faith.
Throughout the gospels Peter continues to take risks (although not when he denies Jesus three times when fear of the authorities scares him into denial of his Lord). But normally, he constantly rushes in to show his devotion and faith without always considering the outcome.
We on the other hand are often so prudent that faith for some is in danger of becoming a dead noun – unless you are a persecuted Christian driven from your home or bombed in your church. There you have to be a risk taker.
To emulate Peter’s risk taking is perhaps to regain the faith that is life transforming. A very godly priest I admired as a child once described faith as that which takes you outside of your comfort zone. This could be said to be the perfect description of Peter’s act in this week’s lesson.
Why does Peter make this request? Jesus has spoken to them, told them to take heart. But that’s not enough for Peter. He puts himself out front as a kind of dare, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” he says.
What is Peter really saying – make me do something extraordinary, set me apart from these other disciples, grant me exemption from the laws of nature that bind ordinary people and I will believe you are who you say you are.
It sounds as if Peter is being rather pompous, but in this story like most of the other stories when Peter is a bit embarrassing, he is speaking for us. All of us, at one time or another, has asked God for an exemption. Jesus probably had to think for a minute before he decided how to respond to Peter. He could have said, Who do you think you are, Simon Peter, sit down and find your oar and get rowing. But that wasn’t what Peter needed. He needed a couple of steps on water to cure his doubt and then a nose full of water to cure his pomposity.
Sometimes this story is interpreted as commending Peter’s faith for getting out of the boat and walking on the water, the problem comes when he takes his eye off Jesus, his faith falters but Jesus is there to save him. So it can be seen as encouraging us to put our faith into action.
But I think what we are meant to be looking at here is this story in parallel with the account of the Stilling of the Storm in Matthew 8, and to notice how the disciples’ relationship with Jesus has developed.
In the earlier story the disciples are in fear of their lives, they wake Jesus, he stills the waves and the wind, rebukes them for their lack of faith, the disciples are amazed and wonder what sort of person Jesus is that even the winds and sea obey him.
In contrast here, the disciples are not in fear for their lives. There is no storm just the disciples’ fear when they see Jesus walking on the water and do not recognise him. When Peter’s challenge goes wrong and he sinks calling out “Lord, Save me!” Jesus grabs him and it’s only Peter who is called ‘one of little faith’ and questioned for doubting.
And the wind simply ceases once Jesus gets into the boat and this time, the disciples worship him as the Son of God. So what are we to learn from the development of this story?
Perhaps this is an enactment of the truth that we are not intended to walk on water either actually or metaphorically and when we find ourselves in deep over our heads and unable to save ourselves the right response is that of Peter – “Lord, save me!” As I write that line, I realise that this is one of my constant prayers, throughout the day – Lord, save me, help me, be with me!
In both accounts, Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of the wind, waves, water and sea all of which are characteristic of chaotic elements of nature. So at the end of this account, the disciples are not just wondering what kind of person Jesus is, but they worship him as the Son of God. Matthew next records the disciples worshipping Jesus when he appears to them after his resurrection.
In both the story of the Stilling of the Storm and that of Jesus walking on the water, Jesus ends up in the boat with the disciples. A ship was one of the earliest symbols for Christianity and these accounts show us why – when surrounded by adversity, chaos and violence, safety and salvation are experienced in the Church with Jesus in our midst.
This story of Jesus walking on the water has inspired poets and artists. Longfellow, in particular, in his long poem, ‘Christus, A mystery’, has a section in which Mary Magdalene remembers the story of Christ walking on the water.
“This morning, when the first gleam of the dawn made Lebanon a glory in the air,
And all below was darkness, I beheld an angel or a spirit glorified
With wind tossed garments walking on the lake.
The face I could not see, but I distinguished the attitude and gesture,
And I knew t’was He that healed me.
And the gusty wind brought to mine ears a voice which seemed to say:
“Be of good cheer! T’is I! Be not afraid!
And from the darkness, scarcely heard, the answer:
“If it be thou, bid me come unto thee upon the water!”
And the voice said, “Come!”
And then I heard a cry of fear:
“Lord, save me! I am a drowning man”
And then the voice: “Why didst thou doubt,
O thou of little faith?”
At this all vanished, and the wind was hushed,
and the great sun came up above the hills.
And the swift-flying vapours
hid themselves in caverns among the rocks.
Oh, I must find him and follow him, and be with him for ever!
Thou box of alabaster, in whose walls the souls of flowers lie pent,
the precious balm and spikenard of Arabian farms,
the spirits of aromatic herbs, ethereal natures nursed by sun and dew,
not all unworthy to bathe his consecrated feet,
whose steps make every threshold holy that he crosses.
Let us go upon our pilgrimage, Thou and I only.
Let us search for him until we find him and
pour out our souls before his feet til all that’s left of us
shall be the broken caskets that once held us.”
