Proper 21A

September 22, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 21:23-32

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 17:1-7

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 25:1-9

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 2:1-13

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

                At the heart of this passage is the magnificent Christ hymn of verses 6-11 that teaches arguably the highest Christology in the New Testament (with Colossians 1:15-23 giving it stiff competition).  It is a preacher’s dream or nightmare, because its elevated claims about Christ are stated in language that is legitimately controversial.  I’m not going to say anything about all that controversy because I already wrote about it in my March 18, 2013, posting on the Center for Excellence in Preaching (

    Here I want to focus on the practical use Paul made of that soaring hymn.  This is a perfect example of what some might call task theology or pastoral theology, theology in the service of practical Christian living.  Paul soars to the top of this theological Everest to make a very important point about life in the valley of the shadow.  The text is all about unity in the church. Paul uses this hymn to motivate the church toward the humility that is central to unity.  He shows how Christ is the model par excellence of such humility.

                Some preachers may well ask, why does Paul wax so eloquent about Christ for the sake of unity?  I mean, what’s the big deal with unity?  Unity certainly hasn’t been a big deal in my ecclesiastical tradition.  We’ve been much more concerned about being right, theologically correct, even if our desire to be doctrinally orthodox results in church splits.  One of my favorite literary scenes is in Peter DeVries’ The Blood of the Lamb, where a newly enlightened college student challenges the theological bickering of two staunch Dutch Reformed uncles.  One of the uncles replies that theological soundness is more important than anything, including church unity, thundering in a brogue as thick as Dutch pea soup, “Rotten wood you can’t split.”

    Other traditions focus on different aspects of the faith.  Pietists emphasize a personal relationship with Christ and the holy living that should result from a “closer walk.”  Charismatics treasure the supernatural experience of the Spirit’s presence in the exercise of gifts and the ecstasy of worship.  And today much of the church is focused on justice, particularly of the social variety.  A church that doesn’t change society along Kingdom lines isn’t a faithful church.

    All of those are legitimate and important concerns for the church, but here Paul pulls out his biggest gun to march the church to unity.  What’s the big deal with unity?  I suspect that Paul is governed here by those famous words of Christ in his high priestly prayer of John 17.  In verses 21 and 23, he says, “I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me….”

    A united church in a divided world is the clearest proof that Jesus really was God in the flesh come to save the world.  The world is splintered into billions of screaming, bleeding shards of humanity, and there seems to be no solution to the brokenness and division.  Who can possibly unite Palestinians and Israelis, Sunni and Shiites, Republicans and Democrats?  Only God can, and he has begun his work of reuniting a fallen creation by creating one new body called the church.  Composed of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female, it is the proof that God can actually bring all things back together in Christ.  No wonder Jesus prayed for the church’s unity.  The progress of the Gospel and the future of the world depend on it.  No wonder Paul uses such high Christology to motivate the church to unity.  It’s what Christ himself prayed for as he began the last leg of his journey to the cross.

    This doesn’t mean that unity trumps everything else.  The centrality of the Christ hymn here demonstrates that the church’s unity must be centered on the truth about Christ.  If we lose the truth because we stop caring about correct doctrine, we cease to be the church.  And Paul’s subsequent call to holy living demonstrates that the church’s quality of life is central to its witness.  If we Christians don’t exhibit Christ like qualities in our lives, we won’t be much of a witness to the saving power of Christ.  Even if it ruffles feathers, the church must strive to be the “holy catholic church.”  And we can’t let our passion for unity blunt our efforts to change the world by pursuing justice and peace.  If we don’t bear witness to God’s mission of recreating a world filled with shalom, our witness will seem unworldly and uncaring.  But here Paul emphasizes that the unity of the church is central to all of those other concerns.  If we battle each other as we defend the truth and seek holiness and pursue justice, we will look just like the world.  And they won’t believe us.

    I want to focus on two phrases in this passage that summarize Paul’s concern.  These are also the parts of this text that will yield the most fruit for the preacher.  They are both problematic.  Paul’s call for unity is summarized in verse 2, where Paul calls the church to be “like-minded.”  After anchoring that call to like-mindedness in the Christ hymn, he follows the hymn with a call to “work out your salvation.”  What do those two phrases mean and how are they connected to each other?

    After listing many of the blessings Christians enjoy because of their union with Christ and the presence of the Spirit and love of God, Paul encourages us to complete his joy by “being like minded.” What on earth can that mean?  Surely he doesn’t expect us to think alike about absolutely everything.  That would destroy the blessed diversity of the body that gives it texture and color and shape.  Paul is not encouraging what sociologist Irving Janis back in 1972 labeled “Group Think.” Janis was referring to group pressure that results in flawed or senseless decisions that might hurt others.  Nor is Paul encouraging the kind of post modern promotion of diversity that devalues truth.  Think of the bumper sticker that uses the symbols of the world’s great religions to spell the word COEXIST.

    In grappling with this phrase, some scholars have tried to distinguish between uniformity and unanimity.  Uniformity is lockstep, unthinking sameness.  Think of “The Stepford Wives.”  Unanimity, on the other hand, is the pursuit of common goals even though we may disagree about some aspects of the pursuit of those goals.  Think of those rare church Council/Board/Session meetings in which vigorous debate is concluded with a closing of the ranks and an agreement to move forward together.  (I know, that doesn’t always happen, but I saw it often enough to remember it with joy.)

