September 21, 2020
The Proper 21A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 21:23-32 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 17:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 25:1-9 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 2:1-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 14 (Lord’s Day 5)
Author: Scott Hoezee
A while back I heard an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”
So also in Matthew 21: Jesus side-steps the question of the Pharisees as to the source of his authority by asking them a related question about John the Baptist. Jesus and John were not only cousins but they were also similar in that each had appeared from out of nowhere and performed a ministry that meant a great deal to a lot of people. So Jesus says, “Let’s back up one step to my predecessor John: if you can tell me where his authority came from, then I’ll tell you where mine comes from.”
Jesus asks this knowing full well that the answer to both questions was the same. Neither John nor Jesus had any human authority. Neither had gone to seminary, neither had been licensed or ordained. If either John or Jesus had any true authority to claim, it had to be from God directly. But no prophet or rabbi in Israel had ever had that distinction since Moses.
But that’s just where Jesus had them: it was a well-known fact that the chief priests had despised John the Baptist. John had, after all, called them names, placed them on a par with everyone else who came out into the desert to see him. Credentials, advanced theological degrees, and their Sanhedrin “Members Only” gold card cut no ice with John nor, John said, did it matter to God. If even the Pharisees wanted to be saved, they had to submit to John’s baptism of repentance the same as everyone else.
They didn’t of course, but a lot of other folks did because they believed John really was a God-sent prophet. So the chief priests were quite neatly stuck. If they said that God himself had authorized John, they would be revealed as opposing God in that they opposed John. Then again, if they said that John had no real authority from anyone, John’s admirers would get mad. Being cowards at heart, they didn’t want to have anyone upset with them and so say to Jesus, “We don’t know.” Since they didn’t live up to their end of this verbal bargain, Jesus then says, “Well, then I’m not going to tell you about my authority, either.”
On one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being cheeky. On a deeper level, though, Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so closed-minded. They were not really seeking information. Their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their sly question.
Even at that, however, Jesus doesn’t drop the conversation. He goes on with a little parable. We have one father and two sons. When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard.
“Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious, so the chief priests give it, but the meaning of it all was a little less clear, so Jesus spells it out for them. John the Baptist really had come from God and, as such, he really did tell people what God wanted them to do. The people who looked like lowlifes and spiritual losers–the folks who had, by all outward appearances, said “No” to God–they ended up coming around to God’s message after all. They admitted their sins, let John baptize them, and so did what God wanted in the end.
But there were others in Israel who had for so long been saying “Yes” to God outwardly yet ultimately didn’t follow through. They looked like fine and upstanding sons of God. They dressed right. Said all the right things. Made all the right promises. But when push came to shove (as surely it did when John the Baptist confronted everyone with his fiery message of repentance), these same folks turned away from God. Their former “Yes” was undercut by their having said “No” at what turned out to be the pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation.
Not all parables are allegories, of course, at least not in the sense that you can (or even should) try to line up each parabolic character with a real-life person. Sometimes you can even ruin a parable by over-interpreting it. In this case, however, the parable lends itself to an allegorical reading.
But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper meaning beyond just identifying who is who. After all, when precisely was it that the tax collectors and prostitutes and others said “No” to God? Wasn’t it more the case that they had never had a chance to answer God one way or the other precisely because the religious authorities never even addressed them? Because furthermore, although we can quite well understand that the Pharisees had said “Yes” to God, what exactly was it that they had agreed to do but then didn’t end up doing?
After all, from the outside looking in, it surely looked like the chief priests were following through on their “Yes” to God. Who followed the law better than they did? Who did more acts of piety and more stringently avoided sin than the Pharisees? How could Jesus compare them to the son who said “Yes” but then didn’t follow through? The entire existence of these folks looked like one giant effort at following through. Yet Jesus seems to indicate that when it came right down to it, they were missing something so fundamental that it was apropos to compare them to the duplicitous son who said all the right things but who finally failed to do what his father wanted.