Father, grant that we may continually search for you, and, finding you, pour out our souls and become one with you.
I wonder if, like me, some of you have suffered anxiety on account of the parable of the sower – or, rather, on account of its interpretation.
The interpretation we find in the gospels turns the image of the sower, freely broadcasting seeds that fall in four different places with four different results, into an allegory: it treats every element in this homely agrarian scene as a cryptic symbol, as something that stands for something else and needs to be decoded by someone in the know.
The seed, Jesus is said to have said, is ‘the word of the kingdom’, and the four different places on which it falls are four different kinds of hearers of the word – four different kinds of people, that is to say. And here’s the bit likely to induce anxiety: three out of these four kinds of people are no good. They are deficient, lacking, constitutionally unable, it seems, to understand the word, whatever it’s about, and ‘bear fruit’, whatever that means (the decoding still needs a bit of decoding, it has to be said).
What happened to the Jesus we met back in Matthew, Chapter 6, the one who said, ‘Do not be anxious about your life’? Now he’s telling me I may be the wrong kind of person altogether, and it sounds like there’s nothing I can do about it. Plus, loads of other people are no good too. Worse yet, I’m supposed to believe that the birds – the awesome and delightful birds – in this parable stand for ‘the evil one’.
I just don’t think Jesus said that.
Happily, I’m not alone. Many Bible scholars think that the interpretation of the sower should not be attributed to Jesus; they think it was probably added to the sower saying after Jesus died, during the early days of the church. The reference to ‘trouble or persecution’ is one giveaway, as is the preoccupation with spreading ‘the word’, an emphasis that points to an already well-developed teaching about Jesus himself and a concern with enrolling faithful multipliers of the faithful – a concern with building up the church, in other words. Also compelling is the fact that the famous Gospel of Thomas, a non-narrative sayings-of-Jesus document that includes versions of many canonical sayings but seems to represent an independent line of transmission, knows the saying about the sower but not the interpretation.
You may disagree with me and these scholars, of course, but I’d like to invite you, nevertheless, to try a thought experiment: try pretending you’ve never heard of the interpretation. Set it aside for a while and return to the image of the sower on its own. Re-read Matthew 13: 1-9 with fresh eyes and an open mind. If that were the whole of what Jesus had to say about the sower, what might he have hoped his hearers would have ears to hear?
In their Reflections for last week, Joy and Ian pointed out how Jesus made a parable out of what looks like a proverbial saying – one that seems to poke fun at childish petulance. Jesus compared his contemporaries to imperious children who don’t get their way when playing at make-believe weddings and funerals. When John the Baptist came, living on locusts and wild honey and calling for repentance, people complained that he was too severe and would not preach joy and thanksgiving, as at a wedding; then when Jesus came, eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, people complained that he was too indulgent and would not preach woe and lamentation, as at a funeral.
The sower, I suggest, may be another case of a proverbial situation made into a parable.
If you grew up in the countryside, or if you’re an experienced gardener, you may have heard the following old rhyme, or one of its many variants:
Plant your seeds four in a row:
One for the mouse,
One for the crow,
One to wither,
And one to grow.
I suspect that when Jesus described the sower and the four different fates that awaited the seed, he may have had something like this proverb in mind. By that, I don’t mean that he was just giving out gardening tips. I mean that he was playing on what everyone who heard him already knew: that many of the seeds a farmer sows never reach maturity, so in order to grow anything, it is necessary to sow generously.
This is what I take away from the parable of the sower. I think Jesus is trying to reassure us that this world – the Kingdom of our heavenly Father – has been sown generously, that it abounds with life and growth and that, even when new life is diverted, or snuffed out early, or overwhelmed, there is also much that thrives. I think the parable of the sower is very much in line with the sermon on the mount and with the Jesus who tells us not to be anxious. It even reminds us of one of the ways in which our heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air: by giving them a portion of the sower’s grain.
This is not a facile ‘don’t worry, be happy’ philosophy, however. The sower is a hard saying. Almost impossibly hard sometimes. Hard for the parent whose child has died. Hard for the family whose painstakingly built business has failed because of Covid-19. Hard for the flood victim bereft of all she ever worked for. We all know that nature is cruel. We’ve seen the David Attenborough specials that show how new life is beset by perils on all sides, reminding us that to have been born at all is already to have prevailed against mind-boggling odds.
Most things don’t make it. Most things don’t make it. What are we supposed to make of that?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus exhorts us, as he so often does, to imitate God. Just as God has sown generously, we too should sow generously. We should pray for the grace to be open-handed as the sower: to remember those who are down when we are up, to share bounty when we have it, to give other living things their due, to trust the power of life even when death strikes, to love faithfully and forgive freely, to offer more than is asked, to invest in a tomorrow we may not live to see, to expect and let go of failures, to try again…and again…and again.
Jesus gives us the sower to think on when all our efforts seem barren. Something will get through. Something will get through.
‘Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!’