“You are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9)
We don’t often think of it, but of all the New Testament literature, St. Paul’s letters are the oldest sources we have about Jesus – predating the gospels by a couple of decades. And Paul writes that for those who are “in Christ,” and “Christ is in them,” “the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This ought to strike us as an astonishing assertion. Not something we should take for granted.
And we might ask, just how does this “Spirit of God,” this Christ, come to dwell in us?
“Us” is the key word here, since St. Paul writes in the plural – something the English translation cannot indicate. Paul rarely speaks of an individual’s relationship to Christ. He speaks almost exclusively of the individual in the context of the faith community – the community of Christ’s Body, the priesthood of all believers. How does Christ and the Spirit of God come to “dwell in us”?
Along comes the Parable of the Sower, rich with varied depths of meanings to help us see just what things, as our collect for today urges, we “ought to do,” and just how we might find ourselves equipped with the “grace and power to accomplish them,” and which things very well may prepare ourselves as a community to receive Christ and the Spirit of God into our midst – so that God’s spirit might “dwell” among us, a technical word in the Greek for pitching a tent, setting up shop, moving into a neighborhood.
And the first thing we might notice is the repetition, “A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed … .” That is, this is no random person scattering seed, hoping gravity and good luck will take care of the rest. This sower is sowing, which points to a practiced skill. This seed goes where it is supposed to go. No soil is left bare. No soil is overplanted. Yet, even with such a sower, some seed lands on the road, or on stones, or among thorns.
Vincent van Gogh, a 19th-century Dutch artist, understood this. He understood that the seeds were God’s Word of the Kingdom – and van Gogh knew, as we all know, that Christ is God’s Word of the Kingdom. Christ, the Word of God’s Kingdom, came to proclaim a message: I will set you free; I won’t let you be anything but holy, good and free.
Now what most people do not know is that the young van Gogh set off to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Protestant pastor. He spent some years evangelizing, bringing this good news of God’s Word to the poor, beginning with mine workers in Borinage, Belgium. During this time he was able to identify with the miners, their families and their lifestyles. His religious beliefs made him want to alleviate spiritual and physical suffering.
Only later did he turn to painting as another way to express his desire to bring people closer to God, closer to each other and closer to themselves. In 1888 he painted “The Sower,” an important work in the history of art, and surely a scene related to our story here in Matthew. One sees the sower, practiced in the art of sowing, deliberately planting the seed in the soil. For van Gogh the color yellow symbolized faith, triumph and love. The color blue represented the divine – and so he combines these colors so they seem to move together, showing the relationship of all living things. And there is something holy, good and free in the figure of “The Sower” – who, in the parable, of course, is God in Christ planting the Good News of God’s Kingdom in the soil of our hearts.
And the very thought that this seed, the Word of God, could yield a hundredfold would be heard by the farmers and fishermen Jesus addresses as simply fantastic! No seed known yields such bounty. Maybe tenfold, twentyfold or even thirtyfold, but 60 or 100 is unprecedented, unknown – simply unimaginable! We are meant to respond with awe that God’s Word possesses such grace and power. We are meant to want this Word planted in the soil of our own hearts, where we can tend to it, hear it, and be transformed a hundredfold ourselves. What a truly awesome gift from an awesome God.
Of course, the dangers of not tending to it are outlined. It is a parable of self-analysis: Are we fertile, well-tilled, deeply mulched soil? Or are we rocky ground? Do we welcome and make opportunities to tend to God’s Word every day? Or do we spend more time tending to the thorns of wealth and the cares of the world, such that the Word yields nothing?
Many who first heard Jesus tell this story figured out its meaning: We are the soil, the seed of God’s Word comes to rest in us, and for those who till and water and mulch and care for God’s Word, we become sowers of the Word ourselves – like the young Vincent van Gogh, like St. Paul, like the fishermen, tenant farmers, soldiers and others who first heard this story.
Like the skilled sower, may we become more practiced in letting the Word take root in our lives so we might begin to feel and to know that what St. Paul says is true: “We are in the Spirit, God’s Spirit dwells in us.”
God’s son Jesus desires to pitch his tent and plant his Word in our hearts and minds and souls so that we might truly become holy, good and free!