September 28, 2020
The Proper 22A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 21:33-46 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 80:7-15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 3:4b-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 21
Author: Scott Hoezee
That’s probably not a word (or a sound effect) you associate with the parables of Jesus. But it’s more apt than you might think.
Eugene Peterson famously said that parables are narrative time bombs. These are stealthy stories that steal into people’s hearts, confusing them initially, throwing them off balance for a while. After all, at first these seemed like cozy, tame little stories about farmers and seeds, women and bread baking, fathers and sons. People let the stories steal into their hearts and imaginations. They had no defenses up to keep them out. Why would they? These are such nice stories, interesting, vivid, well-told.
But at some later point the “Ah-ha!” moment may arrive as the real meaning of the story suddenly explodes in people’s minds like a time-bomb. The parables were meant to blast people into new awareness, new understandings, new ideas. “Oh my!” people would exclaim, “We thought he was talking about farmers and crops but he was really talking about us and God!!! And we maybe don’t come off looking all that great, either!!”
But if all of the parables were like narrative time-bombs, then I think it’s fair to say the Parable of the Tenants was like a proximity-fuse grenade! In this case, it did not take very long at all before this parable blew up in the faces of those listening to Jesus. In the end, we are told that the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jerusalem that day knew at once that “Jesus was speaking against them.” It made them furious and they were ready, right then and there, to arrest him and be done with this Jesus once and for all.
Telling parables can get you killed!
This parable is one of only three that appears in all of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel. Perhaps that is because contained within the imagery of this parable is material that points to a key pivot point in salvation history. If we look closely, we will see that Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone to the entire world.
The first hint of this comes in the first verse. Verse 33 is pretty detailed when it comes to describing the vineyard. Jesus could have said simply no more than, “Once upon a time a certain man owned a vineyard,” and then gone from there. But in this case Jesus is downright elaborate in mentioning the planting of the vineyard, the wall, the winepress, the watchtower. What’s up with all this detail? That’s not typical of other parables. In Matthew 21, however, vintner-related details fairly pile up. But there is a reason for this: it is an overt allusion to Isaiah 5 (and there is also a hook in this week’s Lectionary psalm of Psalm 80 where the ruined vineyard is discussed from the perspective of Israel’s exile to Babylon).
Isaiah 5 contains its own kind of parable in which Israel is compared to a vineyard. In that story a vintner who clearly stood for Yahweh invested lavish amounts of labor and money into his vineyard, anticipating that the end-result of all his fine and hard work would be a rich harvest of lusciously sweet grapes. But when the harvest came, the farmer found that every single vine contained sour grapes, bitter and vile and inedible! So in a fury he plowed the whole thing under.
Isaiah 5 was a prophetic parable pointing forward to the time when God’s vineyard of Israel would be “plowed under” by the Babylonians on account of Israel’s repeated bitter failings to produce the kind of spiritual fruit God was looking for in his chosen people (again, cf. Psalm 80). In other words, the image of Israel as vineyard was used in Isaiah 5 to point forward to a key turning point in God’s dealings with this world. Now in Matthew 21, by so deliberately invoking this same image, Jesus likewise is as much as saying that in the grand scheme of things, a new and significant turning-point would soon be reached.
The vintner-farmer is God. The vineyard is the people of God, the Jews, in Jesus’ day. The tenants who eventually turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why in the end these folks were so huffy over what Jesus had said! Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants were on the wrong side of history—of salvation history in this case.
“What do you suppose the owner will do with these tenants?” Jesus asks in the end. Literally the crowd replies, “He will annihilate those evil-evils.” The Greek word for “evil” is piled up twice, as though to say they were the worst of the worse, the doubly evil villains, evil-squared.
It is at this point that you expect Jesus to say something like, “Yes indeed, the owner will come and wipe them out.” But he doesn’t say that. Well, not exactly anyway. Instead he quotes a rather odd verse from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone after all. You suspect that no one in the crowd that day saw this one coming. What happened to the tenants, the vineyard, the story itself, for goodness sake!? What does a stone have to do with what Jesus had just been talking about?
