St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 5 (16.07.2017)

Tony Dickinson

We're sometimes told by the “cultured despisers of religion” that Jesus has no sense of humour, or that there are no jokes in the Bible. Well, today's readings knock that idea firmly on the head. That may not be entirely true of St Paul’s words to the Christian communities in Rome, but it certainly is true of the prophecy and the parable we have just heard. How can the idea that God's fulfilment of his promises to his people causes so much joy that even the landscape bursts into song and the trees give a round of applause not make us smile? "The hills are alive with the sound of music?" You bet! And what Galilean peasant farmer would not have laughed out loud at the thought of a cereal crop yielding a hundred-fold? A single wheat-stalk couldn't bear the weight of sixty grains, never mind a hundred. And even today, with all the advances in farming that there have been during the past two millennia, it would be pushing it for a farmer to get a thirtyfold return on his sowing. The fact that we have been taught to listen for God's word in the sacred writings of Israel doesn't mean that they have been completely purged of Jewish jokes.

But the jokes are there to make a serious point. God's faithfulness is a cause of joy for the whole of creation. The possibility of human lives bearing fruit far beyond any normal expectation does remain open to those who hear God's word and understand it, everyone who allows it to root and grow in their hearts and minds.

Now, that doesn't mean treating the Bible as if it were a car maintenance handbook, or the instructions for assembling a book-case from IKEA. If we do treat the Bible like that, then the poetry becomes meaningless nonsense and the jokes go down as badly as a bacon sandwich at a bar mitzvah. We are invited to read the written words of Scripture through the lens of Jesus, God's living Word. That lens, as St Paul reminds us, focuses on transformation, life and peace. "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Love wins. Always and everywhere.

Love wins - but sadly that doesn't stop people resisting love (or simply ignoring it). St Paul offers a warning about those who "set their minds on the things of the flesh" – which doesn't just mean "sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll", but what modern writers on the spiritual life call "the false self" or "the ego self". The people who "set their minds on the things of the flesh" are very like the people in that explanation of the story of the sower who fail to bear fruit. They are people who live at the level of that "false self", setting wealth, security, status – even family – at the centre of their lives with the result that they never discover their true self. They never discover that they have the Spirit of Christ, either because one or all of these distractions get in the way or because it all seems like too much trouble. "The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart."

And when the false self is in charge we end up with conflict, with head-to-head opposition – the very opposite of life and peace. Sadly there seems to have been quite a bit of that going on at General Synod last week-end. Members of Synod actually booed other members with whose arguments they disagreed. When we find ourselves in such a situation, whether it’s in political discussion, or in theological debate, we end up like the sheep in George Orwell's "Animal Farm", chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad" instead of looking for the truth that is distorted or obscured by the slogans. God's way isn't to obliterate opposition, but to bring about a third possibility, “a new thing” as the prophets often call it. We hear that, too, in St Paul. "For God has done what the law, weakened by sin, could not do: by sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us."

So we are brought back to the thought with which we began: that God's faithfulness makes the whole creation rejoice, because God's word shall not return to God empty. The prophet proclaims God’s promise: "[My word] will accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it."

That may take time. God is not addicted to the quick fix as human beings are. God works in the perspective of geological time measured in millions of years rather than a human lifespan of seventy or eighty. God works through the processes of nature, through evolution, to sustain and shape his fragile creation. But however long a game God may play – as seen from our human perspective – however long a game it may be, its end is re-creation, renewal, transformation by the endless flow of love focused in human history by the coming of Jesus “to deal with sin”. He does that not by doing some kind of deal with the powers of darkness, but by soaking up all the sorrow and suffering of the world. Not, as has been wisely said, so much changing God’s mind about us as changing our mind about God.

The Holy Spirit is God’s agent of transformation, the one who brings about this change and opens human beings up so that they can enter into the life of God. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” So may we let God’s word dwell richly in us as we read it through the lens of his living Word, Jesus, and may that word bear such a generous harvest for his kingdom that the hills of High Wycombe are alive with the sound of God’s praises and the joyful laughter of his people. And now to God the Father who first loved us...