Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
‘Your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’, we pray day by day, week by week. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’, proclaimed Jesus at the start of his ministry (Matt. 4.17). ‘You will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom’ (Luke 22.30), he tells his disciples at the Last Supper. The kingdom both is and is to come. Brought near in the person of Jesus, we pray for the rule or reign of God to come to fullness on earth as it already exists in heaven.
This was a pressing issue for the Christians for whom Matthew wrote his gospel. If the kingdom of heaven had arrived in Jesus, why, they asked, were they suffering from persecution? If the kingdom is here, shouldn’t life be different? And for the disciples to whom the parables we just heard are addressed the cost of following Jesus weighed heavily. They’d given up everything to be his disciples: work, family, livelihood, security – all left behind as they responded to those words that were both invitation and command: follow me.
And it wasn’t too long before they started wondering whether they’d done the right thing. The vision that had seemed so attractive and compelling, a kingdom of justice and peace and healing and abundance, where the first were last and the last first, where strangers were made friends and the excluded brought in: that had seemed exciting, revolutionary even.
And that compelling vision was made real as they saw Jesus heal the sick, practise hospitality to those others deemed unclean, create community, and reveal a new way of looking at the world. But, as they and the disciples who came after them found out, it also brought with it those things Paul lists in the reading we heard from Romans: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword. That was harder to square with the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
So what Jesus gives his disciples in today’s reading are parables of encouragement. Mustard seeds and yeast are tiny, insignificant, easy to overlook. Yet in these parables they are the means of capacious shelter and bread enough to feed a village. So with the Gospel, and with the disciples’ own witness: their very smallness and hiddenness contains a kingdom. The criminal death of a powerless outcast in a backwater of the Empire far from power wrought the salvation of the whole world. Appearances can be deceptive. Size and power are not everything – lessons the contemporary Church could do with relearning.
And for those who were tempted to look back regretfully at what they’d given up to follow Jesus, the kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, worth selling all you have to possess. Or it’s like the merchant who gives everything to gain the pearl of great price. And notice, in Matthew’s gospel, that Jesus likens the kingdom to the merchant, not the pearl. The very act of seeking the kingdom is itself revealing of it.
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast are tales of life stirring in secret, beneath the surface of things. Compare that with the more brazen attempts to demonstrate power emanating from Pyongyang or Moscow, or the jockeying for position of those involved in the Brexit negotiations. In a world that equates kingship with power and domination, it can be tempting to see the kingdom of heaven through the same lens. Viewed that way, it becomes very easy to elide the Church and the kingdom, and to assume that gaining power and influence for the Church is a means of securing the kingdom. From the conversion of Constantine onwards, to the bizarre contortions of the gospel some have felt necessary to hang onto political power in the States, this has been, at best, an uneasy alliance.
But rather than assuming that the kingdom of heaven runs in similar ways to the kingdoms of the world, Jesus invites us to see things differently. Parables provoke new vision. If mustard seeds, yeast, fields, merchants and fishing nets can reveal the kingdom, then perhaps we need to look at reality in a different way. Perhaps, instead of seeking the kingdom ‘out there’, and feeling disheartened because the world can seem so far from the kingdom and its problems so intractable, perhaps we need to look to the ground beneath our feet, to the everyday stuff of our lives.
For if the kingdom can be hidden in a mustard seed, it can certainly be hidden in you and me. If we take seriously the created nature of things – the goodness with which they are endued by God – then matter can mediate the kingdom. We’re used to thinking about this in terms of the sacraments: bread, wine, water, oil, touch as the means through which God acts to pour out his grace. But those elements do not limit God’s action: God is not only to be found in the matter of the sacraments. Rather, the fact that God promises to act through the sacraments in particular is an encouragement to us to see all of life as sacramental, with the potential to reveal God’s presence.
And that has real implications for how we live and what we do. Do our relationships as parents, partners, colleagues, neighbours, friends, reveal something of the love of God? Do we notice and attend to those who are deemed insignificant in the world – the poor, the homeless, the housebound, the ill, those on whose labour we depend but at whose working conditions we prefer not to look? Does our work, our money, contribute to the common good? If the fields and nets of daily life in Jesus’ time can reveal the kingdom, what might it mean in our day to be signs of the kingdom on facebook or twitter? Do we see the world and the people around us as created by God for a purpose, or are they there simply to use to make our lives better?
Learning to see the kingdom hidden in the world is to begin to see as God sees and to act as God acts. No one is so insignificant that they escape his loving notice. Those whom our earthly kingdoms don’t have room for are especially welcome in his kingdom. Life does not have to be a competition where we succeed only if another fails, for in God’s kingdom no one can flourish at the expense of another. In God’s kingdom, creation has value because it is God’s work and his gift, and created things find their good in living in accordance with his purposes.
The kingdom has come in Jesus: that much the early disciples believed. The temptation was to look for the difference that made in terms by which the kingdoms of the world operate. The absence of power, influence, credibility of the early Christians led some to doubt. Some fell away from the faith; others faced the temptation to establish the kingdom either by retreating from the world into an enclave of the like-minded, or taking matters into their own hands to establish it. But in these parables Jesus counsels patience and faithfulness. The kingdom has come near in him. From tiny, seemingly insignificant seeds of faith the kingdom will grow. In hidden acts of kindness, integrity, generosity and love its presence is revealed and extended. Those who reveal the kingdom, whose lives make it believable and present, probably won’t look like the movers and shakers and influencers of the world. In fact, they’ll look a lot like Jesus. What Jesus teaches in today’s parables he enacts in his life and ministry. The kingdom was proclaimed by his words and actions, and by the words and actions of his followers as they grew in his image and likeness. And what he said to those first disciples he says also to us: the kingdom has come near. Follow me.