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Readings: 2nd Sunday after Trinity

05 June 2015

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1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 4.26-34

 

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth: send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

 

TWO strong and related motifs leap out of this week's readings: that judging by appearances is often a mistake; and that important things can grow from humble and insignificant beginnings. Both are matters of common sense, and, at first glance, it may seem that there is little more to say about them. All of the passages, however, mark critical stages in longer processes: the Davidic kingship and God's covenant with it; the achievement of God's eternal Kingdom; and the re-education of perception for all time, in the light of the fact that Christ died for all. Although their value as moral illustrations is not unimportant, it is only a facet of something much more compelling.

Jesse of Bethlehem was a pragmatist. He had a number of sons; and flocks and herds that needed tending. There was no need to detach the youngest from his shepherding duties to introduce him to the prophet, when all his good-looking elder brothers could be presented to Samuel at the sacrifice. But God refuses to let Samuel choose a king to replace the unsatisfactory Saul on good looks alone -even though the narrator cannot resist mentioning David's beautiful eyes and ruddy cheeks (1 Samuel. 16.12).

Indeed, it is surprising that God is choosing a king at all, after the evident shortcomings of Saul's reign (1 Samuel 15.10-26). Why not instruct Samuel to put a stop to the idea that God's people have any king but God? By refusing the option of no king, and by not choosing as king a fully mature adult, God is saying something extraordinary: that in David - this promising but fallible human being - the grace of God's Spirit will work for good, even though many lapses and injustices lie along the path of David's future reign.

Keeping faith with an individual chosen almost against the odds to rule a chosen people becomes the irresistible pattern for the new and perfect kingship of Jesus, springing "from David's line and David's city" (Isaiah 11.1-5; Matthew 1; Luke 1). Yet typology and prophecy do not resolve the puzzles and difficulties of the Gospel accounts of Jesus's life and teaching, particularly on the subject of the Kingdom. Jesus never asks his followers to imagine the Kingdom of God as a place, however tempting it might have been to offer utopia as an alternative to Roman rule. Rather, it is something dynamic - a process carried along under its own momentum - and, therefore, difficult to stop once it has started.

The parable of the sower (Mark 4.26-29), unique to Mark, takes things further - to the harvest; for the crop is grown to be used, not just admired in the field. There will come a time, in the proper order of growth, when it is ready to be gathered. The parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4.20-32) takes us back to small beginnings. The unstoppable process of the Kingdom, as it develops into something strong and sheltering, is out of all proportion to its modest origins.

No wonder that this style of teaching could only go as far as the audience was "able to receive it" (Mark 4.33). The pictures it provides touch on the mystery that was later privately explained to the disciples, making it just sufficiently accessible to suggest to those who heard that what they observed in the world around them might be showing them something about the world that they had not yet imagined. Repeatedly, the parables of this fourth chapter exhort their hearers to pay close attention (Mark 4.9, 13-20, 23-24).

Paul presses the imminence of the Kingdom much more urgently on the Corinthians. He calls them away from the distractions of outward show, especially in assessing his message. If his words seem mad, that is because the process alluded to in the parables has already, in his experience, reached a further stage. The seed that falls into the ground and dies has been raised to immortality in the resurrection of Jesus, raising with it all mortal life (1 Corinthians 15). Now everything appears differently. The apostle no longer sees anyone "from a human point of view"; for all are caught up in Christ, and "we know longer know him that way" (2 Corinthians 5.16). There is no turning back from that conviction: the new creation has begun.

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