The Pre-Constantinian Mustard Seed

“It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” (Luke 13.19)

The last time I had seen this place was in the midst of a hasty departure when I was twelve. Many of you are aware of my childhood. When I was only seven years old, my mother and stepfather became enamored with the then-famous TV evangelist Jim Bakker and his PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. Shortly after encountering his television program, my parents sold almost everything we possessed and moved from West Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I would spend the next five years of my life. In 1988, when the ministry was in the midst of a full unravel, my mother decided it was time to leave and return to West Virginia. That was the last time I would see PTL. When I was a child, it was a place that was larger than life. It was a virtual, Bible-belt, evangelical, fundamentalist’s vacation paradise. From luxurious “Grand Hotels,” monstrous water parks, Christian dinner theaters, roller-skating rinks blaring Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, outdoor Passion-Plays, Bible-based children’s amusement parks to an elaborate television studio and a Mega Church. Even the streets had names from the Bible. Everything the prosperity Gospel could promise and more. It was quite a production. (It’s no wonder that today I have such a low tolerance for most things religious!). When we left that place in the late 80s, it looked much different than it does now.

A few years ago, I was driving through Charlotte, and I thought, “Why not? I’ll just swing by and see the old place.” I was not prepared for what I would see. Today, most of those beautiful structures have fallen through. The horticulture of the area, once tamed by an extensive grounds crew, left to itself has overgrown many of the buildings. The bricks of which many of the hotels are comprised are worn away and chipped. The grey slate roof atop the giant auditorium called “the Barn”, where weekly church services were held, has fallen in, leaving an entire auditorium now with a giant sky light, or rather, just an unobstructed view of the clouds. Vines are growing uncontrollably up the sides of buildings. Sidewalks are barely distinguishable. Roads have completely disappeared. It once had the smell of new carpet, new construction, and now has the smell of wildlife. Where the sounds of children and families laughing and celebrating once filled the air, there now is an eerie, haunting silence as if you are the only person left on the planet. It has become a ghost town; a post-apocalyptic world that looks more like the set of a zombie film than the remains of a once vibrant Evangelical, Christian ministry.

What I want to draw your attention to is that as mighty as these edifices were both physically and ideologically, from dust these things had come and to dust they have returned. Flora’s (and maybe even fauna’s too) ever present pursuit of growth, if not vigilantly and continually opposed, will eclipse and overtake the mightiest inventions of humankind.

A fitting illustration of this point is my family’s return home this past summer after being gone for a six-week speaking tour. We came home to find a veritable jungle surrounding our home rather than the manicured state our “lawn and garden” had been left in.

Recently, I had the chilling experience of seeing some “before and after” pictures of Chernobyl, the site of a catastrophic nuclear accident on April 26, 1986. On that day at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine (then under the direct jurisdiction of the Soviet Union) an explosion released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. The Chernobyl disaster is widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

To see pictures of Chernobyl today is even more chilling than a visit to my childhood stomping grounds. This truly was an apocalyptic event that destroyed an entire city that today, due to radioactive pollution, is deserted, devoid of inhabitants (save for a very few who are still too poor to leave.) Chernobyl, which was once a thriving metropolitan city, today stands empty, silent, and still. The streets are empty. Commercial buildings are shells of their former glory. Residences sit vacant. Within these pictures, Chernobyl is decomposing right before your eyes. What used to be a beautiful city is now a haunting example, once again, of how flora and fauna quickly work together to reclaim, slowly and determinedly undoing the work of human kind. If left to their will, they will eventually, given enough time, make the presence of humanity and the nightmare humanity created here, wholly undetectable.

The most chilling picture for me, even above the empty city streets, was that of an indoor Olympic swimming pool, which once was a beautiful symbol of lifestyle, wealth, and plenty, now standing there empty, abandoned, with tiles having been eroded over time, and the giant clock on the wall, no longer keeping time, but silently standing guard and collecting dust while it too decays.