In terms of imagery, this may be a difficult transition to make. But in terms of the larger theological symbolism contained in the vineyard story, we can see how this cornerstone image fits in perfectly. This entire parable is about rejection. First the tenants reject the owner by rejecting the entire sharecropping arrangement. Then the tenants reject the owner’s emissaries and servants. Finally, they reject even the heir, the owner’s only son. But true to form, God is about to do a double-reversal: the son who got rejected will emerge as a highly powerful figure who will, in turn, reject the rejecters!
But it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the tenants of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. Practically speaking, and for all intents and purposes, they had decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. So when in history God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes just killed those prophets. Their insularity was so complete they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. They were so cock-sure they had God cased that they found it easy to reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And whenever we religious types reach that point vis-à-vis our God, that is a bad, fatal moment indeed.
The gospel writers seemed to savor the delicious irony of salvation emerging from the least likely location. They enjoyed this irony so much, in fact, that the once-obscure text of Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Out of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, this little nugget about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner wins the prize for most frequent New Testament citation. In a quirky way, the verse itself does the very thing it is talking about: the little verse that seemed least among many other verses in the Hebrew Bible emerges on top in the gospels and epistles! You would have expected a different verse to get this kind of attention–perhaps something from the covenant with Abraham, a snippet of a sermon from Moses, one of those soaring prophetic passages from Isaiah, or even Psalm 23.
But no, Psalm 118:22 manages best to convey the gospel’s great reversal of expectations. From lowly and humble beginnings, Jesus would end up being the rejected one whom God would raise up to be the most impressive of all biblical figures. The carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire would turn out to be the cosmic King.
It is a grim fact that the last group admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your new status, see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody. But if you start to let in just anyone—and particularly such-and-such a group—then suddenly your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. The very purpose of having a club is to have a door to shut behind you, to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
This is human nature, I’m afraid. And it’s also the reason that when a religion starts to see itself as a club, it’s pretty much game over in terms of reflecting and incarnating the loving heart of God.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Author: Stan Mast
What a massive text for one sermon! I’ve preached ten-part series on these verses, spending much time on each word of the successive commandments. No wonder the RCL tried to help us by leaving out the crucial theological material connected to the second and fourth commandments, which is unfortunate given how important those verses are.
The old grade school joke asked, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I propose three large bites: verses 1-2, which emphasize the divine origin of what follows; verses 3-17, which demonstrate the comprehensiveness of God’s claim on our lives; verses 18-20, which introduce the issue of how we can deal with these words in our modern world.
All modern scholars emphasize that these verses follow the format of ancient Near Eastern covenant treaties, in which the covenant Lord outlines the conditions of his agreement with his subject people. That is a helpful insight, unless it is used to suggest (as many do) that Israel has simply borrowed all of this from surrounding nations. The first two verses make it very clear that, while God may have used a well-known form to give his law to his people, it was definitely God who gave these words. In a day of almost universal relativism in morality and nearly unanimous agreement that Israel’s monotheistic religion evolved over a long period of time, it is crucial that a Christian preacher assert what verses 1-2 say so clearly.
“And God spoke all these words….” These are not the words of Moses, or of Israel. These are the very words of God to Israel through Moses. That, of course, is a startling and offensive claim to make in our polytheistic/atheistic world. This text claims that these words came from the one true God to a particular people, whom God had chosen to be the possessors and communicators of his words to the rest of the world. Why would God do that? As C. S. Lewis so wryly and offensively put it, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” That’s not anti-Semitic; it’s just an acknowledgment of the mystery of God’s way of revealing himself and his will to the world.
Lest we have any doubt about who the one God is, God is very specific here. “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” God has a name, a unique name that reveals much about his essence, as I pointed out in the Sermon Starter on Exodus 3. This law-giving God is the covenant making God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This law-giving God is the liberator of Israel from Egypt. We could preach a whole sermon on those introductory words, but at the very least they assure Israel and us that these words come from the God who has reached down into history, entering into an unbreakable covenant with a particular people, and acting historically in powerful ways to redeem them.
