If we’re honest, when it comes to Jesus’ famous mustard seed parable, we church planters would rather focus on the second half of the parable. We like the image of the largest of garden plants providing shelter for the birds of the air. That is how we want our churches: strong and stable. And yet the reality is that most of us live and breath the first half of the parable – the mustard seed.
'He put a parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”' Matthew 13:31 – 32.
Just under six years ago Chiesa Evangelica Neapolis began life as three adults and four children. It is now 17 adults and seven children, plus a number of non-Christians who come most weeks. Whilst we praise the Lord for this growth – some through transfer, some through conversion – we still very much feel in the ‘smallest of all seeds’ part of the parable.
I have an American friend who spent 12 years planting and growing a church in Salerno (a city south of Naples). He had come from a big church in the US and so had big numbers in mind when he began here. But the Lord slowly taught him that depth in a few was to be the shape of his ministry in Italy. The average size of an Italian evangelical church is 45 members. Mustard seeds.
Why would Jesus choose a mustard seed to describe his kingdom on earth?
In Jesus' day, no Jew doubted that the kingdom would come and that it would be vast and glorious. But what Jesus needed to prepare his disciples for was an initial appearance that seemed small and inconsequential. So he chose the mustard seed.
The story goes that, when I was six months old, my Italian great grandmother took one look at my skinny chicken legs and uttered the immortal words, ‘That child will never walk!’ How tempted can we be to make the same mistake as we look at our weak and fragile churches. We struggle to join the dots from small things to future glory. But that is the message of the parable.
The mustard seed will one day become a great tree. The living stones will one day become a great temple. The handful of men, women and children will one day become a great people.
And so we press on, seeking to encourage our brothers and sisters as we struggle alongside them to work out what it looks like to live wholeheartedly for Christ here in Naples.
We pray that the Lord will build the house, that we would not labour in vain (Psalm 127:1) and that he will establish the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17). We work, doing everything we can to get the gospel out into the lives and hearts of those around us. Then we wait humbly for him to grow the seed. Rejoicing that he has chosen us to work in a small part of his kingdom.
The smallest seed into the largest tree – that’s the promise that keeps us going!
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Mark Oden is a mission partner in Italy. Along with his wife Jane, Mark is establishing a church in central Naples.
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