How so? Because, I would suggest, they missed the core of God: grace. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, Israel is often compared to a vineyard. So in this parable, I suspect that when we hear the father asking his sons to work in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were. That’s where the chief priests failed. Think about it: why did it take an outsider like John the Baptist to issue a kingdom invitation to marginalized folks? John did it first, but then Jesus himself continued giving this invitation in his own ministry. Jesus was always hanging out with what the chief priests considered “the wrong crowd.” Indeed, the very fact that Jesus associated with “sinners” counted against Jesus’ being on God’s side.
But first John and then Jesus reached out to these lost, wayward, sorry souls and they did so because until then, no one else had reached out to them. What John essentially said and what Jesus went on to confirm is that it was precisely those people who constituted the vineyard in whose midst holy work was to be done. If you ignored those folks, wrote them off as hopeless and so not worth the Temple’s time, then it was the equivalent of telling God you would work in his vineyard but then never doing it. Because vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work. Vineyard work is not about focusing on yourself and other upstanding, good folks like you.
No, vineyard work was always supposed to be first and foremost about others, starting with the folks you feel the most tempted to overlook (if not outright condemn). The reason John and Jesus found so many people who were hungry for the message of salvation by grace is because no one else had been proclaiming that message. The Pharisees actually avoided these people. God, they thought, likes only certain types of folks, and so if a given person did not appear to be in that likeable category to begin with, then the duty of the devout was to steer well clear of such a greasy character. But John declared that God wanted exactly those fringe folks. We all get into the kingdom the same way: by the grace of baptism.
What’s more, if you really understand that your own salvation depends on that gift of grace, you are only too happy to share this good news with anyone who will listen. You won’t wait for other people to clean up their acts and become more buttoned-down like you before you share the good news. You won’t wait for anything before getting out into that vineyard of needy people so as to minister to them however you can.
When you say “Yes” to God the Father, Jesus claims, you are simultaneously saying “Yes” to the least, last, lost, and lonely people God holds dear. So if you say “Yes” to God but then focus only on your own piety or on other people who are already just as religious as you are, then you are essentially being like the son who said all the right things when Daddy asked but who turned right around and did nothing that the father really wanted.
Two notes on the text: First, The New American Standard Bible reverses the order in the Parable of the Two Sons. In the accepted Greek text (as reflected in most translations like the NIV and NRSV), the first son says “No” to his father but then does the work anyway and the second son says “Yes” but never goes to the vineyard. The NASB, however, based its translation on another Greek manuscript and so, based on that, reverses the order found in places like the NIV. The point of the parable is the same but if a preacher were not aware of the switch (and found him- or herself in a church that uses the NASB in their worship services), it could lead to confusion!
A second textual point ties in with a verb in verse 31 where Jesus indicated that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God “ahead of you,” referring to the religious leaders. Commentator Dale Bruner believes that this is an example of a form of argument called meiosis by which the upshot here is that these other people will enter the kingdom of God not just first but rather they would enter the kingdom instead of the religious leaders and others of their ilk. The Greek verb there is prosagousin. So does Jesus indicate that the leaders would never get into the kingdom or is there hope held out here that they would/could do so, albeit only after these others? Is this an extension of Matthew 20:16 of “The first shall be last and the last first”? Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Emeritus Dean Deppe comments on this as follows:
The common meaning of the verb in verse 31 is “to go ahead” of someone, not necessarily “to go instead of.” This is brought out in Matthew at 14:22 where the disciples go ahead of Jesus across the sea. He does join them later, walking on the sea. Or in 21:9 the crowds go ahead of Jesus into Jerusalem with him then following them. Or in 26:32 Jesus will go ahead of them into Galilee. They will join him later.
