Words on the Word

Ecumenical Service

This service, held in Kimen in Stjørdal, was organised by the local Lutheran parish. 

Romans 10,13-17: Faith comes from what is heard.
Mark 4,26-34: He did not talk to them except in parables.

Paul introduces his Letter to the Roman saying that he longs to ‘proclaim the Gospel also among you in Rome’. Since he is still not able to travel, he resorts to pen and parchment. The Epistle, a complex treatise against which believers have ground their noses for 2000 years, is an exposition of the absolute newness that has come about ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ’, the Bearer of reconciliation, grace, and the victory over death. In the passage we have read Paul considers how this newness can be communicated to people of his day. Note that by way of answering he looks back. Our reading is a patchwork of Old Testament quotes sewn together. If we read Paul’s letters carefully, we see how soaked they are in the Hebrew Bible. Paul, a zealous Pharisee, learned in the Law and irreproachable with regard to it (Phil 3.5-6), had so utterly interiorised Scripture that it had formed his imagination, vocabulary, and deepest yearning. It was because he was so grounded in Israel’s hope and in God’s historical promise that he recognised the revolutionary aspect of the Gospel about Jesus. He insisted that epochal change had occurred ‘in Christ’; but it was because he was rooted in the old that he could discern and articulate the new. His preaching, in Romans not least, evidences the connectedness of old and new, the continuity of providence. Paul looked back not merely to Joel and Isaiah; he honed in on Adam, the father of our race, and explained how Christ has renewed humanity. Even this perspective was not broad enough. Paul heard creation itself groan in pangs of childbirth, longing for the full revelation of the glory of the sons of God (Rm 8.19ff.). The plan God has realised ‘in Christ’ was, he wrote, ‘from eternity’. It points towards eternity (cf. Eph 3.9-11). This plan alone makes sense of all there is, of the march of history. This in a nutshell is the Gospel Paul preached. Gathered for an ecumenical service of prayer, we may ask ourselves humbly: is our preaching, our testimony, at this altitude? Do we bend our knee before the fullness of Christ’s mystery as a living, rising, effectively transformative power? Or do we reduce it to our level, submit it to our limited categories? To use Paul’s own terms: do we feed ourselves and others on solid food or on milky mush (1 Cor 3.1-2)? One quickly tires of mush, which can hardly be said to anticipate the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

The parables in today’s Gospel were proclaimed in peculiar circumstances. We find Jesus launched in his public ministry. Great crowds follow after him as he walks with the 12 ‘out by the sea’. People hang on his lips. To address them all together, he rows out in a boat. He sits in it teaching; the people remain on land (Mk 4.1). The land once promised to Abram where he, the patriarch from Ur, walked up and down proclaiming God’s name like a herold; this very land becomes an amphitheatre. The Word of God, which at the beginning resounded above the water, declaims his message. Sitting on the water, surrounded by fishermen, he speaks to them about … agriculture. The first chapter of Genesis tells of the process whereby fruitful land was drawn out of the wet element. If we have ears to hear, we shall recognise the resonance of the story of creation in the scene given us to contemplate. What Jesus proclaims is a new creation. He says that the kingdom of God, for which heaven, earth and the sea sigh, has come. He, ‘in the form of God’,  has emptied himself to be born ‘in human likeness’ (Phil 2.7). Eternity has entered time. Jesus is the origin and focal point of God’s kingdom. We who by the incarnation have becomes God’s Son’s brothers and sisters (cf. Mk 3.35) are called to become one with him there. The kingdom, we are told, is a dynamic reality. It is incalculable. We don’t gain access to the kingdom by accumulating points, as in the pale imitations of the communion of saints proposed by airlines and High Street chains.  No, the kingdom of God is like a seed that is sewn. The seed is minute. The beginning of grace’s work in us is discreet. This, however, is not the main point. The point is the kingdom’s growth and maturing. The images adduced are wonderful: first the image of the field, ploughed and sterile a moment ago, yet now sparkling in golden splendour; then the image of the mustard tree that comes to house the birds of the air, a reminder that a Christian’s calling is never for him or herself alone. Our lives are intended, in Christ, to give nourishment and comfort to others.

A question arises as a matter of course, a question each of us must answer in the enclosure of his or her own heart: Do I let this happen? Do I let the Word resound in me to hollow me out? Do I say Yes to the kingdom? Do I surrender my life to God in such a way that he may make it become fruitful land, with all that is involved of weeding, harrowing, and the removal of accumulated stones? We are all anxiously conscious of global ecological crises. They’re to be taken seriously. Bu do we sufficiently alert to their spiritual counterparts? Do we combat desertification and acid rain in our congregations, in our own hearts?

In Christ God has given the world a brilliant hope, a clear orientation. May the Gospel thereof not be silenced because we who call ourselves Christians have lazily succumbed to infidelity or perfidy. In the name of Christ. Amen.


“That the birds of the air might establish their nests in its shadow” (Mark 4.32). Print by Ørnulf Ranheimsæter.