A sermon preached by Assistant Curate Rev Richard Hutchins on 6 October 2019
Acts 14:21-28, Luke 17:5-6
Our very short Gospel reading today is only part of the set text from the lectionary. Under the heading of “Some sayings of Jesus”, the reading set out for this sixteenth Sunday in Trinity continues on to say in essence “don’t expect any thanks just for doing what you should”. I am probably deliberately shying away from that, but my excuse is that I need something that also works for the breadth of the All-Age service that follows this one!! And so I want to focus this morning on Mustard Seeds – and specifically the contexts in which Jesus spoke about them.
Mustard Seeds in the Bible only appear in three of the Gospels; a total of 5 times across the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We have heard the second appearance of this tiny little seed in Luke’s Gospel already, speaking about the impact of a tiny amount of faith. The first mention in Luke is a few chapters earlier, still on the lips of Jesus when he said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ I suspect those are familiar words to most, if not all of us.
And these two topics, faith and God’s Kingdom, are the settings for the appearance of mustard seeds in Matthew and Mark. In Matthew the mustard seed represents the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew’s way of speaking of the Kingdom of God) and then as a mustard seed of faith that moves mountains. Jesus’ comment on a mustard seed of faith here was in response to confusion amongst the disciples at their inability to cast a demon out of a boy. The mustard seed only appears in Mark once, related as an analogy for the Kingdom of God.
So five mentions, but only two real topics; the mustard seed representing the Kingdom of God as something small that grows into something really big, with the capability of providing safety and habitation to the birds of the air; and as something small but sufficient to achieve amazing things, like moving mulberry trees and mountains.
I think it is worth taking a look at this point at our Acts reading. At the start of this passage, Paul and Barnabas are in Derbe, on their first missionary journey that started in Antioch, near the Mediterranean and in the vicinity of the current Syria-Turkey border. They sailed from Antioch via Cyprus to the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Turkey, to a place called Perga. They travelled from there to another Antioch (called Antioch in Pisidia), before moving on to Iconium, then to Lystra before arriving in Derbe. It is worth saying at this point that Paul and Barnabas had been driven out by persecution from Antioch in Pisidia, by violence and stoning from Iconium, and were stoned and dragged out of the city of Lystra by a crowd that thought they had killed them – leaving behind them new believers in each place.
So here they are in Derbe, where they proclaim the good news and make many disciples we hear. Rather than avoiding a repeat of all the trouble they have faced, by taking a different route home, they then return by the same route; the route that has just seen them persecuted and stoned to near death, stopping off to visit the new believers and, as we heard, strengthen the disciples’ souls and encourage them in faith. How do they do this? By talking about their entry into the Kingdom of God, through many persecutions. Our narrative ends with them back where they started.
I sense in this passage that we can discern a link between The Kingdom of God and faith, and a link between faith and the Kingdom of God; which brings us on to our Gospel reading, and the others I have mentioned that use the mustard seed analogy. You see, I don’t think that it is an accident when Jesus used the mustard seed analogy for two different things – for the Kingdom of God/Heaven and for faith. I sense that these two things are intimately linked and I think that our Acts reading hints at this.
To my mind it is through action, in faith, that we see the Kingdom of God planted, germinating, growing to fruition. It is through faith that the Kingdom – the place of God’s reign and sovereignty, where God’s intended order peeks through the chaos of creation damaged in the Fall – comes to birth, where we are and in our contemporary context. Where is the Kingdom of God – wherever God is at work. And where is God at work? Wherever His incarnate hands and feet are about his business. And what is God’s business? The book of James tells us that it is the place of faith and works.
This is not to deny that God can work entirely independently of us – God is not beholden to us to achieve His will; but in grace God certainly gives us a place in his business, through Christ the Son. How amazing, how humbling is that.
In essence what I would like to suggest as something to ponder, to mull over, is that just perhaps the mustard seed that is planted, which grows into the largest shrub (so large that the birds nest in it), is the very same mustard seed of faith the Jesus mentions later on. That faith, when planted and nurtured, grows in itself, and where faith grows and comes to fruition there develops a place of life, a place of safety, something so much bigger than what we started with; the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.
How can we go about taking this mustard seed of faith and planting it, nurturing it. A guy called Jordan Seng spoke about this at the New Wine Summer Conference this year – and described faith as trying. that’s it – just to have a go. I’ve also heard people say that faith is spelt R.I.S.K – to be willing to take a chance. But to try what, to take a chance at what? This is where that bit of mission to “do what Jesus did” comes in. You see, whether or not we feel that it is “our particular cup of tea”, we are all capable of offering our faith to others. We plant our faith, and nurture it, when we do things that require faith.
So where and when is it that we plant faith? My suggestions is that we plant faith in prayer with others; in listening for the quiet word of God in all manner of situations and then sharing comfort and encouragement with others out of what we hear; in the prophetic – speaking truth to power and sharing one-to-one; in our actions founded on faith, serving those around us; in our life together as church; being bold in proclaiming the Good News that we claim for ourselves – together and as individuals. We plant our faith when we share our faith, in times of confidence, and in times filled with questions. We plant our faith when we live it out together and alone, in plenty and wilderness, in joy and sorrow.
And once planted like this, and all over the place wherever we are doing these kinds of things, then our faith can germinate, send out shoots and grow – grow into the most amazing of things for us and for those around us as we see the Kingdom of God take root and see his will being done, “on earth as it is in heaven”.
I want to give an opportunity to respond to these thoughts – for us each to think about how we plant our mustard seed of faith, where that is easy, where it is challenging – and to think about where we have seen the Kingdom of God grow in places where our lived-out faith has taken root, and places where we desire to see that Kingdom grow. If it will help to carry a small reminder of our mustard seed of faith for planting, then why not pop a few mustard in a small envelope to carry around in a pocket as a reminder; and you may want to write a prayer, or a subject for prayer, on the envelope as well.