But the context of Mt. 21-23 does need to be held in mind. In Mt. 21-23 Matthew is demonstrating that God did not forsake his people, Israel, even though the Jewish leadership has not accepted Jesus’ claims. Instead the Jewish leaders forsook God by not receiving the servants that God sent. Psalm 118 is placed at the beginning, middle, and end of this section as proof from Scripture. Jesus shows that he is the rejected stone of Ps. 118:22-23 so that the expected Messiah needs to be seen as a suffering, rejected Son of David. So there is an “instead of” idea in the passage. But it is not that Gentiles replace Jews. It is those who believe in God’s messengers and produce fruit (both Jews and Gentiles) that replace unbelieving Israel.
So in summary, the verb in Matthew 21:31 does mean “to go before,” but for those who do not repent, accept Jesus’ ministry, and produce fruit, it becomes “go instead.” Still the invitation to be gathered like a hen gathers her chicks remains as well. God has not rejected his true people.
Some while back I read an article by a pastor who had grown frustrated with something his parishioners often said to him. When people got into a difficult stretch of life, sometimes they would drop out of church completely. The pastor would, of course, call on them to see why they had disappeared from the fellowship but so often the answer he would receive went something along the lines of, “Well, pastor, as soon as I get this mess all straightened out in my life, then I’ll come back to church.” But, this pastor wrote, that is a little like saying, “My stomach ulcer is real critical just now but I’m thinking it might calm down and as soon as it gets better, I’ll check into the hospital.”
That’s a backward way to think but I would suggest we turn this analogy in a slightly different direction: because if it is wrong to avoid church when we find ourselves in a bad situation, it is equally wrong to say that we aren’t going to minister to people outside the church until they have first pretty much been cured of whatever has been ailing them spiritually. But that changes the church from a hospital (where sick people should be able to come) into a Club Med where only the already healthy are welcome.
That was the problem Jesus was targeting in Matthew 21: Jesus came to remind everyone that as bearers of spiritual healing, the first task God’s people must do is to stay with the sick (and with even the chronically ill, with those who struggle repeatedly with sin and temptation). The problem was that the chief priests and others had long since made their religious inner circle into a kind of “Members Only” club–a place that did not tolerate the messiness of people who did not keep the rules as neatly as the Pharisees could do.
Author: Stan Mast
Israel is wandering in territory that is all too familiar to us—in the great wilderness of In Between, between release from bondage and possession of the Promised Land. As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, this passage is “a paradigm for the crisis of faith that occurs between bondage and well-being.” Thus it is relevant for escapees from Egypt, exiles in Babylon, or Christians living between justification and glorification. Out here in the wilderness of In Between, we have to choose between testing God and passing God’s test.
Out in the wilderness, there is one crisis after another, crises that test our faith and obedience. Israel has just gone through their food crisis, and some of the Israelites failed the test of faith and obedience. Now, once again, they are faced with a water crisis, as they had early in their wanderings. This time the crisis is more urgent, more dangerous. Contrary to Marah where there was at least bitter water and Elim where there was abundant water, there was absolutely no water in the desert south and east of the Desert of Sin. Little children were getting dehydrated, livestock were drooping, and the adults were increasingly desperate. It didn’t take a modern scientist to know that it takes only 3 days to die if you have no water.
So, those desperate adults did what they always did in a crisis—they grumbled, and quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink!” Apparently, they have no thought of God; this is, after all, a “God forsaken place.” So, in spite of all that Yahweh had done for them in the last couple of months, they demand that Moses give them water. Moses responds with words that are both predictable and mysterious. “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” That mention of Yahweh should have stopped their grumbling and aroused their faith, but, as the text says, “The people were thirsty for water….” Their thirst overwhelmed their trust and they repeated their bitter question from the food crisis. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Of course, that isn’t what Moses had done. In fact, it wasn’t really Moses who had done that at all; it was Yahweh who had brought them up out of Egypt. But they leave Yahweh out of their complaint. Is that what Moses meant by “putting Yahweh to the text?” Did they put God to the test by forgetting God entirely in their crisis, blaming their human leader as though their Divine Deliverer isn’t even there? One commentator suggests that they tested God by making demands on God, but I don’t read that in the text at all. Rather, it seems that they didn’t even trust God enough to pray, to beg God for water. Instead, they blame their human leader for their predicament.
