When Church Gets in the Way

November 17, 2019

Categorised in:

Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Matthew 13.1-9,18-23 at Mattins on Sunday 17th November 2019, the Second before Advent.

On Thursday evening I finished teaching one of the modules in the School of Mission on a new subject, which we call Missional Ecclesiology. You might have thought that missional ecclesiology is as old as the church itself, but theologians always find ways of keeping themselves in business by expressing old truths in new ways.

The most recent developments in this area of theology began at the World Missionary Conference in Willingen, Germany in 1952, where one theologian, Karl Hartenstein, started talking about this thing called the missio Dei – the mission of God. His proposal was that it is in the very nature of God to be in mission, because the Father sent the Son (in Latin we would say the Father ‘missioned’ the Son) and both the Father and the Son sent, or missioned, the Holy Spirit. Likewise Jesus sent the disciples in to the world and so the church came out of the mission of God.

Two understandings of the missio Dei emerged. The first saw the church as the primary way in which God works in the world.

Whilst this may seem like common sense, the problem with this view is that if the church is in numerical decline, at least in the way that the Church of England has been for the past 100 years, then it appears that God is doing less than he used to. God becomes limited by what we see happening in the church, and it is God that gets a bad name for all the sinfulness we find in the church.

The second problem with this view is that if our experience of God is always mediated through the church, God is limited by our experience of the church. Our imaginations always associate God with church and we find it hard to experience God in the midst of our lives Monday to Saturday.

The second view of the missio Dei focuses on God’s work of redeeming the whole world and God’s revelation of himself to people directly, with or without the church. We see this in stories from Muslim countries when people have a dream of meeting Jesus, and wake up with the gift of faith. God is the one who gives the gift of faith, and irrespective of the church’s witness, good or bad, God is involved in the world. The job of the church is to catch up with what God is doing.

A little old Methodist church on a hill above Polzeath beach in Cornwall illustrates the point. As virtually all the houses in the village became holiday homes, the church lost its regular attenders.  But there were still thousands of people within a stone’s throw every Sunday on the beach.

So the church saw what God was doing amongst the holidaymakers and reinvented itself, to become the first Surfer’s church, called Tubestation. Now they engage with hundreds of people of all ages. God was present and active in the surfing community and the church had to catch up with what God is doing.

One theologian says, ‘the church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. If it does not engage in mission, it ceases to be church.’ Very often we talk about the church’s mission, but it should be the other way around. It’s not the church that has a mission but the mission of God that has a church.

And that’s quite a challenge for us as a cathedral, where we value by looking backwards, by appreciating our heritage. When congregational numbers are going down, does that mean that God is doing less than he used to? Or is he simply elsewhere, and we need to find out and catch up with what God is doing?

That’s a very long introduction to the parable of the sower. But that’s precisely my point. We tend to think so much of church when we think about God, but Jesus didn’t really talk very much about church and he didn’t mention anything about cathedrals. My plea is that we focus less on the church and more on what God is doing in sending Jesus.

Jesus is always talking about the kingdom of God – God’s mission to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (as we say in the Lord’s Prayer). But we often miss this kingdom message.

Here in the parable of the sower, we often interpret the parable through church-shaped spectacles. If you share the word of God, be prepared for some of your evangelism to fall on the footpath, to be eaten up by birds, some to fall on rocky ground and not take root only to shrivel in the sun, and some to be choked by weeds and the cares of the world. Only a few seeds will fall on good soil and produce a wonderful crop, 30, 60 or 100 times, thus growing the church. That’s how we often read this parable.

But what if Jesus is actually talking about himself? What if he is placing himself in the line of the prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah, who said (Isaiah 55:9-11):

As the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow

come down from heaven,

and do not return to it

without watering the earth

and making it bud and flourish,

so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

so is my word that goes out from my mouth:

it will not return to me empty,

but will accomplish what I desire

and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

What if Jesus is the word of God, and like the prophets before him poured himself out as an offering to the world? Like the prophets before him, his word was not accepted by many. Some were prevented by the evil one from understanding it – it didn’t even take root.

Others heard the word, but their embeddedness within the political structures of first century Roman Palestine, people like Herod Antipas, who liked listening to John the Baptist but didn’t protect him, meant that the word could not take root. Others, perhaps like the Pharisees, were wedded to their superior social status within society and the cares of this world made them deaf and blind to Jesus’ message.

For them, Jesus was a failure, worthy of a shame-filled death on a cross. Like the prophets before him, like the sons of the owner of the vineyard, he was attacked and beaten and even killed.

Yet the seed he sowed bore fruit. The word fell on some hearts that heard Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God and understood it.  The parable of the sower isn’t so much a story of what happens when the church shares the word of God. It’s more a story about what happens when God shares his word, Jesus with the world. For those that hear and receive it the impact is enormous, and even life-changing.

Listen if you have ears to hear.