Proper 22A

October 02, 2017

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 21:33-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 19

    Author: Stan Mast

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 3:4b-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    What happens to your life after you encounter something so shocking, it both retrospectively and prospectively changes everything you ever knew or thought you knew?  In some ways, Paul’s words in Philippians 3 are an extended answer to such a question.

    As Paul begins this third chapter, it quickly becomes apparent that like so many of the congregations in the early church, so also the congregation in Philippi had come into contact with a group of Jewish teachers who were proclaiming that salvation would come only to those who followed certain strict rules, the chief one of which was that all males had to be circumcised.

    Since the Philippian church was made up primarily of Gentiles, it is likely that very few of the Christians there had ever been circumcised.  And yet Paul says in verse 3 (just prior to the start of this Lectionary text) that the Philippians have already been circumcised.  What these other teachers were offering, therefore, was not salvation but mutilation–a mutilation not just of their bodies but even worse of their faith.  “These other teachers want to carve up not just your body but your faith.  They want to make you believe that what they can do to your bodies with their scalpels is better than what God can do to your hearts with his Son.”

    These are strong words.  After all, for at least two millennia circumcision had been a sacred, biblically mandated sacrament for God’s people.  All his life Paul had also been raised to see this as a sign of God’s covenant–a sign that began already with Abraham.  And yet now Paul calls it “mutilation!”   Why does Paul say something so extreme?  Because he knows that in the light of Jesus, circumcision had become a way to displace grace.  And in order to make this point as powerfully as possible, Paul makes clear that he is speaking from experience.

    Starting in verse 4 Paul says, “I know how futile it is to pin your salvation on outward ceremonies and laws because I spent most of my life doing this: I kept all the rules, I had an excellent religious pedigree, I was so convinced that keeping the law was the only way to heaven that I persecuted the Christians who thought otherwise.  But then I met Jesus and I knew in an instant that all my shining religious accomplishments were no more than a pile of manure!”

    The word translated as “rubbish” in verse 8 is a very strong word.  This is the only place in the entire Bible where it occurs, and small wonder: most commentators say that it is a raw, gross, barnyard-type word that refers to excrement.  The revelation that God’s own Son had to die in order to secure salvation turned Paul’s world upside-down.  “And to think,” Paul writes, “that at one time I thought handing God this pile of manure was going to be my entrance ticket to the kingdom!”

    Paul then goes on to say that now the only thing he wants to do is to know more about Jesus.  “What’s important is not that God knows what you’ve done but that you know what God has done!!”  For most of his life Paul had been saying to God, “Look at me! Look at me! See what I’ve done.”  But now all Paul can say is “Look at Jesus! Look at Jesus! See what he’s done!”

    Paul knew for sure that salvation is by grace alone.  Because at one time Paul had actually beaten up, arrested, belittled and even killed Jesus’ followers.  If Paul were to meet those folks now, he’d hug and kiss them as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.  But Paul could never forget that once in his life, he kicked those brothers in the ribs and dragged those sisters to jail by their hair.  What horrible memories!  So if Paul seems a bit vehement in proclaiming grace, it’s only because he knows from his own sordid experience how destructive it is to believe that you can pay your own way to heaven.  He wanted nothing more to do with talk about what we must do in order to make God love us.

    Or does he?  Because Paul no sooner finishes this stellar passage on salvation as only a gift, and he instantly launches into verses 12ff in which he writes about the need to press on, sprinting like a runner for the finish line in order to attain the goal of getting a better grip on Jesus.  Suddenly it seems like we’re right back to square one in talking about all the things that we need to do for our salvation.  But I thought Paul had just dispensed with that kind of talk by chalking up salvation to the sheer gift of God!  How could Paul so quickly pivot from talking about the end of human striving to talking about human striving all over again?  How is Paul NOT being inconsistent here?

    Because the truth of God that hits home with us through the cross is so evocative, so all-consuming that it inevitably must and will change how we look at everything.

    In the Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene gives us a wide-angle look at that enormous military cemetery near Normandy.  There in that now-quiet (but once unspeakably bloody) place stand row upon row upon row of white crosses and stars of David.

    graveyard

    When you look at all those grave markers, you cannot help but be numbed by how many people had to die to battle the evil of the Nazis.  So many crosses mark the sacrifice of those who fought just one particular incarnation of evil.  Small wonder that to fight all evil, to wipe out every bad thing that has ever happened or could ever happen, it took a cross on which no less than God himself died.  Even to begin grasping what Jesus’ cross means is to go numb.

    How could a true appreciation of the cross fail to change us in every way?  How could we look on that central symbol of our faith and not want to respond in a way somehow worthy of it?  We can’t earn it, but we can try to live in a way that shows how aware we are of what Jesus died to fight.

    We Christians have long been a peculiar bunch, celebrating and singing about the death of our leader and God.  To take a horrid and bloody instrument of capital punishment and turn it into jewelry and logos for church stationary is profoundly odd.  If you saw some teenager walking down the sidewalk dressed in black with a necklace featuring an electric chair and earrings in the shape of a man dangling at the end of a hangman’s noose, you’d cross over the other side of the street!  And probably most of us are sickened by the folks who hold parties outside of a prison on the night some well-known criminal is executed.

    Yet for centuries we’ve done the same thing, turning the Friday of Jesus’ death into a day we call “good” and making the instrument of his execution a rallying point of joy and celebration.  We’ve not lost sight of the bane and sorrow of the cross, but with Paul we now know it’s a precious bane and a liberating sorrow.  When you watch a film like Saving Private Ryan, you see so many soldiers chewed up and blown to bits by the evil that grips this world.  And you realize that just that has been happening ever since humanity fell into sin–there’s been no end to the decimation, the disintegration, the decay.  Somebody had to step in to snap those cycles and rescue us from all that. Somebody did. “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul, my all.”

    Illustration Idea

    Fred Craddock used to tell the story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over.  One day a band of soldiers knocked on the door and told this missionary, his wife, and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station.  They would be permitted to take with them only two hundred pounds of stuff.  Thus began two hours of family wrangling and bickering–what should they take?  What about this vase?  It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase.  Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind.  What about some books?  Got to take a few of them along.  On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled two hundred pounds on the dot.

    At the appointed hour the soldiers returned.  “Are you ready?” they asked.  “Yes.”  “Did you weigh your stuff?”  “Yes, we did.”  “Two hundred pounds?”  “Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.”  “Did you weigh the kids?”  “Um, . . . no.”  “Weigh the kids!”  And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash.  Trash!  None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children.

    Craddock has used this story to illustrate the power of what he calls “the moment of truth.”  Sometimes events crash into our lives in so shocking a way that we are instantly forced to view all of life in a new light.  Suddenly what had previously been of value to us comes to mean absolutely nothing–we’re only too happy to leave it behind.

    That is, in essence, what happened to Paul once he met the real Jesus Christ.  His former life and all its glittering accomplishments: Trash!