Putting God to the test, therefore, wasn’t so much testing God’s patience by their continual grumbling, or questioning God’s ability to help. It was, more, a matter of doubting or denying that God was even there with them at all. Moses summarizes their test with a single question: “Is Yahweh among us or not?” How will we know if he is here? We won’t/can’t believe in the Presence of God until/unless he gives us water. He has to pass the test of giving us what we want/need, or we won’t believe God is with us, among us, for us.
One helpful way to understand this testing of God is to contrast it with another example of testing God in Malachi 3. God challenges the post-Exilic Israelite to give the full tithe to support the Temple, a challenge that these former prisoners, now farmers found overwhelmingly difficult. If we give a tenth of the little we have, we won’t be able to survive. So, God says, “Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it (Malachi 3:10).”
In Malachi 3 God begs his people to put him to the test. In Exodus 17 he criticizes them for putting him to the test. What’s the difference? In Exodus, Israel says, in effect, if God will do what I say, if God meets my needs/wants, I will believe he is present with me. If I get water from God, I will trust God. If I see, I will believe.
In Malachi, God says, if you will do what I say, if you trust me enough to obey me, you will receive my blessing and you will know that I am among you. If you give your tithe in faith, you will see an overflowing blessing. If you believe, you will see. God wants us to test him by trusting and obeying, while Israel wanted God to prove his presence by giving them water before they would trust and obey.
To complicate matters, the God whom Israel is testing here in Exodus is testing Israel at the same time. That’s what God says when he gives them the manna back in Exodus 16:4. “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” And when God appears in a terrifying theophany on Mount Sinai, God is once again testing his people. “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning (Exodus 20:20).’” God was always testing, proving, purifying his people.
Did they pass his tests of hunger and thirst, of trust and obedience? No, not here, not before, not after, not ever. God’s people continually fail to trust the God who has done everything for them. Indeed, Numbers 14:22 says that Israel put Yahweh to the test 10 times in their wilderness time. You would think that God would weary of their putting him to the test and failing his tests. And he did, eventually, but even then, even when God sent them back into bondage in Babylon, God did not finally desert his people.
Again and again, God did exactly what he did here in Exodus 17. In spite of Israel’s failure (even to pray), he gave them what they needed in a way that proved he was among them. As usual, he used a Mediator to give them water, a mere man named Moses. He wielded the same staff that had struck the Nile and turned water to blood and that had parted the Red Sea. This time that staff struck a rock which gushed water, so that all could drink all they wanted.
But it wasn’t Moses who gave the water (or the manna or the parting of the Red Sea). It was Yahweh who is always present with his people, even in wilderness of In Between. Note how our text opens with something the people didn’t see or had forgotten; the whole community was “travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded (through that Pillar of Fire and that Cloud).” And when Moses headed out to find water, God said to him, “I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb.” I will reveal myself to you, so you will know which Rock to strike. “Is Yahweh among us or not?” Yes. Always. Testing. Providing. Being gracious, even when we grumble, and even when our grumbling puts us back into bondage.
God met their need, even though they failed their test. But Moses gave names to this moment in their wilderness wandering, so that they would not forget either their sin or God’s grace. Those names, “Massah” (Testing) and “Meribah” (Quarreling) occur again in Israel’s literature (Psalm 78, 81, 95) as a reminder to future generations. When you are in need in the wilderness, don’t put God to the test. Rather, remember how God met his people’s needs again and again when it seemed that they were God forsaken. These stories of Israel’s wilderness time show us that God is working salvation in the middle of human crises: hunger to food, thirst to water, leprosy to cleanness, poverty to well-being, sin to salvation, and finally death to life.
