“But that on the good ground are they which
in an honest and good heart,
having heard the word, keep it and
bring forth fruit with patience.”
The gospel which orders our understanding on this day is the parable of the sower and the seed. It focuses our thoughts on the quality of the ground upon which the Word of God is sown. The cultivation of the ground, however, immediately recalls us to the story of the Fall in this mornings first lesson. The ground is cursed. Adam, who at once signifies our humanity collectively and as an individual, is told “cursed is the ground because of you, in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” The ground is cursed because Adam and Eve succumbed to the beguiling wisdom of the serpent and thus lost the ground of their standing with God. The ground of creation becomes the place of alienation from God.
In a delightful image, the Lord God is said to have “walked in the garden in the cool of the day”, but where were we? We had hidden ourselves from his presence in the fearful beginnings of an awareness of our self-willed separation from him. It is important to understand something of what this means.
The story of the Fall seeks to explain the origin of sin and evil, of suffering and death. It locates the problem not in the material universe but in the disobedience of man. As disobedience, it is an act of the will against what is known as good. Creation as a whole and in its individual parts is emphatically and unambiguously declared to be “good”; in fact, “very good.” The commandment given to man - it is only to man that a commandment can be given - is also by definition good. It is implicitly known as good.
Alone of all creation, mankind, that is to say, the Adam, is said to be made in the image of God. Less abstractly but in a complementary image, man is said to be “formed from the dust” and to have had God’s spirit “breathed into him”. He is a spiritual creature with a relation to every other created being and with a special relation to the Creator.
The Fall is about the disorder of that relationship. As made in the image of God, man is capable of knowing God. Hence he is given to name the things of creation, which is to say, he is capable of knowing God’s knowing of the things he has made. And he is given a commandment.
In the form of the story, the serpent is the occasion for the disobedience through the raising of questions. As such the serpent signifies the agency of man’s reason. The problem, however, is not with the raising of questions per se but with the direction or the intent of the questions. For the questions of the serpent do not seek an understanding, rather, to the contrary, they seek to undermine what is known as good, though not known as known. They insinuate doubt and instigate revolt. Adam and Eve prefer the lie of their wills to the truth of God’s will. The rest, as they say, is history, “of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree.”
And it is our history. Children have a way of asking profound theological questions such as “Why did God make blackflies?” How do you answer that one? ‘So that we would be reminded that this isn’t heaven’. Indeed, but neither is this world paradise. And it isn’t paradise because of the Fall. But, then you may say, ‘It just doesn’t seem fair that we should have to suffer things like colds, flues, aches and pains because of what Adam and Eve did so long ago’. Right. It doesn’t seem fair until the lesson is learned that they are we. This is our story. This is what we do. And what we do and what others do have consequences for all of us. We turn towards the ground of our self-will and away from God.
And yet the ground is God’s good ground. He made it. The question is what will we make of it. The story of the Fall mercifully contains the promise of redemption as well. The toil of Adam and the pain of Eve are not external punishments but just consequences which have in them redemptive lessons. “Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The remembrance of the dust is equally the remembrance that we are God-shaped, the dust into which God has breathed his spirit. The ground is to be the place of our being recalled to God. The labours of our lives are to be the occasions of our learning the lessons of God’s will for us. The lessons are to be learned through the fact of hardship and toil and in the face of suffering and death. The ground holds the promise of redemption.
The ground of our lives becomes more than simply the place of our opposition and separation from God. By God’s grace the ground may be the place of the making manifest of the works of God. For however much suffering and death are inescapably connected to our sins and the sins of others, there can be no simple equation between the particular sins in our lives and the particular forms of our suffering. The Fall which shows our reason turned towards the dust – “a creeping wisdom”, as John Donne calls it - means that our understanding is dust-covered as well. We cannot be sure that we truly know ourselves let alone to presume to judge others. The mercy is that we are given to know the God who knows us and knows us in his love for us. The works of God are made manifest even in the ground of our opposition to God. God’s works a greater good out of human folly. “Then shall the fall further the flight in me”, as the poet George Herbert puts it, not our flight from God when we were hiding in the garden, but the flight of our return to God.
For the Lord God who walked in the garden in the cool of the day also walked in the wilderness in the heat of the day. Jesus Christ works the ground of our lives to restore us to fellowship with the Father and with one another in the bond of their unity with the Holy Spirit. That he does so in the midst of great opposition shows us the deep problem of human sin and wickedness, the continuing reality of the Fall in us.
The gospels are full of the wonderful stories of God’s redemptive work in the mercies of Christ Jesus. Jesus waters the stony ground of our self-righteous condemnations of others with the gospel of forgiveness in the story of the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more”. Jesus makes out of the ground of our accusations the ointment of salvation in the story of the healing of the eyes of the man blind from birth “that the works of God might be made manifest in him”. Jesus is the stricken rock - the ground that is struck - out of which pours forth the life-giving water, the sacraments of the Church to which Paul refers in this morning’s second lesson.
The cursed ground of our disobedience becomes the place of our participation in the life of God. But only if we will be that good ground – “they that in an honest and good heart, having heard the word , keep it and bring forth good fruit with patience.” It is the challenge of our lives in Christ, the challenge which is wonderfully concentrated for us in the season of Lent for which these ‘gesima’ Sundays wonderfully prepare us.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Sain Aidan of Lindisfarne