Thus, these negative words (note all the “no’s” and “not’s”) have a very positive intent. God has just liberated them from a terrible bondage and here he tells them how to avoid falling back into bondage again, how to enjoy their liberty. They might have gone out into the wilderness and simply imitated the lifestyle of the Egyptians who had been their masters for so long. That was all they knew. Or they might have gone on to the Promised Land and fallen into the customs of the peoples who lived there, which, sadly, they did (and found themselves in bondage again). To help them maintain the liberated life, God gave them this set of simple rules, the “Royal Law of Liberty (James 1:25).” Here is a good God, the Father of a new family, trying to help them learn to walk in a safe and healthy way.
“And God spoke all these words,” all of them which cover all of life. Their covenant Lord lays a comprehensive claim on their lives, as the footnotes to my NIV Study Bible put it: “As his subjects, his covenant people are to render complete submission, allegiance and obedience to him out of gratitude for his mercies, reverence for his sovereignty, and trust in his continuing care.” Yahweh lays this comprehensive claim on them, not as a hard hearted, heavy handed tyrant, but as a loving Father who would do anything to save his people (as he so powerfully illustrated centuries later when he gave his only begotten Son for the life of a sinful world).
Having said that, however, there is no doubt that this royal law of liberty is life encompassing and strict—from every dimension of their relationship with God to all aspects of their relationships with their fellow humans. God’s people have always talked about the two tables of the Law, verses 3-11 focusing on how we are to love God properly and verses 12-17 spelling out what it means to love our fellow humans.
The First Table is the basis for the Second; loving God is the condition and source of loving each other. If we don’t serve the One True God as we should, we won’t be able to care for each other as God directs. I know, there is a whole movement today that insists we can be “good without God,” and there are many people who do good even though they have no faith in the God of Scripture. But the sheer order of the commandments shows us that love for God is our primary duty as God’s children, and if we don’t, how on earth can we love his children?
Properly relating to God means that we must worship only one God, the God who calls himself Yahweh; that we worship him as he has commanded, not using images or idols to represent him; that we use his name only in praise and petition, not trying to manipulate him by uttering the magic word of his name; and that we devote one day each week to focus on God, not working all the time as though our very lives depended on our work, rather than on our God.
We could preach on each of those first four commands, pointing out, for example, that Israel’s great temptation, and ours, was to have other gods besides Yahweh, to trust other deities in addition to Yahweh, thus demonstrating that they didn’t really trust him completely. Or we could explain that God’s aversion to images counters the human desire to make God visible, so that we can hold him or manipulate him. But God is our Lord, not our Servant. If we want an image of God, God has provided us a perfect image in Jesus Christ. And so forth.
In the Second Table, God begins with the family, the foundation of human society. When the family falls apart, all of society will do the same, as we are seeing in our world today. Strong families are based, not on obedience (because there are times when children should not obey their parents), and not on love (because we all go through moments when we do not love those closest to us), but on honor, giving weight and importance to the authority God has placed over us. When respect and honor for those in authority are lost, the family and society will disintegrate, as we are seeing today all around us.
God goes on to address the value of human life, the sanctity of the marriage bed, the right to hold property, and the importance of truth telling in a society. Each of those commands is filled with implications and difficulties; for example, how does the 5th commandment relate to war and self-defense? At the very least these commands show us that God cares deeply about every dimension of human life. Thus, loving God means that we must help other people flourish in their lives by guarding their right to life, by keeping sex within the bounds of marriage, by protecting the property rights of others, and by speaking the truth in love.
The last commandment reveals that God’s reign extends into our inner life. Sin begins within, with a thought or a desire. Thus, God commands that we govern our desires, lest we become enslaved to them. See Ephesians 2:1-3, where Paul says spiritual death can be traced to “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts”).