We have a great advantage over ancient Israel, even though they had seen God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm in many miraculous ways. After all that, we may well ask what will it take to convince God’s hungry and thirsty, grumbling and quarreling, testing and not trusting people that God is really among them? What it finally took, what God finally did in the fulness of time, was to come into their midst in a human body. “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.” “The virgin will be with child and they will call him ‘Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23)
St. Paul identified Jesus with this story in a surprising way when he said in I Corinthians 10:4, “for they all drank from the same spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” He was undoubtedly thinking there of Jesus’ stunning words in John’s gospel: “Whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst (4:14).” “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink (7:37).” Jesus is God among us, and for us, to meet all our needs.
As I pondered the meaning of Israel’s testing of God, it occurred to me that we have an almost exact parallel in the current coronavirus pandemic. As people suffer in fear, we hear little mention of God. Most people seem to be putting their trust in science and politics, that is, in human efforts to meet human need. And because the need doesn’t go away, people are grumbling about and quarreling with their human leaders, on both sides of the aisle, in both science and politics. “Why did Trump do this? Why didn’t the Democrats do that? If you don’t do something, we are all going to die out here in the wilderness.” Even believers join in this incessant chorus of negativity, instead of calling out to God. Are we testing God by thinking and acting as though he is not among us? Or is God testing us, to see if we will trust him even though it seems as though he has forsaken us to this virus? Will we only believe when we see a cure? Or will be believe and then see God among us?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Samuel Johnson is reported to having once said something to the effect that we need more often to be reminded than instructed. Intuitively probably most of us have a pretty solid sense of what he meant. It’s not that I don’t know the basics of knife safety when I am slicing and dicing vegetables in my kitchen. It’s just that sometimes I am in a hurry and so I don’t clean off my cutting board. Next thing you know my knife tip gets stuck on a piece of carrot, the knife slips sideways as a result, and I take a chunk off a fingertip. I received the proper instruction once. I just needed to be reminded of it again. To remind myself.
This does not mean, of course, that any of us are ever really finished with encountering new learning in various subject matters or areas of life. Hopefully we all aspire to be life-long learners. But the fact is that most people of all education levels have throughout their lives received plenty of good, solid, accurate instruction about all kinds of things we encounter on a daily basis and so the key is to remind ourselves of what we know so we can follow through on it, do things right, be wise, stay safe. How often, having taken a shortcut to save time, do we make a mistake only to say to ourselves, “I know better than that!”
Indeed we do often know better. We just need to be reminded.
Psalm 25 is a poem that pines for divine guidance and instruction. It’s hardly alone in emphasizing this theme in the Hebrew Psalter—a few weeks ago the Lectionary Psalm was a portion of Psalm 119, which is basically one very long call to receive divine instruction by reveling in and learning God’s commands, rules, statutes, and so on. And lots of psalms ask God to shine a light upon our paths, to guide our steps, to teach us what is right.
For also followers of Jesus—remember that the Greek word we translate as “disciple” in the New Testament really means “student” at its most basic linguistic level—lifelong learning of God’s ways (as perfected humanly in Christ Jesus) is vital. It’s basic. But let’s also be honest: most of what we need to know to be Christ-like we already know and learned a long time ago. We really do more often need to be reminded of that. Frankly, some of it is common sense, other parts of it are common decency, and still other parts are so morally basic that they are reflected in the laws of almost every civilized nation all down through history.
Even as children we know more than we sometimes want to admit. With some—but rare—exceptions, very few children who get caught having done something wrong are being honest when they claim, “I didn’t know that was naughty to do!!!” Grown-ups are not much better. When a man tells his wife that he really didn’t know that having a couple drinks with another woman at a bar followed by his inviting her to chat more in his hotel room would lead to his committing adultery . . . well, he’s not likely telling the truth of what he knows deep in his heart and soul. We often know what is right. We don’t need to be taught. Just reminded. Again: we need to remind ourselves as often as not.
