1. Four types of soil
We are approaching Lent, a time when many of us take up a Lenten discipline. One thing we may consider is reading God’s Word more regularly. Today’s readings are about how to bear fruit from hearing God’s Word.
Jesus’s parable of the sower is a famous one. And we don’t even have to do the interpretation ourselves! Immediately after telling the parable, Jesus already explains its meaning to his disciples. I think the parable fittingly shows four different responses to hearing ‘the word of God’, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
1. The first place where the seed lands, is the path, where the seed is exposed to birds. This first group of people hear the Word of God, but the presence of the evil one is so strong that it succeeds in its goal, which is to snatch the good words from someone’s life straightaway, with them hardly able to give it a second thought.
2. The second place where the seed lands, is the rocky, dry ground. Here there is little moisture, no flowing water to help the seed take root and grow. This group of people receives the seed of God’s Word and is happy with it but is not prepared to pay the cost and so their faith quickly withers.
3. The third place where the seed lands, is the soil among the thorns. This group of people perhaps invests as much in strengthening their faith as in life’s worries, riches, and pleasures. In the end the thorns prove stronger, the distractions win.
4. The fourth place where the seed lands, is the good, rich soil, that, in due time, brings forth fruit. This group of people have honest and good hearts that hold fast to the good news. With perseverance, their commitment to faith bears fruit in their lives.
Often, the reason that good soil bears plentiful fruit is because the soil is ploughed before the seed is sown. So, to bear fruit, our hearts must be ready to receive the Word. Yet, in Jesus’s parable, the sower sows before the field is ploughed. He just goes out and sows the seed everywhere! Little differentiation is made between who hears the gospel. Different places are covered in seeds, but only few produce fruit. Many people hear the Word of God, some hearts are stubborn, but other hearts are ready to receive the gospel. The sower just sows the seed, but the goal of the sower is to see the seeds take root in good soil and bear fruit. Likewise, we are called to have that fourth response to the Word, resulting in fruit.
2. Paul’s soils
Let us zoom in a bit more on that fourth type of soil, the good, rich soil. What does it mean when we say that this soil will bear fruit? What does this fruit look like? Bearing fruit is a well-known symbol in the Bible. Let’s look at three places it turns up. 1. The first Psalm speaks of a tree yielding its fruit in season, whose leaves do not wither. This tree is the righteous man, whatever he does succeeds. 2. Famously, Jesus points to himself as the true vine and calls us to remain in him as branches remain in the vine. This again, is so that we can bear fruit (John 15). 3. Then there’s Paul, who encourages the Christians in Galatia to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5).
So, based on these three examples, bearing fruit means that knowing Christ will influence our behaviour and actions. We will experience a change in our character. Bearing fruit also means becoming sowers like God, sowing the seed, the Gospel, with our words in our encounters with others.
When we think of people who heard the Word and produced fruit, Paul may well come to our minds. We know Paul as a fervent apostle, who had a successful church planting ministry all over Asia Minor and Greece. He is a mature Christian, someone with theological depth that is beyond most people and he lived a life of outstanding moral uprightness. Through his preserved writings, his ministry continues to bear incalculably more fruit through the ages. Safe to say that he bore much fruit… The soil of his heart must have been good, right?
Well, by the time Paul gets to Damascus it was good! But remember Paul’s life before that moment on the Damascus road…! He started out as a devout young man raised in the Jewish faith. At some point in his life, he caught word of a new sect within the Jewish faith that claimed Messiah had already come and, can you believe it, that this Messiah was killed in the most shameful of ways, by crucifixion! Paul did not receive this news with joy, he rejected the idea and the person of Jesus entirely. He heard the Word of God – the seed of the gospel –, but it did not take root in the soil of Paul’s heart. Paul’s heart was like the barren path. He heard the Word, but the evil one took it away from his heart and he did not believe. He persecuted the people who belonged to this new Jewish sect, seeking them out to have them tortured or imprisoned by the religious authorities. Not bearing fruit himself, he actually tried to prevent others bearing fruit, trying to snatch the seeds away like the birds do.
But on his way to Damascus, Paul heard the Word again. The soil of his heart was made good by Jesus himself when he spoke to Paul there and then. This time, Paul did accept the Word and over time it grew deep roots in his heart. As such, we see that the seed bore much fruit in the new, refreshed soil of his heart! Many people came to faith in Jesus because of his faithful witness, testimony and preaching.
Peoples’ response to hearing the Word can change, as they hear the Word again, and again. Thus, it is important to keep hearing the Word! The soil of Paul’s heart changed from the dry path to the rich, fertile, plentiful soil. In this good soil, the seed of God’s Word can take root and bear fruit.
3. Bearing fruit
However, regardless of how fruitful Paul was in his ministry, he did not have an easy life by any means! Of course, not everyone here today will encounter the same hardships as Paul did, but what can we expect when we want to bear fruit as Christians? The parable in Luke gives us a hint, as does the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I’d like to point out two things about bearing fruit:
Firstly, bearing fruit is not always easy. It actually takes a lot of perseverance. The seed needs deep roots before it can bear fruit. The Word needs to be deeply rooted in our heart and this takes time. ‘Bear fruit with patience’ says Jesus (v.15). When we look at Paul’s life, fruit was not always immediate. It is easy to forget that Paul received a lot of setbacks and antagonism to his message. Even so with us. It takes time to see our patience grow and our love increase, and it takes patience to see people respond positively to the gospel. That’s okay. We need patience with ourselves and with others, holding on fast to the Word of God, to Jesus. It requires time, patience and perseverance, but fruit will come. Hearing God’s Word daily will shape you and help you grow strong roots. I recently downloaded a very useful app from the Church of England that I would highly recommend. It allows you to follow Morning and Evening Prayer. Or you could follow the daily Bible readings that are posted weekly in Trinity Tidings. Whatever works for you, persevere with it so you may grow deeper roots.
Third, bearing fruit could mean your culture or community perceives you as weak. In today’s passage, Paul mocks the Greco-Roman culture of achievement, celebrity status and public honour that was prevalent in Corinth. He does so in an ironic way by boasting about the wrong things, about all the things that he suffered because of his faith in Jesus. These are cause for shame, but Paul is not ashamed. These are seen as weak, but Paul doesn’t care. He doesn’t care people think he’s weak, because bearing fruit is not about being strong in the eyes of the world. Later Paul writes that in our weakness, God’s power is all the more visible (2C12:9). He encourages the Christians to base their faith on God’s power, instead of human wisdom (1C2:5). So, even if holding fast to the Word and bearing fruit makes us appear weak and unsuccessful to wider society, the fruit you bear will be pointing to Christ and his power. Paul faced persecution in the Roman Empire, but he faithfully sowed seeds wherever he went. No matter the circumstances we as the church find ourselves in, God’s power doesn’t change, our call to sow the seeds of his Word and bear fruit doesn’t change! Today, we may feel increasingly marginalised by society, but we must continue to answer God’s call and trust that God is working, changing hearts, ploughing barren soil so it becomes plentiful.
God is the sower and sows seed, which stands for the Word of God. He calls us to bear fruit. How can we bear fruit? By hearing God’s Word and responding like the fourth type of soil responds to the seed: letting it take deep root. Deep roots are necessary for bearing fruit. We will bear fruit by persevering, by holding on fast to the Word. We can expect bearing fruit to take time and we can expect to be judged as weak by others in our society. Paul is a great example of someone who, at some point in his life, received the Word with joy and let it change him. Let us pray that we will hold on fast to the Word of God, to Jesus, that we may bear fruit so Christ’s power will be all the more visible in our lives.