This comment from the New Interpreters Bible leads us into the last few verses of the text: “human life in all its ambiguity and inscrutability is endlessly precious and must not be violated. It is now clear that in the obduracy of totalitarian society and in the rapaciousness of market economy, a humane life of shared rights and responsibilities is exceedingly fragile.” So, how are we to deal with these commandments in a day when a humane life is exceedingly fragile?
That question raises all kinds of issues for me. Verse 18 returns to the theophany we read about in Exodus 19. God gave his law in the setting of a terrifying theophany, a personal revelation designed to plant “the fear of God” in their hearts. It sounds as though only that fear of God will keep God’s people from sinning. Their fear of God “breaking out against them (19:24)” and killing them is the deterrent that will enforce obedience.
Is that true? Does the fear of God keep people within the bounds of his law? And if so, how does that square with my contention that God gave this law in love, to preserve liberty? Further, if the fear of God is the key to obedience, what hope is there for a society that manifestly does not fear God? And how do we square this fear motif with those enigmatic words of I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Does that verse signal a shift in how we are to approach God’s law in these New Testament times? Is love now our motive in keeping it? And gratitude? I won’t attempt to answer these questions in this short piece, but you may want to wrestle with them as you bring this ancient word into these modern times.
Speaking of the New Testament, how are we to deal with Exodus 20, which clearly views the Law as a great gift from a Liberating God, with Paul’s often negative view of the Law as a seemingly negative force in the life of a believer. While granting that it is “holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12),” Paul also says that “the very commandment that was intended to bring life, actually brought death (Romans 7:9).” He criticizes the Galatians for their return to a law-based life because it meant that they were “letting yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).”
All theologians point out that Paul is railing against the law used as a means of salvation, as an escalator that can elevate us to heaven, rather than as guardrails on the path that is life in Christ. The law still functions as a guide to grateful living for those who have been saved by Christ. However, even that holy and righteous and good law is useless to us because of our sin. We cannot and do not keep it by ourselves.
If the law is to be helpful for us, we must have another to help us keep it. Which, of course, God has taken care of by giving us the Holy Spirit, “so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4).” Thus, Paul can say boldly in Galatians 5:18, ”if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” That doesn’t mean that the Law is abolished. It means that we are not under it as a tyrant; it is in us as a part of our sanctified life exactly as the Old Testament predicted. The Spirit empowers and directs us to live by the Royal Law of Liberty.
When we don’t live by the law of God, we have a mediator, even as Israel did at the foot of Sinai. The theophany on top of the mountain so terrified them that they begged Moses to stand between them and God. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” So, he did.
Jesus did more than that. He spoke to us in the role of the great Prophet who would take the place of Moses. But even more, he died for us when we didn’t heed the Law of God. When we submitted again to the bondage of sin, he gave his life to set us free. See Romans 8:1-3 for Paul’s definitive explanation of all this. In the end, let this text point God’s people to God’s amazing love in Christ that set us free to live as God always intended when he gave this Law. In Christ and by his Spirit, we can be free indeed.
The notion that a law can help us be free goes against the lawless instincts of those who live by the motto of “if it feels good, do it.” But that notion is at the heart of my country, “the land of the free, the home of the brave.” (My apologies to all the citizens of other great countries.) The beloved anthem, “America the Beautiful,” expresses that in these words that seem to echo our text: “Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress a thoroughfare of freedom beat across the wilderness! American! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
“The Lord make his face to shine upon you . . .” That’s a line from the great Aaronic Benediction originally given to Israel in Numbers 6 and it is a line with which many Christians are exceedingly familiar on account of having heard it at the end of a church service so many times. It is also an image that is the key motif or refrain of Psalm 80, though if you pay attention to only the few verses assigned by the Common Lectionary, you won’t see it, which is a shame.