Or to make this more spiritual and less psychological: we need to let the Holy Spirit remind us. We need to be attentive to the Spirit’s voice in our hearts as the Spirit guides our feet, helps us make better decisions, and shows us—albeit not for the first time but perhaps the ten-thousandth time—the path on which God wishes to guide our feet. And listening to that Spirit is by no means automatic. If only it were.
Instead this is a matter of regular prayer. Maybe it’s a matter also of praying the psalms, like Psalm 25. We want to find ways regularly to attune our spiritual hearing to the Spirit’s voice, to let the Spirit set our internal moral compass for us. Yes, as also disciples we should desire to be lifelong learners but as often as not, we need to be lifelong receivers of the Spirit’s prompting us to do what we already know is right.
But another word needs to be said before this sermon starter concludes: life does contain a lot of morally gray zones where it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. Years ago the WWJD bracelet and t-shirt fad—What Would Jesus Do?—made it seem as if so long as you had a bracelet on your wrist to remind yourself to ask yourself what Jesus would do in any given situation, then you’d know right away. But it’s not always quite that easy to know what Jesus would do or what Christ through the Spirit would have us to do or to say. It’s not a weak Christian who admits to being stumped somewhat often as to how to navigate certain waters but a strong and wise one who does so.
In that case the words of Psalm 25 become even more vital as we really do need to be instructed and not just reminded. The Spirit no doubt has a hundred good ways to get through to us with answers to such quandaries and questions, though not all are easy to receive or hear and sometimes answers can be a long time coming, too. Just because we cannot tell quickly what we ought to do is no reason not to keep on asking for the instruction.
The last verse in this 9-verse portion of Psalm 25 as assigned by the Lectionary notes that it is the humble who receives God’s instruction the best. Humility is the opposite of pride, of thinking we can make a go of everything totally on our own all the time. And humility is the beginning of wisdom and so is the opposite of also folly. Because as it is often said: Fools are often in error but never in doubt. That’s because they cannot be taught. Wise are those believers who look to God’s instruction—and yes, to the Spirit’s incessant reminding of us—every day as part of a faithful life lived to the glory of God.
Sometimes it seems that for all the appeal it has on the surface—and for all the things about it that really are correct—the “What Would Jesus Do?” mantra needs almost as often as not to be replaced with—or at least supplemented by—another question: What Would Jesus NOT Do? What would Jesus NOT say? It sometimes feels like a lot of ugly things that also Christians say and do—sometimes to even fellow Christians on Facebook much less to people who do not share the Christian faith—would be avoided if we wondered what Jesus would not do or say.
Jesus would not fire off an email in anger. He would not sneer at another person on Facebook in sarcasm over even some post Jesus himself disagreed with. Jesus would not assign libelous or mean-spirited labels to people of different political viewpoints on certain hot button issues of the day. None of that is to say Jesus would be silent or would fail to address anything he deemed important. But how would he do it? A lot of the time the Gospel indicates he would most assuredly not do it the way too many of us do.
And let’s be honest: even if it is genuinely not always easy to answer the question “What Would Jesus Do?”, if we eliminated up front all the things Jesus would NOT do, our lives and the world in general would be a much better place.
Author: Doug Bratt
We sometimes think of tensions within the Church, between churches or among Christians as new phenomena. Christians sometimes assume that, for example, the veritable plethora of denominations and congregations is a somehow recent development.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, suggests that tension within and among churches is ancient. After all, tensions in the Philippian church to which Paul writes are causing some members to oppose rather than work with each other in Christian unity. Later Paul even names three Philippians whose arguments endanger their church.
That’s perhaps both encouraging and discouraging. On the one hand, conflict that threatened the very early church’s witness saddens us. While we sometimes think of the early Christian church as a fellowship of flawless saints who markedly impacted their community, Philippians 2 suggests that that’s a myth.
The Philippian church’s struggles, however, also remind us that God is willing and able to use God’s church that is far from perfect anyway. Philippi’s church that wasted so much energy is also, after all, the one God used to alleviate suffering in Jerusalem. This was the flawed church the Lord also used to send converts to help Paul.
