A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 16, 2017
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The Call of Christ
The word from the Gospel is often co-opted by preacher’s to describe their work. While we may do so by analogy the problem I have with such a comparison is that it circumvents the Christ. He is the sower of the seed (cf. 13:37). Jesus is and must be central to the exegesis of both Testaments. We cannot go around him. Because he is the sower of the seed, any preaching of the gospel must be an encounter with the living Christ, not an abstract idea which we label “Jesus.” This changes the way that we read the words of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer well knew. He writes,
“Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.”1
If our only encounter with Jesus is as a static idea then we may easily find our way “out of it.” We may say,
“‘It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.’ Jesus may have said: ‘Sell thy goods,’ but he meant: ‘Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.’–We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience ‘in faith.'”
This is how it might look if we related to Jesus as a mere idea. This is how it might look if we treated Christianity as if it were adherence to a system of doctrine instead of obedience to a person. But that option was not available to those who met Christ by the way, as he went about sowing the seed.
“The difference between ourselves and the rich man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: ‘Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.’ But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe … But we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks. If Jesus said to someone: ‘Leave all else behind and follow me; resign your profession, quit your family, your people, and the home of your fathers,’ then he knew that to this call there was only one answer–the answer of single-minded obedience, and that it is only to this obedience that the promise of fellowship with Jesus is given. But we should probably argue thus: ‘Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with ‘absolute seriousness,’ but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to stay with our families, and serve him there in a spirit of inward detachment.’ If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.'”2
No, we do not follow Christ as if he were an idea. We do not adhere to Christianity as if it were a body of doctrine. We do not preach the gospel as if it were a creed to be merely recited. The Christ which met men in the dusty deserts of Galilee is the living Christ who meets each of us today and calls us to follow him. And so we must face his call because he faces us.
“With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience. Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.”3
And so we find a living and resurrected Savior, not a dead and dying god. He is no idea. He is a man, just as you and I are men. As such, his call comes as definite and clear as my voice is to yours.
“When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience. When Levi was called from the receipt of custom and Peter from his nets, there was no doubt that Jesus meant business. Both of them were to leave everything and follow. Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life. Only one thing was required in each case–to rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities in the world. The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are to-day [sic]. Reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way, and even the law and ‘scriptural authority’ itself were obstacles which pretended to defend them from going to the extremes of antinomianism and ‘enthusiasms.’ But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-minded obedience.”4
What then do I mean? Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your job as he called Matthew, Peter, James, and John? Maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to sell all that you have and give to the poor? Yes, maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your family and to follow him wherever he bids you go? Yes, maybe. That is something that neither you nor I can determine. That is determined by Christ alone.
If we believe that the same Christ that met Peter and his brothers by the sea is the same Christ we worship, why should we think that he calls no one in similar fashion today? If we believe that the same Christ which met the rich young man is the same Christ which is alive today, why should we think that he calls no one to a similar destiny? Is there no one which needs to hear that call? If we believe that the same Christ which called men to leave father and mother is the same Christ which calls us today, why should we not believe that he issues the same call to some today?
No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave his occupation. No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave their families behind. And yes, it is possible to have riches and faith in Christ. But often this is only made possible by first giving them up, as Abraham received Isaac again only after he had sacrificed him to the LORD.
“[I]t is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ–so that a man may have these goods as one who has them not. But this is an ultimate possibility of the Christian life … It is by no means the first and the simplest possibility. The paradoxical understanding of the commandments has its Christian justification, but it must never lead to the abandoning of the single-minded understanding of the commandments. This is only possible and right for somebody who has already at some point or other in his life put into action his single-minded understanding, somebody who thus lives with Christ as his disciple and in anticipation of the end.”5
When we read the call of Matthew or the call of the rich young man, we should not assume that ours is the same call, but neither should we exclude it from possibility.
“Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us.”6
The point is simply this: each time the gospel is preached it is not a mere exchange of information, it is a meeting with the risen and living Lord.
“Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and speaking to us to-day [sic] through the testimony of the Scriptures. He comes to us to-day [sic], and is present with us in bodily form and in his word. If we would hear his call to follow, we must listen where he is to be found, that is, in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present. If you would hear the call of Jesus you need no personal revelation: all you have to do is to hear the sermon and receive the sacrament, that is, to hear the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Here he is, the same Christ whom the disciples encountered, the same Christ whole and entire. Yes, here he is already, the glorified, victorious and living Lord.”7
It is that sort of encounter which Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Sower. The previous chapters of Matthew describe various responses to people’s encounters with Jesus; This parable is an explanation of those various responses. And so, this parable invites us to ask ourselves how we have responded and how we will respond when we meet him again.
The Seed Eaten by Birds
The first response to Christ is describe as that seed which fell along the path (13:4). “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (13:18, 19).
The first response to Christ is pictured as puzzlement and confusion. It is not because Christ is enigmatic or his call unclear. Understanding is not only a matter of the intellect; It is a matter of the heart. It takes moral training in order to understand holiness. Even his own disciples often misunderstood what he said. They did so because they still treasured in their hearts visions of power and conquest. When victory means killing your enemies one cannot help but misunderstand when the conqueror predicts his own death (cf. Mark 9:9-10, 30-32; also Mat. 16:13-23). And so it is that Satan is often at work in our hearts to make Jesus message unintelligible. “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.”