Three times in this poem—verses 3, 7, and 19—the psalmist asks God to let his face shine on Israel again so they may be saved. But it’s not only a refrain but a refrain that keeps building in intensity. Verse 3 addresses simply “God” (Hebrew Elohim). Verse 7 addresses (literally) the “God of Hosts” (Hebrew Elohim sabbaoth). Finally the last verse of the psalm addresses (literally) “Yahweh, God of Hosts” (Hebrew YHWH Elohim sabbaoth). It is as though the psalm at once builds up in intensity as to the identity of this God until finally we are given no less than the specific sacred name of Israel’s one and only true God. That last verse addressed specifically to Yahweh is like the poem’s crescendo.
Weaving through these verses is one of the more common images for Israel in the Old Testament: a vineyard of God’s own planting. Given the agricultural nature of that image, the notion of God’s face shining on Israel is most certainly one we can associate with sunlight shining on plants. And that may be a helpful way to understand the plea for God to let his face shine upon us. Again, this is such a common image used in benedictions that we maybe don’t often pause to ponder what it means. The words just kind of roll off us like the proverbial water off a duck’s back.
But when you think about it, it’s not an image most of us use anywhere else in life. We may hope for the approval of a parent, a sibling, a friend, a boss but we don’t usually ask these people to shine on us with their faces. When we get a good performance review at work with our manager or upline, we don’t typically come home and tell our spouse, “It was a good day—my manager’s face shined upon me!” You could try saying that to someone, I suppose, but my guess is you’d get a quizzical look in return.
But in the ancient world this was not an odd turn of phrase. In places where there were kings or pharaohs or other sovereigns, appearing before such a powerful figure usually meant you had to bow your head and probably keep it bowed as the sovereign considered whatever it was that brought you to meet with him or her. And the signal that your request had found favor was if the king (or whoever) raised your face to meet his face, your eyes to meet his eyes. Your countenance would meet the Majesty’s countenance and he would “shine” on you with favor. This was how you knew you would have your wish granted or your request fulfilled.
But, of course, what such shining could ever mean more than if we were talking about Almighty God shining upon you? Linking this to the image of the vineyard, it is clear that God’s shining is all about life, about growth, about flourishing. Grapes cannot grow without abundant sunshine and we cannot grow without abundant love and care from our Creator.
Of course, Psalm 80 is premised on the historical fact that Israel had failed God and so God had turned away the divine face. The vineyard was in ruins and what grapes it still produced in the wild were picked by strangers or foraged by wild pigs (a double-whammy for Israel given the prohibition to stay away from pigs). So there is the plea for God to shine with God’s face again, to reverse what had happened to Israel when God had to turn away for a time.
As Christians, we believe that God in Christ will never turn away from us again. But still we should not discount the importance of living life Coram Deo, before the face of God. God is the source of our life and our salvation. And if it’s true God will not turn the light of his countenance away from us now due to the grace we have received in Jesus, we are tempted sometimes to turn our faces away from God, to try to become our own source of light. We are tempted to think we can go it alone in this world. But it’s not true. It was not true for the vineyard that was ancient Israel and it is not true for all of us who have now been grafted onto the one true Vine that just is Christ Jesus the Lord.
Even as Psalm 80 builds in intensity in its pleas for God to shine once more upon them—moving from God to the God of Hosts to the Yahweh God of Hosts—so we now address very specifically the One Jesus instructed us to call “Father.” We have been brought by grace to the climax of Psalm 80 and we never want to turn away from this source of light and life. Indeed, when the kingdom fully comes and creation is restored, we are told in Revelation that God’s new Holy City won’t need a sun to shine: the Lamb upon the throne will very simply BE the light that shines upon all and gives Life to all forever and ever.