So the twenty-first century church’s task isn’t to try to imitate some mythical Philippian church. Nor is our job to learn the spiritual secrets that the early Christians knew but we’ve somehow misplaced. God’s adopted sons and daughters have, in fact, a far better hope: the Christ who was Lord of the Philippian church is also Lord of the 21st century Church.
So we seek his Spirit’s gracious presence today just as the Philippians sought it nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus’ followers seek to let God somehow use us, though we’re no more perfect than the Philippians.
After all, the early church’s tensions have parallels in each succeeding generation of the church. The Philippian divisions that Paul addressed apparently didn’t disappear for decades. Early second century letters suggest that the Philippian church was still wrestling with tensions and division.
Those who make up twenty-first century churches are real people who have sometimes widely varying beliefs about many different subjects. That’s one of the things that makes Christ’s church the dynamic, living organism that it is. It would be a clumsy Body were it entirely made up of “thumbs,” for instance.
So how does Paul address the various Philippian parties? Throughout his letter, he challenges them to think about everything under Jesus Christ’s sovereign guidance. The apostle addresses the tensions in the Philippian church by emphasizing the need for unity that Jesus commended already during his earthly ministry.
He calls them to stand firm in one spirit and work side by side to spread the gospel. However, Paul doesn’t stop there. He also tries to move the Philippians away from focusing on their disagreements to sharpening their focus on the grace God has shown them.
In just the first verse of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson alone, Paul makes four statements that all begin with the word “if…” If these four things are in fact true for the Philippians, he adds, then they have a solid foundation for unity. If the Philippi’s Christians have experienced these four truths, the apostle adds, they must now focus on this foundation.
Yet when at least 21st century North Americans use the word “if,” we generally indicate a degree of uncertainty or outright untruth. You and I say things like, “If the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl (but they won’t)…” However, the New Testament Greek often used the word “if” in a different way. Paul’s contemporaries would say something like, “If I am your friend (and I am)…” They used this truth as a basis for making a request, teaching something or giving a command.
So in our text we should understand Paul to mean something like, “Since you have encouragement from being united with Christ, be like-minded.” “Since you have fellowship with the Spirit, have the same love.” “Since you have comfort from his love and tenderness and compassion, be one in spirit and purpose.” In other words, the powerful realities of God’s grace form the basis for Paul’s plea for Philippian unity.
The apostle challenges Christians of all times and places to always ask ourselves whether we’ll build on the experiences of encouragement we’ve received from Christ and each other. Or will we ignore that foundation and, instead, focus on the anger and divisions that plague us?
I remember the many conversations I had with a friend who’d grown up in the church but later turned his back on it. Did his childhood church’s theology frustrate, anger or too deeply puzzle him? No, he claimed that the way church members had treated him had driven him away from the church.
Paul understood that such hurt feelings or interpersonal conflicts unnecessarily often fuel church conflicts. So he warns Christians against isolating ourselves because of our grievances. Paul challenges us to focus more on Christ’s encouragement more than our complaints against each other.
However, this requires a kind of putting others in line before ourselves. It requires looking beyond our own needs and interests to the needs and interests of the Christians with whom God surrounds us.
That requires the kind of humility and concern for others that isn’t natural in sinful people, including this Lesson’s hearers and proclaimers. Thankfully, then, God has graciously given us the perfect example of such sacrificial humility: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul recites a famous early Christian hymn that expresses Christians’ core belief about our humble Savior’s saving work. In this beautiful hymn all Philippians could sing what they believed, concisely and congregationally. This hymn allowed them to sing about what united rather than divided them.
Today it’s popular for various institutions to have a mission statement that tries to briefly summarize that institution’s purpose. Philippians 2’s hymn does that and more. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” Paul sings. “He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and become obedient to death.”