The Seed on Rocky Ground
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (13:20-21).
To “be rooted” is to be attached to Jesus for Jesus’ sake. Those who have “no root” are those who have not attached themselves to a person but an idea, the very abstraction which I described at the beginning of this sermon. An idea is completely within our control. We may take it, leave it, or alter it whensoever we wish. We may construct a Christ of our own liking. If that abstraction brings with it any difficulty then we may discard it without harm and so we “immediately fall away.” Only when we “root” ourselves in Jesus, in his living person, do we find root in anything of substance. It is the strength of the living Christ which offers us the strength to endure persecution.
“Jesus hath many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross. He hath many seekers of comfort, but few of tribulation. He findeth many companions of His table, but few of His fasting. All desire to rejoice with Him, few are willing to undergo anything for His sake. Many follow Jesus that they may eat of His loaves, but few that they may drink of the cup of His passion. Many are astonished at His miracles, few follow after the shame of His Cross. Many love Jesus so long as no adversities happen to them. Many praise Him and bless Him, so long as they receive any comforts from Him. But if Jesus hide Himself and withdraw from them a little while, they fall either into complaining or into too great dejection of mind. But they who love Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and not for any consolation of their own, bless Him in all tribulation and anguish of heart as in the highest consolation. And if He should never give them consolation, nevertheless they would always praise Him and always give Him thanks. Oh what power hath the pure love of Jesus, unmixed with any gain or love of self! Should not all they be called mercenary who are always seeking consolations? Do they not prove themselves lovers of self more than of Christ who are always seeking their own gain and advantage? Where shall be found one who is willing to serve God altogether for nought?”8
We may not idealize Christ or Christianity because it is not ideals that we love. It is not ideals that we worship. We follow of a living Lord. But we must not forget the resurrected Lord is the crucified Christ, and “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Mat. 10:25). To be rooted in Christ is to be destined for suffering but we “rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities of the world.”9 Nothing else can sustain in time of trial.
The Seed Among Thorns
“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” (13:22). Just as the ground cannot sustain both the wheat and the thorns, so no man can serve two masters (cf. Mat. 6:19-24). The call of Christ is to leave everything behind and follow him. As goes the proverb, “If Christ is not Lord of all he is not Lord at all.” Unless my money is under the sovereignty of Christ, it is a danger to me. Unless I do my work as unto the Lord with faith in his provision, it is harmful to my spirit. Unless I enjoy my pleasures as a grace from God, they erode my soul. Unless I receive each meal as a gift from him who gives all good things, I eat to my own damnation. My heart has room for only one master and Christ lays claim to its throne. In order to place another upon his seat I must insist that Jesus move over. And if I do I am assured that I will “yield nothing” (13:22).
The Seed on Good Ground
“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 hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23). Christ calls us all individually. Just as the decision whether to sell our possessions, or leave our occupation, or leave behind our family is dependent upon the call of Christ, so is our own productivity. God gives the increase. It is not for everyone to lead myriads to Christ and we should not pridefully insist upon being greater than our call. If we have answered the call at all we have answered the call which Christ has given to us and that is our satisfaction. “In other words, disciples do not come in only one size or type, and there is room in the kingdom of God for the ordinary as well as for the spectacular.”10
Tilling the Soil
Jesus tell us what makes the difference in the soils. When he describes those whom we are understand as bad soil he says of them,
“With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.'” (13:14, 15).
Adopting the language of the psalms to describe idol worshipers, Jesus describes those who become like the idols they worship. Those who reject Christ do so because they are idolators. When a man meets Jesus he receives the call to come follow him. That call constitutes the call to forfeit his idols and worship Jesus as the one and only true God. It is a man’s unwillingness to part with his idols which results in the rejection of Christ.
This is informative because by contrast it also indicates to us the way in which we may prepare our hearts to receive Christ and hear his call–we worship him.
“To the question–where to-day [sic] do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call.”11
This is why the liturgy of so many Christian traditions all lead up to the Lord’s Supper, as I could wish we did here. There we meet Christ. There we hear his call, over and over again. At the celebration of the Eucharist in The Book of Common Prayer the celebrant offers you the Supper and then commissions you to enter the world on behalf of Christ. They may say, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”12 In the Catholic tradition it is so called “Mass” from the Latin “Missa” because it is the past participle of the verb “to send.”13 We come to be sent. We come to hear the call. Having heard the Word and received the Supper, you have been called by Jesus himself. Will you answer the call of Christ?
©M. Benfield 2017
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 59.↩
2. Ibid, 80-81.↩
3. Ibid, 59.↩
4. Ibid, 79.↩
5. Ibid, 82.↩
6. Ibid, 84-85.↩
7. Ibid, 225-226.↩
8. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Trans. Rev. William Benham, (Einstein Books), “Of the Fewness of Those Who Love the Cross of Jesus”, II.11.1-3, pp. 42-43.↩
9. Bonhoeffer, 79.↩
10. R.T France, New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Ed. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 921.↩
11. Bonhoeffer, 228.↩
12. The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007), “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One”, 339-340.↩
13. “Mass”, Dictionary.com. Available at: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mass?s=t ; Accessed 15 July, 2017.↩