Three Points

By George Sumner

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I am sure that the novelist, the great reader of souls, was right. But when it comes to theology, something like the opposite is true, and I want to describe how this is. God is God and we are creatures, and we try to imagine how this difference is. But precisely because we are creatures we can’t imagine it, God exceeding our minds and hearts. So even when we think we are making God high and honoring him, we are doing so by our lights.

First and most obviously, we imagine God as an utter tyrant, all-controlling and unpredictable. We are pawns. Now what we see in each alternative is that there is a measure of truth. He is the mysterious creator of heaven and earth who does as he wills. But the picture of God here doesn’t ring true.

Second, we then easily fall into a kind of democratic model. God is our colleague. We can weigh in on the parts of the faith that make sense to us or don’t. The world is a mess and he needs help, and in turn he can help us. This sounds silly, but it is easy for us to fall into it. Culture, after all, seeps into all our pores.

There actually was a school of modern theology, called “process,” which basically said this, and was taken seriously. The only problem is that God is no longer God. Here we may borrow a quote from the great Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Most often for Anglicans, we come up with some in-between compromise. This option goes by various technical names: synergy, synthesis. And this one manages to ring falsely on both scores — too little of God, too much of us, the mystery, pathos, and dignity of human life lost along the way.

The right answer is right in its unique way, not a way we could ever have dreamed up, bits of each alternative to be found there, but as part of a vision not of our devising. Put another way, there is no understanding God without the story of the Bible, and once you read, mark, and inwardly digest that story, you can see how the fragments of truth lying about us in the world fit together.

To grasp what the Bible most wants to say, imagine a spy novel. You read the first three pages, when the guy gets kidnapped with the uranium. Then you misbehave and read the last three pages. You like the book, and go ahead and read it all, including the crucial turn of the plot in the middle. Well, that is the Bible, whose point is to tell us the character of God.

In the beginning, you meet him as he creates, or rather, before he does so: ‘In the beginning the Word already was, who was with God and was God,” as you are reminded, I might add, every Sunday in the liturgy. God in his utter freedom, power, and love, speaking and listening embedded in his eternal nature. Who knew?

God who doesn’t need anything, including a world, but made it out of love, and us at its center. That vision never goes away or is compromised. He is that God throughout. Then we look to the last three pages: his children dwelling with him, creatures still but eternally, washed and transformed, adoring him, for which he made them, as therefore flourishing.

Now you might mistake the tyrant God for Genesis 1, and his people in Revelation 21 for the democratic view, but you would be mistaken. He is one and the same, and as God calls us into being for the sake of communion and worshipful adoration. On our own we think in terms of zero-sum control and power, but that is because we are broken.

Genesis 1 and Revelation 21 show who he is, who we are, and what this all is for, aright. With these signposts in place, we can hear what the center, the heart of the Scripture, the word about Jesus Christ the Son, has to say. That same God, and that intended child, walking the earth. The purpose of creation seen as redemption. God’s plan for all creation in the little space of one man.

Human will perfectly one in adoration with the divine will. Omnipotence not as wielding of power as we think of it, but one man’s suffering life, something small, accomplishing everything he willed for the cosmos, and then inviting us alongside. Now that is omnipotence, but not as we would imagine it.

To grasp truth, you have to understand who God is. To understand who God is, you have to read his word. To understand his word, you have to look to the beginning, end, and center. And then you can read any passage navigating, triangulating, off those three points.

That is our task this morning, to consider the parables of the seed growing secretly, and of the mustard seed in this light. The parables are spoken by Jesus, and they are about Jesus, one way or another. For the kingdom that he brings is both ushered in by him and embodied in him as well. He is not just a messenger, like other prophets, but the realization of that message.

Remember how he said to his hometown synagogue, “This prophetic word is fulfilled in your hearing” — in other words, as I speak it. As with Genesis 1, Jesus speaks, and the reality comes into being. The seed growing secretly is the kingdom that springs up around him. It grows because it is part of this world, fully embodied, involving people and events, and yet it is God’s kingdom, and so not reducible to human terms. This has everything to do with the Church. It is a human institution, real in history, with strengths and flaws, but it also the body of Christ, and at the same time God has it utterly in his sovereign hand, to pluck up and plant.

In the parable of the mustard seed, likewise, the themes of divine freedom, the human flourishing he intends, and the paradox of such a divine vessel as the Church is found. The mustard seed is first of all Jesus, one rabbi in a corner of the empire long ago. Tiny, and yet the Lord of everything, the conqueror of death.

By his invitation it is the church. As such it grows, it follows the laws of creaturely life, as a living thing within creation and history. And yet it defies all creaturely logic, ruled as it is by arithmetic. A part of creation, and yet set apart. It is meant to provide, like a great tree, space for many birds of the air. This was an image of a great kingdom, an empire, in the ancient world.

And so it is, but not like any empire the world could understand. It is strong where in weakness it suffers for the truth. Its branches stretch into eternity, where the human eye cannot see. It has its own life, it would seem, but is real only as it indwells Jesus, its trunk. It struggles along in history, but will be fully visible at the end of time, when its leaves will heal all the nations, says the end of Revelation, and shade his children, and the waters of life will maintain it.

This is a good point to ask what these stories say to a particular church in a particular moment in its life. The great Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Lord, teach us to care and not to care.” Like the mustard seed, what things mean is something we can see in this world because we are his creatures, and yet something we cannot see.

Otherwise, the fact that all things pass away would lead us to despair and we would be pagans. We are meant to flourish, and to this end, struggle, and yet things do not depend on our wills, broken and limited as they are. God is utterly sovereign, and we must be the striving, fragile creatures he made us to be, and his servants in the midst of the world.

No abstract theory, no human mind on its own, could come to such a conclusion. So, strive to grow, but the logic of quantity is confounded. So, you are called to be his friends, and he reigns over all things. And only nested in the Bible’s account can these words make sense. And when they do, the rest of the world — its tragedy and yearning — makes sense too.

How do we read the Bible? One last rule of thumb. If it isn’t 51 percent good news, it isn’t right. That is why they call it “gospel.” The mustard seed — God means us for flourishing. The mustard seed — Jesus, who has already crossed over and returned. The mustard seed — the kingdom has its own arithmetic. The mustard seed and the tree — dying to ourselves and living — have their own logic in Jesus.

The mustard seed — my life as a disciple, what can it amount to, in a world of corruption and woe, planted, dying, used by Christ in ways invisible. The mustard seed — a word that makes the church in its distress happy in a way it could not imagine alone. I think I am way beyond 51 percent. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. George Sumner is Bishop of Dallas.


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