In reflecting on the seasons and the spiritual significance of what I find myself doing in my garden, I have previously talked about the importance of pruning, which Jesus teaches on in John 15. This year I have been much more organised in my gardening, and as a result have invested much more time early on in sowing seeds—and I have realised what an odd and unusual thing this activity is, particularly if you are not used to it. The other week I was sowing seeds to grow beetroot, and as I raked the warm soil (it was a couple of weeks ago!), formed the drill, and scattered the seeds, my dog Barney looked on with a sense of canine bafflement, wondering what on earth I was doing as I carefully pinched the soil closed over the bumpy-looking pale grains that had fallen into the dark earth.
At the heart of the practice of sowing is the question of faith. You can only sow seeds if you have faith that something remarkable is going to happen, and it is something that is completely hidden from sight, since germination only happens in the darkness of the soil. Some seeds are more mysterious still, in that they will only germinate if they have undergone ‘vernalisation’, in which they must experience the cold of the winter frosts before being triggering to life by the warmth of spring. I don’t think my mother-in-law (who lives with us) will mind me telling you that, when I came back in from sowing seeds, she cried out ‘I could never sow seeds—how do you know anything is going to happen?!’ She is in fact a person of great faith—but is noting that it does indeed demand faith in the process of germination to bother putting the effort into sowing at all. This is what makes the process something of wonder for primary school children, as a round runner bean in a jar puts out alien-looking tentacles of roots and shoots—and yet it is the only the result of this faith which means that we have fruit and vegetables on our supermarket shelves. Every time you go into Tesco (or another supermarket, or even perhaps your local greengrocer) you are proving that ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Habakkuk 2.4, Rom 1.17); without faith, there is no food, and without food, there is no life.
Faith is demanded in the act of sowing for three primary reasons. First, the stark fact is that the appearance of a seed bears little or no resemblance to the plant that it will produce. My flat, ridged and striped sunflower seeds bear no obvious relation to the six-foot-tall stems of the sunflowers that they will produce—and it seems laughable to expect such a (Russian) Giant to emerge from something so small. Of course, if I look closely enough, then I will indeed find seeds like mine on the head of the sunflower. But the strange, knobbly seeds of the beetroot, which look like a poor attempt to model a virus molecule on a large scale, bear no relation at all to the plump, round beetroots that I hope will result. There is striking discontinuity between seed and plant that requires faith in someone’s label, usually on the seed packet, to believe that this is what will result. And this is what makes seed packet displays so enticing in garden centres: as you stand before such a display, you are confronted with a wondrous parade of delicious food in the pictures on the packets, when in fact all you have before you is an array of dry beads.
The second reason that faith is required is because of what the ground looks like before it is sown. There are some signs of life, in the form of worms that come to the surface when it rains or when I dig, but by and large the unplanted vegetable plot looks unremarkable. I look back at photographs from the previous years, and it is extraordinary to think that this apparently barren soil will, in relatively few weeks, look like a veritable jungle of edible things, in all shades of green and just bursting with life. This rapid change is one of the wonders of vegetable growing, since the transformation is much more rapid and remarkable than in almost any other aspect of gardening.
And the third reason for faith is knowing that the conditions for growth need to be right. In my gardening enthusiasm this year, I sowed sweet pea seeds in my new root trainers (which allow the seeds to develop longer roots than normal pots, so that they grow well in the ground) but I decided to ignore the fact that I had bought them a couple of years ago and they were out of date. Result? No shoots! Things I sowed outside optimistically in the warm spell in March are now, in the cooler April, doing nothing. And in previous years my sweet peas have failed because I did not provide enough feed, and carrots have forked and been stunted because the soil was too stony. Faith needs wisdom and understanding, so that the conditions are right for faith to be well founded.
There are four major theological uses of the relation of seeds to plants in the New Testament. The best known is the so-called Parable of the Sower in Mark 4.3–9 and its parallels in Matthew 13:1-23 and Luke 8:4-15. It is actually rather unusual as a parable of Jesus, since it comes perhaps closest to being an allegory, with sower, seed and soils each standing for something in Jesus’ subsequent explanation to the disciples. It also becomes something of a parable about parables, since Jesus’ public telling and private explanation offers a pattern for provoking ‘those outside’ and seeing if there is a real interest in things of the kingdom or not; Jesus is careful not to cast the pearls of explanation before the swine of lazy indifference. It is also interesting to note that Luke’s version includes the language of ‘patient endurance,’ hupomone, in relation to the good soil (Luke 8.15), a term important in apocalyptic literature (see Rev 1.9).
Though labelled ‘The Parable of the Sower’, Jesus’ teaching is really about the nature of the different soils, and the parallel breaks down because a key challenge is how those hearing respond to the word that is preached, and are invited to respond in the right way—though it is impossible for soils to choose what kind they are and alter their response to the seed that is sown. But if the sower is the One (Jesus) who teaches the Word, then by implication any who share in the ministry of Jesus become sowers of the word amongst those with whom they live. One of the big questions facing the Church of England (and other churches) at the moment is: why are Christians so often reluctant to talk about their faith with those outside the Church? There might be many social and psychological explanations, but this parable offers a ‘spiritual’ one: we very often don’t have faith that the seeds sown by our testimony will germinate in the right conditions to produce plants. We look at the apparently infertile soil around us, and cannot quite envisage the transformation that the crop of life will bring. We do see that vividly when someone does come to faith and shares their testimony, and that is often why a few coming to faith and talking about it can bring hope and a new confidence.