In the very fine film The Queen, there is a scene in which the newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife are brought to Buckingham Palace for the new P.M. to meet with Queen Elizabeth who will formally authorize his forming a government in the Queen’s name. Mrs. Blair is no fan of the royals and so chafes a bit under the tutelage her husband and she is given by the Queen’s chief valet as he prepares Prime Minister Blair to meet with the Queen for the first time. ‘When you are in The Presence . . .” he says. Causing Mr. Blair to exclaim, “The Presence?” “Yes, that is what we call it when you are in her Majesty’s company.” They are then told to bow from the neck, to remember that it is “Ma’am as in the rhyme for ‘ham.’” And one is never to turn one’s back to the Queen, which in the scene makes for a bit of comedy as they eventually back out of the room literally walking backwards. You can watch the scene here—it’s worth watching!
To many of us it all seems rather elaborate. We’re too democratic in our thinking, too egalitarian to think such a fuss should be made over just another person. But throughout most of history—and certainly back in ancient Israel’s time—such things were common when meeting a king or queen or other powerful figure, and for Israel such things were to be magnified a thousand-fold when it came to pondering appearing before God’s face.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Are you becoming perfect?” is the perhaps strange way Carole Noren, to whom I owe many ideas for this Starter, begins a sermon on Philippians 3. It is, however, also an appropriate question, in light of the amount of attention the New Testament pays to the issue of perfection.
While Christians may sense that the Holy Spirit is graciously making us increasingly like Jesus, few of us would claim that we’re becoming perfect. Thankfully, then, this Epistolary Lesson helps clarify the kind of perfection toward which God is moving us.
Its author’s credentials are, of course, nearly impeccable. If anyone had a reason for confidence in his moral excellence, ethnic pedigree and religious fervor, it was Paul. If anyone was, in other words, as close to perfection as you can get, it was Paul. He was, after all, from the high-ranking tribe of Benjamin, a faithful Pharisee, a passionate persecutor of heretics and an obedient keeper of Moses’ law.
While a comparison to Paul’s positive attributes may make some of us blush, many of this Starter’s readers are also obedient to God’s law. Quite honestly, when I listen to and watch many of my colleagues, they remind me at least a bit of what Jesus Christ must have been like. So with Paul, we too might have reasons to put confidence in our goodness.
Yet in Philippians 3, Paul insists that no religious and moral credentials can compare with what God has shown him in the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, there God has shown him what he calls a righteousness not based on keeping the God’s, but on God’s amazing grace.
By comparison to that righteousness, Paul considers all of his substantial accomplishments to be “loss,” literally, rubbish or dung. It’s as if what he thought was the banquet of God’s approval turned out to be nothing but the garbage left over after a feast.
Paul, of course, rejects not God’s law that he obeys so fully, but the confidence he felt because of his ability to keep that law. God had shown the apostle that God accepted him only because Christ fulfilled. As a result, he would never again treasure his own righteousness that came through obeying the law.
Those who proclaim Philippians 3 might want to explore with our hearers how the modern church is tempted to find its own confidence in a kind human righteousness. Most no longer hope that God will save us because of any good work. Yet some Christians at least seem to have turned faith into a kind of new source of self-confidence. God accepts us, they almost imply, because of the “righteousness” of our faith.
So even as Christ’s church recognizes the truth of the gospel, it remains on guard against false teachings. After all, under Satan’s unrelenting pressure, it’s always easy for God’s dearly beloved people to stray from the truth.
Such heresy can be very subtle. The confidence that comes from faith is no exception. Faith is, after all, a central part of the Christian life by which we receive God’s grace. But it isn’t the means by which Christians earn God’s grace. Faith is only and always the receptacle of God’s grace. Righteousness comes not from anything God’s adopted sons and daughters do, say or even believe, but from Christ alone. So Philippians 2’s proclaimers teach nothing less or more than this: confidence rests in God’s grace alone.
Yet while such confidence in God’s grace alone might produce a kind of complacency, Paul displays none of that. In fact, his experience of God’s grace seems to energize him in ways that no legalism ever could. After all, the apostle goes on to compare the Christian life to that of athletes that are training for a race. Two kinds of incentives, notes Earl Palmer, motivate team athletes. One is the pressure they feel in trying to make the team. The other pressure is that athletes feel to excel because they’re on the team.
