A reflection by Dan Spragg – Soil & Grace
Today I’m going to take each of these stories one at a time and then attempt to join the
dots so to speak with what I think is a helpful message for us!
I’ve been loosely following through the story of Acts in my last few reflections and as we
continue on, we come across this very well known segment where Peter has a very strange
vision. Leading up to this vision is the story of the early church as it explodes outwards in
all directions and of the issues, it encounters along the way. Issues because of their
message – while many do find hope in their message some don’t like what they’re
preaching. Issues because of their expansion – as they grow into a larger community they
need to put some structures in place to facilitate their life. Issues from ‘the old guard’ – the
establishment doesn’t like what they’re up to because the new thing doesn’t care for many
of their rules and regulations. The new thing simply does things differently and the old
thing can’t handle it, so it gets grumpy and as I’ve made the point, our traditions and
established ways of doing things still get grumpy and have a hard time adjusting when new
things come along. Which is very related to this vision of Peter’s.
Peter was essentially minding his own business when this vision came to him. He didn’t
know it, but some messengers were on their way to get him to come to Caesarea to visit
with Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman Army which makes
Cornelius a gentile. The expansion of the early church and its message had reached beyond
the Jewish communities which when we read the rest of this part of the story is clearly
what God is preparing Peter for. Peter was a devout Jew in the sense that he followed all
their cultural customs – a big part of which was the various food laws. A big question as
we’ll see for the Jews who were now following the way of Jesus was what were the new
believers from non-Jewish communities to do with regards to the cleanliness laws – the
foods and practices which were considered clean or unclean and what therefore was
understood to make you as a person clean or unclean. We see in this vision that God sort of
pre-empts this debate by showing Peter that all food was good for eating, that the divisions
of clean and unclean no longer applied to food or people. He goes to Cornelius’ house,
interacts with all who are there – even though they are ‘outsiders’ to the Jewish culture –
and they receive the good news of Jesus. As Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is
unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I
should not call anyone profane or unclean…” (10:28) And, “I truly understand that God
shows no partiality…” no favouritism, no discrimination. A little later on in the
story the establishment still wrestles with this. It is persuaded to a degree by Peter’s
experience but it doesn’t quite grasp the full implications. After a while, a sort of
compromise is reached which still requires the non-Jews to follow some of the rules. It
shifts, it budges a little… but in the end, it doesn’t really change.
This really does show how engrained our traditions become and how hard they fight to
remain ‘the way we do things.’ Our established ways of doing things really do cling tight to
the old ways. Now I’m not advocating that we shouldn’t wrestle our way through it – many
of our traditions and structures are good and have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean
they should remain for all eternity! I wonder what this vision of Peter’s has to say to us
Now, the parable of the sower. This is such a familiar story but I noticed something
different this time around. As I read it, I wondered how often we have heard this and
distanced ourselves from it? I also wondered how we might often hear this story and
interpret it through our capitalist worldview? As in, kind of like a farming analogy of a good
business strategy. Invest where there is a guaranteed return. Only put your energy and
resources into the places that are going to yield a good outcome. Now, there is nothing
necessarily wrong with that when you’re thinking about investing your money… but Jesus
wasn’t talking about money… Jesus was talking here about the good news of God’s life
being sown, taking root, and growing into a good harvest that yields far more good than
one could ever predict! Now Jesus did say that this is how it happens, that some seeds fall
on good soil and others don’t… the love of God takes root in some lives easier than others,
but this isn’t the parable of the seeds, or of the soil… it is the parable of the sower.
I wonder how many churches have let their understanding of the investment of finance
influence their understanding of how they are to share the love of God? How many people
or communities have been overlooked because it appears as though the return on
investment might not be so good?
Here’s another way we could look at this parable. What if we understood the parable not as
talking about other people – keeping ourselves at a distance – but rather asking ourselves
what kind of soil are we? What kind of soil is my heart? My mind? My life? Do I have
receptive, fertile, healthy soil? Am I ready to produce a good harvest born of the seeds of
God’s Spirit? What kind of soil is your life at this moment? Receptive, ready to grow
something? Rocky? Dry? And if it is dry or rocky or unreceptive to God’s life, what might
you need to do about that? Healthy soil, after all, isn’t just good for itself… Healthy soil has
massive flow-on benefits for the surrounding environment… there is a sense in which if
your life is healthy soil then it is good for you and good for everyone around you as well!
We might say that the soil of the Jewish establishment as they wrestled with challenges to
their way of seeing and doing things was a little rocky or dry perhaps… Jesus might say at
this point, if you have ears to hear, listen!
Who is the sower in this story? We assume, because Jesus is talking about seeds of the
‘Kingdom’ that God is the sower. A few weeks ago I shared a question that the late Rev
Andrew Norton left with us here in Alpine Presbytery. When trying to discover what our
purpose is as churches, we really only need one question. Andrew said, ‘Who is God?’ If we
can answer that, we will know what to do. What does this parable teach us about God?
Well, firstly, that God is a terrible farmer! Who in their right mind would sow seeds like
that? It is as if the farmer simply walked out onto the land and started throwing handfuls of
seeds into the air, not caring whatsoever where they were to land! This is not the best way
to guarantee a good harvest! Except we know it’s not talking about sowing crops it’s talking
about the seeds of God’s life and love. It seems as if this parable is telling us that God is
willing to shower everyone and everything with indiscriminate amounts of good news. I
would say this parable tells us that God is extravagant and indiscriminately generous. God’s
grace is simply abundant beyond reason.
So, here’s the connection between the two passages. From the parable of the sower, we
could say that our work in this whole thing is to not stand back and judge who is good soil
and who isn’t – just like Peter learnt that it isn’t our job to say who is clean or unclean or
worthy or unworthy or however you want to say it. The first part of our work rather is to
cultivate our soil… the soil of our hearts and minds… the soil of our church… we are to dig it
over, weed it, feed it, water it, and let it lie fallow – let it rest – when it needs. This is
because with our soil healthy we can then be receptive to growing and bearing the fruit of
God’s Spirit in us. And, the second part of our work is to sow the seeds of God’s life
abundantly, indiscriminately, extravagantly because that’s how God is. This is our work, not
to be selective about who and where God’s love should be sown but rather to do the work
on our own stuff and share the good news of God abundantly to whoever may cross our
We do this as we are present in our communities…we work on our soil and we share the life
of God. We do this as we try new things that we might feel uncomfortable about. “This is
new” “This is different” “This is not the way it has been done before…” we work on our soil
and we share the life of God. We do this as we are paying attention. We notice who is here
and who isn’t… we work on our soil and we share the life of God. We do this as we meet
new people. God does not discriminate, so, neither do we…we work on our soil and we
share the life of God.
Soil and Grace.
It does seem to me that this is our work in our Christian living as individuals and as a church
community. We work our soil and we share God’s grace.
Soil and Grace!