All of this brought home to my heart this week the words of Jesus in our featured text this week from the Gospel of Luke:

“It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” (Luke 13.19)

I, unabashedly, subscribe to a form of Christianity that is decidedly pre-Constantinian. Before Christianity was coopted by Constantine and made into a religion, it was a movement, centered on the person Jesus the Christ, and focused on what that Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.” As I look at Christian history, the Constantinian shift has done untold damage to the original Jesus movement of the first century. But in a strange way, my childhood home at PTL, and these pictures of Chernobyl, strange as it may seem, give me hope. Today, Christendom (Constantinian-Christianity, where Christianity became the whore of Empire) has died in both Europe and Canada. It is dying here in America as well. Today, many believe we are living in a “post-Christian” era, and I agree. The “culture wars” here in America are over, and the Fundamentalists have lost. But what many Christians today are seeing as a cause for mourning, I see as a cause to celebrate. You see, given enough time, the mustard seed will, slowly and determinedly, grow. To just say it simply, if grass can find its way through cement sidewalks to grow toward the sun once again, then maybe, the Kingdom, the original Jesus movement, can find its way through the wreckage of Constantine to humanity once again today. Christendom, even with all its accomplishments, has left each of the societies where she has reigned supreme in as desolate a condition along the spiritual landscape today as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant finds itself along the physical landscape of the city of Chernobyl. And yet, just as the flora and fauna in this once-beautiful city seeks to return Chernobyl to its former state before the abuses of humankind, the Kingdom, the mustard seed is still growing almost imperceptibly today. If one will stop and listen, if one will place their ear to the ground, one can hear the rumblings. There is a movement afoot within Christianity that transcends the boundaries between Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholicism, and Protestantism, as well as the divisions of denominations (or “names”, as Paul calls them, see 1 Corinthians 3) within Protestantism. In almost every group mentioned above is the sound of those who are awakening to the fact that something is wrong. Somewhere we have strayed. And among many within each of the divisions just mentioned is an awakening, as almost to a new thought, that we must return to a pre-Constantinian Jesus and become reacquainted with Jesus’s central teachings in the Sermon on the Mount to find out where we have gone wrong. Many, from various and different traditions, are coming to believe that it was Jesus and His landmark teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that were marginalized by Christiandom in the fourth century with the arrival of the influence of Constantine. I find this most encouraging! After all, we believe in a story that when all hope was gone, from the tomb came a resurrection. And where many believe that Constantinian Shift killed the original Jesus movement, and I believe it did, we are witnessing the resurrection of that movement in our lifetimes today.

If the flora can triumph over the man-made “Christian” edifices of my childhood home, as well as have the power to undo, given enough time, the wreckage of nuclear technology gone awry in Chernobyl, then maybe, just maybe, the fauna of the “Kingdom”, of the “Son of Man,” of the “narrow way” of the early Jesus movement, of the “Mustard Seed” of enemy-embracing, enemy-love and forgiveness, united with concern for the sick and hope to the poor, can undo the damage of Christiandom on our world. More blood has been shed in the name of the nonviolent Jesus than any other name in human history. It’s time for that to be reversed. Jesus came possessing hope, through His teachings, for this world (see John 3.17). If we are going to return to being His followers, embracing the early Jesus movement once again, the question we have to answer, as His followers, is “Do we?”

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I’d like you to spend some time prayerfully contemplating the following passages from the Jesus story:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” (Matthew 13.31)

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17.20 [21])

It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. (Mark 4.31)

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.’” (Luke 17.6)

2. Take a look at the context. What was the “mountain” Jesus’s Kingdom of nonviolent enemy-love and concern for the poor could overthrow? What was this “mulberry tree” Jesus was sure could be uprooted by the mustard seed like faith in Himself and His teachings? Write down any insights that come to you as you pray over these questions.

3. Be prepared to share any new insights you receive this week with your HeartGroup.

Jesus foresaw that His Kingdom, centered in Himself and His teachings, His new way of doing life here and now, of which He was the template, could significantly impact this world. Jesus was not so much concerned with helping people escape to heaven, as he was with reestablishing heaven on earth once again. Eighty-one times Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man.” Even secular scholars today are almost unanimous that this is original to the historical Jesus himself. They also agree that this is one of the clearest insights we have to Jesus’s own headspace as to what He believed He was accomplishing. Lastly, they are agreed that this is a vision of the purpose of His own mission, rooted in Daniel 7.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a SON OF MAN, COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN. He approached THE ANCIENT OF DAYS and was led INTO HIS PRESENCE. He was GIVEN AUTHORITY, glory and sovereign power; ALL NATIONS and peoples of every language WORSHIPED HIM. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7.13, 14)

“But I say to all of you: From NOW ON you will see the SON OF MAN sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One (see Psalms 110.1) and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.” (Matthew 26.64)

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All AUTHORITY in heaven and on earth HAS BEEN GIVEN TO ME. Therefore go and make disciples of ALL NATIONS . . .” (Matthew 28.18,19)

The Kingdom has come. . . now go heal the sick. (see Luke 9.2) Until the only world that remains is a world where Jesus’s Love reigns.

I love you guys.

I’ll see you next week.