One of my Scripture teachers, famed biblical archaeologist Father Robert Norther, once mentioned that, in his opinion, the historical Jesus never intended His followers to be more than a small percentage of the population. Though even my clerical classmates and I presumed we'd been sent out to convert the whole world to Christianity, our objections never altered his stance.

"Christianity isn't working," he claimed, "because we have too many Christians. Only a small handful of people will ever have the courage and faith to live as Jesus lived. Though their numbers will be few, their effect will be great."

Sunday's three readings seem to back up Father North's contention. The first (Ez 17:22-24) and third (Mk 4:26-34) stress the importance of small, and the second (2 Cor 5:6-10) gives the reason small will work.

Great remnant

"I will take from the crest of the cedar," Ezekiel quotes Yahweh, "from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain." Active during the devastating Babylonian Exile, the prophet isn't impressed with numbers. He knows Israel is just a shadow of its former glorious self.

Yet he also knows this small remnant can be recreated into Yahweh's people if they're willing to give themselves totally over to Yahweh. Once they let God plant them, care for them, and give them growth, they'll eventually become the refuge and support which the rest of the world needs.

But Israel's tremendous mission will only come about after they acknowledge Yahweh as the one who "brings low the high tree and lifts high the lowly tree." The remnant is to depend on God, not on itself.

Jesus, rooted in Jewish prophecy, also reflects on great growth from minute smallness in the Gospel. It's important and consoling to know Jesus always taught His message in ways His audiences could understand. But we must be careful about the part of Mark's passage we emphasize. Jesus' audience knew the large mustard bush came from a small mustard seed, just as we know the huge oak tree comes from a little acorn.

The uniqueness of the discourse lies in the first part of Jesus' comparison. In God's kingdom (God working in our world), we humans do only the planting; God brings about the growth. "It is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land," Jesus says, "and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how..."

If we respond to God's call as generously as possible, we shouldn't worry about the outcome. In due time, God will see to it that our ministry achieves the goal God has in mind. Results are God's problem, not ours.

Away from Lord

That's why Paul reminds his Corinthian community about an issue all Christians must deal with every day. "We walk by faith," the Apostle writes, "not by sight." While we're in this world, all the Lord's followers are "away from the Lord." We can't see as God sees. It would be a great consolation to be able to see beyond our field of vision and look through God's eyes for a couple of day or even for just a couple of minutes. But no matter how deeply we long to "be away from the body and at home with the Lord," God's view will never be our view until we meet Jesus face to face.

Right here and now, we have only one task: to please God. The future -- when our lives will be revealed before the tribunal of Christ -- is in God's hands. We believe we'll "receive our recompense, good or bad, according to our life in the body." Yet that great day of judgment is out of our control. We can only control our present response to God's call.

When we view discipleship from this perspective, Father North's conviction about the smallness of the Christian community makes sense. Constantly looking at numbers of the faithful, we tend to overlook the depth of our personal faith. Though Jesus calls us as a community, He also calls us as individuals to build community.

Perhaps only a few are blessed with enough faith to actually create the community Jesus envisioned. Yet the whole world will benefit from the commitment of those few, a commitment to which we are all called.