Joseph W. Cunningham
Behind our apartment just to the side of our back patio and next to where the kids like to play, we decided to do some planting in an above-ground garden. Last week we went over to the nursery and got some jalapeño seeds, some tomato and lettuce seeds, and other spices too. Then we got the enriched soil full of all the nutrients necessary for feeding plants and vegetables. We got the plant food to sprinkle on the soil, so that the soil stays nitrified after all the watering, and we even picked up a little garden spade to help us with whatever digging needs doing. We got all the stuff. We got it home. Then we assembled all the elements—I’m not sure if that’s appropriate gardening terminology—but that’s what we did. We put our little garden together.
Now, to be completely honest, neither one of us had ever grown vegetable plants before. The only plants I’ve ever taken care of lived a relatively short and miserable existence. All the plants given to my care shriveled up from either too much or not enough water and sunlight. I’m not what you’d call a green thumb. It shouldn’t surprise that I felt especially ignorant when we went to the nursery to get our seeds and soil. I had lots of questions to ask the staff: How many seeds should I plant? How much soil should I use per volume? When and how often do I apply the enriched plant food? How much water do they need? How much sunlight? Do we plant them now, or should we wait?
I’ve got virtually zero know-how when it comes to growing plants, but I’m cautiously optimistic that, the more we try, the more we learn, and the more we apply what we learn, the more likely we are to have some decent results, even when we face opposition, like inclement weather or temperamental soil. When it comes to gardening, growth takes time. Growth takes learning. Growth takes commitment.
This is true of course in a lot of different areas.
Whatever we’re growing, whether it’s plants or raising children or even if we’re nurturing our community of faith to growth in holiness—to foster growth, it takes time, learning, and commitment. Sometimes we face opposition and setbacks. Sometimes the weather abruptly changes and it gets cold. Sometimes the skies open up and the rain pours down. Sometimes the seeds we plant don’t sprout, for whatever reason.
Nevertheless, when it comes to planting seeds for growing church, the Scriptures testify to the faithfulness of God to that end, especially when those who witness to Christ use each and every opportunity to carry out his will to the honor and glory of his name.
We are called to lives enriched by commitment, like nitrified soul suitable for growth, so that, as we face obstacles, the hope of God in Christ leads us from darkness and disappointment to the light of grace and love.
I think it’s the case that if, as the church, we’re not struggling against some form of opposition; if the calling to follow Jesus has become easy or commonplace; or if Christianity has become convenient for us, then we’re probably not carrying out our mission as church, and we’ve lost sight of the way that Jesus spells out for his disciples concerned which way they’re to go in his absence.
“Where shall we go?” they ask. “Which is the right way?”
Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The life of Jesus is both challenge and choice. It’s the way of suffering and sacrifice led by faith, which gives rise to hope and glory and life eternal.
Incidentally, consider the story of Stephen in the Book of Acts. We don’t know a lot about Stephen, but what we do know about his death. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit as he gazed upward and saw the glory of God the Father, and the Son standing at the right hand of God. It was then, we’re told, that his enemies rushed against him, dragging him outside the gates of the city to stone him. Encircled by viciousness and cruelty and opposition on all fronts, Stephen knelt down and prayed, first that God would receive his Spirit, and second, that God would receive his oppressors and that they might find forgiven. With his final breath, Stephen’s prayer was one of hope. Instead of words of vengeance and holy retribution, Stephen prayed that his accusers might know the simple truth that had been sewn into his heart. While they were stoning him, Acts 7:59-60 tells us, Stephen prayed, “‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Born of opposition, these words, spoken simply and humbly by a man committed to God’s truth, were the catalyst for miraculous things accomplished for the sake of the gospel. His example teaches us that it’s in and through the obstacles we face that God’s truth of compassion and love for us is ultimately made known. Where there is no hardship to overcome, neither can character be forged.
Is not this the heart of the gospel lesson?
In John chapter 14 verse 12, where Jesus delivers a farewell address to his disciples prior to all the events coming to pass which would lead him to the cross, he says: “Very truly I tell you the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” Christ’s journey was filled with opposition of all kinds. But from it, salvation’s history is unfolded before all flesh to reveal the glory of Christ poured out for us. And to the extent that we follow, through our commitment, God accomplishes greater and greater things for the sake of his coming kingdom.
God works wondrous things from actions of hope and love. God works wondrous things when our lives are richly lived in commitment to serving him. Even when the road is strewn with obstacles. When we are fed by Christ and commit to the moments we are given to love and serve, then little by little, growth happens, first in our hearts, and then in our communities.
Stephen’s story, and the farewell address given to the disciples by our Lord in John 1:1-14, offer hope. It’s the seedling church at its best and most dedicated. It’s the story of all those who have gone before us, tilling the soil, planting and replanting the seeds, raising the harvest, and whose testimonies to the glory of Christ revivify the soil, so that other seeds may grow despite hazards and opposition that would choke them. It’s the story of all who have faced trials and overcome them for the sake of the gospel.
Planting seeds for growth takes time. It means learning from the obstacles we face as individuals and as a community of faith, and it takes radical commitment to following where Christ leads us. And if, planted deep within our hearts lies a desire that God’s love be manifested in our lives and in our communities, then God’s will has already begun to grow.
Faithfulness facing obstacles affirms that God’s will is already being done, on earth as it is in heaven. As this seed germinates within and around us, we grow both as individuals and as the church, and we grow together as church in relation to our world, as the kingdom of God draws ever closer to us, blooming in our midst.
Whatever opportunities we’re given, we’re called to make the most of them—by loving our neighbor just as Christ loves us—so that the glory of God, which beckons each one of us from the darkness of sin into the marvelous light of grace, might be known to our neighbor as well. Now is the season for growing. The Son has risen. The light of grace shines brightly. Let your life be fertile ground. Believe in God; believe also in Christ Jesus. Grow in devotion and commitment to God, and nurture the same in others, so that the church might grow healthy and strong in its calling to share and live the good news.