07.27.2014 Preaching Text: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
There’s something curious about Paul’s words this morning from Romans 8. As you read along you get the sense there’s a real struggle going on. Oh, you could read it on another level, finding, for instance, comfort and assurance as he establishes Christ’s concern and protective care for all God’s children. But the subtext of the whole thing is, as I say, struggle.
Last Sunday, the lectionary texts spoke about the coming harvest, the judgment, the victory of good over evil. And in that context, I pointed out how the biblical writers and the Jewish thinkers of the day saw this in context. To repeat, they believed that the “present age” was under the power of Satan, and that the only remedy for this tragic circumstance was divine intervention.
Thus, from the New Testament perspective, Christ is sent to usher in a new age, one animated and conformed to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. With God’s gracious offer to humanity of restoration, of a newly restored relationship with its Creator, a new way of life is set loose to be both embodied and advanced by the Church.
The parameters are laid out. Within a state of spiritual oppression, the Spirit moves out into the world from its beginnings in Jerusalem, which is to result ultimately in the final harvest to come. In the meantime the church has much work to do.
Christians have referred to our post-resurrection period as the “now but not yet,” the time between “this present age” and “the age to come.” What this means is that the beachhead of God’s kingdom has been established and has moved out into our world. But this movement to restore all of life back to its Creator is not complete. In the meantime, the Church, the embodiment and repository of the Holy Spirit, is as workers sent into the field to work the soil in preparation of the coming harvest.
In a world in flux this means the struggle between good and evil is real, the same struggle presumed in Paul’s words.
In case you haven’t noticed, the liturgical color for the “Time after Pentecost” is green, a color symbolizing growth. Growth of what? The growth of the Holy Spirit moving out into the world.
As I’ve pointed out before, the Book of Acts is generally referred to as the “Acts of the Apostles.” But it has also been referred to as the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” From its beginnings in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit, guiding and directing the early apostles, moves out into the then-known world.
In last week’s sermon I commenting on how we today live in a Western world that exhibits many of the hallmarks of that same Holy Spirit, whether we realize it or not. After all, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the struggles and hardships that brought us to where we are today, in the same way it is hard for a child of privilege to understand how that privilege came to be.
Nonetheless, all of Jesus’ parables in today’s reading from Matthew have to do with growth, as the Christian labors in the field in preparation for the coming harvest, living as we do between the now and the not yet.
Paul urges perseverance with comforting words of assurance. Jesus, speaking to the fieldworkers, also advises patience and perspective. The mustard seed which appears inconsequential will one day grow into a mighty tree. The work and sacrifice of the workers tending to its slow growth will be rewarded; their efforts shall not be in vain.
Such far-sighted perseverance is as hidden treasure for which one sells everything, knowing its ultimate worth. Or as a precious pearl for which one gives away everything in order to possess, its value far exceeding any and all lesser goods.
Sustained in this assurance, the field hand plows the row with a steady hand, confident that such labor will produce the desired harvest. Yet as it relates to the growth of the Spirit, just what kind of growth are we talking about?
At the conclusion of Jesus’s parables on growth, he asks his hearers, “Have you understood all this?” To which they reply, “Yes.” Unsure that they really do, he throws out this line: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
A few weeks ago, in admittedly generalizing terms, I talked about how political progressives in America seem to want to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth, while political conservatives want to return to a kind of Garden of Eden moment from a mythical past, a time before all the accretions of history adversely compromised all manner of things. Both, as I said, are utopian schemes premised on secular humanism.
According to the one way of thinking, the new replaces the old, superseding the mistakes of the past by means of a wholly new prescription for human flourishing. Conversely, the other point of view rejects the new in deference to the solid, presumed verities of the past.
This strange dichotomy is played out in churches as well, not just in the political sphere. Fundamentalism presumes a return to purity while progressivism argues for a wholly new sensibility, one consistent with evolution, scientism, and change.
G.K. Chesterton once said that Christianity is inherently democratic. By that he meant that everyone gets a vote, not just those fortunate enough to be walking around. Those who came before get a vote as well.
Protestantism is a part of the Reformed tradition whose understanding of God and God’s truth is continually being formed and re-formed. God’s truth, in other words, is not static.
Thus the church, the repository of the Holy Spirit, is continually moving through time and history. As new conditions arise and as new occasions teach new duties, the church re-forms, taking the wisdom and knowledge of the past and interpreting it through the lens of the here-and-now.
It’s like a child who learns about life from his parents. In time, the tendency is to rebel against parental norms in search of a new identity in light of a new day. In time, at least hopefully, the growing child, now an adult, learns to integrate these new learnings with the insights of their forebears.
Creating something out of whole cloth, ultimately, is shallow and false, in the same way that ignoring all new information is hidebound and life-negating. The trick is in discovering (and honoring) the eternal verities often hidden within the flux and flow of everyday life.
As the church seeks to fulfill its role amidst the lively movement of the Holy Spirit in time, it must struggle to discern what God is doing. This struggle is often difficult, requiring patience, wisdom, humility, and prayer. It at times will mean lively debate, much as one sees not only in scripture but in both Jewish and Christian theological traditions.
In the end, our Christian faith is premised on spiritual discernment. Will we rightly bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old? And will we honor God in so doing? Amen.