    Paul tells us what he means by “like-mindedness” with four phrases in the verses that follow: “having the same love, being one is spirit and purpose, considering others better than yourselves, looking not only to your own interests but also the interests of others.”  Even a cursory study of these 4 aspects of unity reveals that Paul is not saying Christians have to think the same way about everything.  But as we disagree, we must love each other, be united in spirit and purpose, and put the concerns and interest of others on an equal level with our own.

    In all my research on this nebulous call to be “like minded,” I found nothing better than these words by Dr. Brad Littlejohn.  “The four phrases thus all mutually interpret one another, leading us simultaneously away from a wooden intellectualistic uniformity of belief and a wooly sentimental unity of feeling.  What they point us to, instead, is a common object of love, which is one-another-in-Christ, a common strategy for life, which is self-sacrificial other-regard, and a common vision of history, which is that the Son of God died for his people, and is coming to reign over the earth.”

    That last clause about Christ’s reign is, of course, an allusion to the last part of the Christ hymn, where Christ is proclaimed Lord over absolutely everything.  After humbling himself, and, in fact, precisely because (“therefore,” verse 9) he did humble himself to death on the cross, Christ will be exalted to the highest place, given the highest name, and receive the highest praise of the entire universe.  What an astonishing reversal for the one who humbled himself!  That humility and subsequent exaltation is the motivation and model for the humility that is the key to unity in the church. That is why Paul opens the next part of his plea (verses 12 and 13) with “therefore,” or “so then.”  Because of what Christ did and because of how that worked out for him, we should do the same with each other.

    That will not be easy.  It will take hard work.  You will have to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  Even though a large portion of the Christian church has taken this to mean that we must work for our salvation, contributing something to the work of Christ, it cannot mean that.  The NIV translation gets it just right when it says, “work out,” not “work for.”  We have been given salvation as a gift paid for by the work of Christ.  What Paul now calls us to do is develop that salvation, Think of working out in a gym to develop the muscles you’ve already been given.  Or think of working a field so that you can gain the full harvest.

    God has given us salvation in the form of unity with himself (in justification and reconciliation) and with each other (in the creation of the church and the sanctifying work of the Spirit).  Now we must work out what God has worked for us and in us.  We must do that with “fear and trembling,” not because we feel guilty and fear the loss of salvation, but because we feel awe and wonder at the humiliation and exaltation of Christ, and because of what Paul says next in verse 13.

    We can and must do this hard work, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  Even as Paul began this call to unity with a reminder that God has already worked for us (verse 1), he ends it with a reminder that God is always at work in us.  God in us does two things.  He works on our wills, to make us want what God wants, and he gives us the power to do what God has convinced us to do.

    I remember a TV evangelist concluding his “altar call” with a strong urging to choose for Christ, assuring people that “God is a gentleman who will never impose on you, never violate your will.  You have to exercise your will and decide for Christ.”  Maybe that is a helpful bit of persuasive rhetoric, but it sure doesn’t sound like our text.  Here Paul encourages us to choose by lifting up the truth that the Holy Spirit does, in fact, work on our will.  Indeed, it is precisely because God is at work in us that we ought to and are able to choose for Christ-like living.

    This text confronts us with the ancient mystery of the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty.  The interweaving of those apparently contradictory truths has mystified ordinary Christians and inflamed partisan theologians.  How are we to fit the two together?  We don’t really have to; we must simply do what Paul says here: “work out… for it is God at work in you….”

    If we do want to explain this mystery, I don’t think we can do better than the Canons of Dort.  For all its craggy 17th century severity and tangled syntax, it is a credible attempt to honor both aspects of what Paul says here.  “[God] infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient and refractory, he renders it good, obedient and pliable, actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions…. Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes active.”  (Canons of Dort, III and IV, articles 11 and 12)

    Not only does God call us to unity, not only does he motivate us to that unity by the model of Christ’s humble sacrifice, but he also works in us individually and corporately to create that unity.  The Triune God is fully and personally committed to reuniting all that sin has divided.  That is God’s good purpose/pleasure.  As Paul says in Ephesians 1:9 and 10, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”  After Christ came in the fullness of time, the birth and growth of the church was the first stage in that master plan of unification.  No wonder Paul makes such a big deal of the church’s unity.

    Illustration Idea

                The next book I read will be Micha Boyett’s Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer.  A wonderful review in Christian Century says it is a lovely memoir of Boyett’s yearning for God, her deep desire to find God.  As she seeks God, she discovers again that God is already and always there.  We are already “found.”  Listen to her words in the light of Philippians 2:12, 13.  “We are all being written together by a generous Author.  My story is here in that bigger story, the story of a God who comes to the fainthearted, the bored, the bitter-spirited, the ones who cannot prove themselves worthy.  I have spent much of my life clutching tightly to the bitter spirit, keeping the gate of God’s grace closed tight.  I have worked hard but denied myself the mystery of grace.”

                The reviewer summarizes Boyett’s memoir with this.  “The beauty of Found is that it isn’t about finding God; it’s about how God finds us.”  Or as one of my favorite old Reformed hymns puts it:  “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.  It was not I who found, O Savior true; no I was found, was found of thee.”