Paul understood that the Philippian Christians would need the kind of selfless love and care that Jesus showed in order to endure the kind of suffering they were undergoing. In the moments of weakness and fear that would certainly come, they’d be more likely to endure if others lovingly encouraged and prayed for them.
Philippians 2’s hymn reminded the Philippian Christians that Jesus was their model of such a life that pleases God. After all, besides being humble and obedient, he was also compassionate and forgiving. Christ fulfilled the law and did his heavenly Father’s will gladly and perfectly.
Now, says Paul, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters try to do something similar, continuing to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” In doing so, he’s not calling Christian to try to earn our salvation through fearful and constant work and worry. God’s salvation is always God’s gracious gift that we can only receive with our faith.
What Paul seems to mean is that God’s salvation ought to awaken within God’s adopted children a renewed commitment to persistently living a life that’s consistent with our adoption. God’s salvation ought to prompt you and me to want to live a life that expresses our gratitude to him for it.
In view of everything that God has done, Paul calls Christians to vigorously pursue our Christian calling to faithfully obey the Lord. He challenges Jesus’ followers to follow the example of the humility and obedience of the Christ in whom we, by God’s grace, believe.
God is at work in God’s dearly beloved people, carrying out God’s will, making it real in our lives Jesus’ life’s reality. We, however, are also at work each day of our lives carrying out the implications of that work.
Jesus’ followers rest in the knowledge that our salvation is a wonderful gift that all of our work and worry could never achieve. However, Christians also work to respond appropriately. Salvation that is so total, after all, demands a complete, practical, and daily response.
God’s adopted sons and daughters won’t discover our unity in things like our complete agreement about the kinds of songs we should to sing or coffee we should serve after church. Christians won’t find our unity in theological issues of whom we should baptize and how Christ will return. We won’t discover our unity in which political party or politician we support.
No, the divisions in individual Christians, as well as congregations and denominations are sometimes significant. Yet even if we must sometimes agree to disagree on them, we focus on what unites us: the saving, self-sacrificial work of Jesus Christ.
Many of this Sunday’s Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers live in a society perhaps increasingly marked by division. People of various races increasingly feel alienated from each other. As a result, it sometimes seems as if black, white, Hispanic and Asian Americans do almost nothing, including worship, together voluntarily.
We also live in a society that is increasingly socio-economically stratified. We seal our poor people in our large cities, while walling ourselves off in our gated communities and affluent suburbs. And sadly, I fear, Christians increasingly well ourselves off from each other. We let our differences of opinion about things like climate change and racial reconciliation, baptism and Christ’s return erect high barriers that we seldom find ways to breach.
That’s a reason why the food pantry of the church I serve has been such a source of blessing. We’d had a pantry open once a month for the past seven years. But with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, a local food bank challenged us to open once a week.
That, however, presented tremendous challenges, including economic and volunteer ones. Our church had budgeted, after all, for a monthly pantry. We’d chosen to have the food pantry open monthly because we also felt that we wouldn’t have enough volunteers to staff it more often than that.
Before this pandemic struck, we served about 100 households of our hungry neighbors on a monthly basis. After it struck, we serve approximately 700 households of our hungry neighbors on a weekly basis.
This simply would not be possible were it not for God’s startling generosity with our pantry. The Giver of our daily bread has startled us nearly weekly with an amazing variety of provisions for our needs.
One of the most stunning ways God has done this is through an incredible variety of supporters and support. Our denomination, as well as local government and businesses have come alongside our ministry with financial support. An amazing variety of houses of worship have provided volunteers and monetary support. And the stream of food donors who are our nearby neighbors never ceases to amaze me.
Just as we don’t discriminate in our distribution on the basis of all the things that otherwise divide us, we don’t make our volunteers or donors subscribe to some kind of doctrinal standard. We simply ask that they serve with love, hospitality and kindness.
Those who proclaim Philippians 2 may feel free to borrow this example of looking to the interests of others. Or we might find more local examples of such like-mindedness. Or maybe, just maybe, we might find ways to express that unity in our own lives.