Mark alone amongst the gospels includes a further parable of Jesus about the growing seed:
And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4.26–29)
I have always found this fascinating, since it includes the hapax legomenon (once only) word automata, translated ‘by itself’, to describe how the seeds grow. This indicates the mystery involved, and therefore the faith required by the sower, as the seed of the word produces the life of the kingdom plant in the soil of a person’s life—but it also points to the fecundity of human life, that it is able to receive and nurture the word of the kingdom when received aright.
The second example of the language of planting seeds and seeing them grow comes in Paul’s teaching to the Christians in Corinth:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. (1 Cor 3.6–8)
Paul is here engaged in his careful rhetorical strategy to undo the Corinthians’ division into parties, based on their loyalty to a key spiritual figure, and Paul is pointing out that, compared to the one who gives growth, those who sow seeds and then nurture their growth are unimportant. Strictly speaking, Paul is incorrect here; it really does matter that there are those planting and watering, and he does go on to note that ‘each will be rewarded according to their labour’ (1 Cor 3.8). And he makes a clear connection back to Jesus’ parable of the sower, thus perhaps indicating his familiarity with Jesus’ teaching, when he describes the Corinthians as ‘God’s field…’ (1 Cor 3.9). As elsewhere in 1 Corinthians (and in his other writing), Paul is clear that spiritual growth is always a collaborative enterprise that integrates both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. There is a practical reality in this which we are facing rather starkly: our supermarket culture, with its twin partner industrialised farming, treats the production of food as a solely human enterprise, but the catastrophic decline in insect life, including the death of bees, confronts us with our dependence on another power. But in spiritual terms, it reminds us that church growth is ultimately a gift of God, and all our planning, training and strategising needs to be put in this overall context.
But, in deploying this gospel metaphor, Paul is also indicating that sowing and watering are different tasks, requiring different skills and aptitudes. Planting churches is different from sustaining and maintaining them, and both are needed. Apollos had gifts of teaching, where Paul was more of a pioneering church planting apostle. I have observed in local church life that evangelists do not make good church pastors, but on the other hand good pastors are often not effective at evangelism and church planting. As Paul says in 1 Cor 12 and Eph 4, we need a whole range of gifts in leadership to see healthy, growing churches, and this is yet another reason for working in teams with plural leadership, as was always Paul’s practice. (Note in Lystra in Acts 14.12, the people identify Paul and Barnabas as different gods since they had different roles, with Paul being the main speaker.)
The third and fourth examples of the ‘sowing’ metaphor come in the context of bodily identity before and after death and resurrection. In John 12.24, Jesus talks of his own body as a seed that must die and fall into the ground before it can become fruitful:
Amen, amen, I say to you: unless a kernel of wheat, falling into the earth, dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
The context here is clearly of Jesus own death; Jesus’ preceding sentence talks of the ‘hour’ of his being ‘glorified’, which in the Fourth Gospel refers to Jesus’ crucifixion, his being lifted up on the cross. Where the synoptic gospels tend to offer continuity between Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent ministry of his disciples after his death, resurrection and ascension (most notably in the relation between Luke and Acts), here John is suggesting in Jesus’ teaching quite a radical discontinuity, like the discontinuity between seed and plant. This is reinforced by John’s noting that Jesus, during his ministry, had not yet given the Spirit, and the repeated references to the disciples remembering and making sense of his teaching ‘after he had been raised’ (e.g. John 2.22). This also raises the intriguing possibility that Jesus did not really know what God ‘raising him’ might look like or involve; his sowing of his own life in death was indeed an act of faith in his heavenly Father just as sowing a seed is an act of faith for the gardener and farmer.
And, of course, the same is true for us. Jesus here connects his own fruitfulness with a further agricultural metaphor in John 15, where he talks of his disciples also ‘bearing much fruit’ (John 15.5). And again Paul picks up this element of the teaching of Jesus when talking about death and the hope of resurrection in 1 Cor 15:
But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15.35–44)
Though Paul elsewhere uses the language of sleep in relation to death, here he follows Jesus’ metaphor in the Fourth Gospel of the seed actually dying before being raised to life as a seed comes to life in the plant that it produces. Whenever I do a Premier Bible phone-in on the occasional Monday morning, there is always at least one question about what happens when we die. The confidence of faith is often, understandably, accompanied by a curiosity as to the details of what we are promised, but once again Paul argues that our faith in the resurrection hope involves the need to trust God for what will happen—which we might not understand fully this side of death. Paul is, indeed ‘telling us a mystery’ (1 Cor 15.51).
In all these things, we need to be familiar with the realities of agrarian life to understand some key teaching in the New Testament. And there is nothing quite like the tangible ‘knowledge’ of sowing seeds ourself. Why not buy some seeds and sow them this week as you meditate on the mysteries of new life that comes in conversion, in church growth, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our own hope of life beyond death?
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