Paul likens Christian motivation to that which comes because an athlete is on some kind of team. Jesus’ followers run the race that is the Christian life, he writes, not to somehow “make God’s team,” but because, by God’s great grace, we’re on that “team.” So neither guilt nor pride nor fear motivates Christians. Only our awareness of God’s unconditional acceptance motivates us to strive for perfection.
Paul responds to that justification by trying to fully identify with Christ and make Christ his own, because Christ has made him his own. His awareness of God’s acceptance of him also frees him to concentrate on what’s important. The apostle can forget the human success and misplaced religious passion that lies behind him. God’s acceptance of Paul allows him to strain on toward what lies ahead, the goal of becoming fully like Jesus Christ.
In other words, God’s gracious acceptance of him allows Paul to focus on his relationship with Jesus Christ. It frees him to seek to know Christ, gain Christ, be found in Christ, have righteousness in Christ, know the power of Christ’s resurrection and share Christ’s sufferings.
Yet Paul is aware that is far from being perfect. Twice in verse 12, in fact, he admits that he has not yet “arrived.” Yet Paul doesn’t let his imperfection paralyze or discourage him. He has experienced God’s powerful grace. The apostle knows that God accepts him as God’s adopted son for God’s only-begotten Son Jesus’ sake. Now he feels free to respond by seeking to become more and more like Jesus Christ.
Paul’s imperfection comforts Christians who may feel inadequate. It means that the greatest missionary of all time had not yet arrived. Thankfully, then, God doesn’t expect Jesus’ followers to have won the race that is the Christian life. God simply expects God’s adopted sons and daughters to run that race.
However, Paul’s awareness of his imperfection also offers a warning for Christians who assume that we’ve spiritually arrived. People who are spiritually self-satisfied are in danger of dropping out of the race that is the Christian life and never finish that race at all.
When Paul later insists, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things,” the word for “mature” he uses comes from the same root as that for “perfect.” So it’s almost as if the apostle insists that Christians who are mature know we aren’t perfect. Those who think we are perfect, on the other hand, aren’t mature.
Noren notes that we usually think of perfection in the Latin sense, which is flawlessness, being without defect. Paul, however, writes in the Greek whose word for perfection implies completion, maturity and fullness. Christians know that no one can become flawless in this life. Only Jesus Christ was perfect in that sense of the word. It is, however, reasonable, to hope for maturity in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Much of our culture seems too busy making excuses for not being perfect to claim to be flawless. Yet it also thinks little of the biblical understanding of perfection about which Paul writes. Everything around us urges us to love and take care of ourselves before we worry about others. So our culture encourages us to cultivate our self-esteem rather than our love for God and each other. It calls us to accept ourselves as we are, not strive for some love of God and each other.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, Paul calls his siblings in Christ to let the Spirit set a different goal. We make it our goal to become more spiritually mature, particularly to become more loving toward God and each other. Christians work to open ourselves completely to the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Only the Spirit, after all, can make God’s treasured people spiritually mature in our love for the Lord and each other.
Attaining that goal, however, requires that we forget what is behind so that we can continue to press on toward the Christian maturity that lies ahead. Guilt about our past and anxiety about our future, after all, sometimes prevents Christians from fully enjoying God’s work and loving presence here and now.
Guilt is the sense that we’ve done something wrong. It may be our memory of some specific sin we’ve committed or just a vague sense that we’ve failed God. In terms of the maturity that is Christian love, we may feel guilty that we’ve never fully loved God or each other. That guilt may prevent us from striving to become more loving.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is what we may feel about the future. We may feel uncertain about what will happen with things like COVID, race relations and climate change. Christians may also worry because, for instance, we assume that we can never reach the maturity that is full love for God and each other. That too may paralyze us from working to be increasingly loving.
In Philippians 3, however, Paul calls his readers to forget the guilt of what lies behind and surrender our anxiety about what lies ahead. Because God has graciously forgiven us, God’s adopted children’s past sins, our past failure to love doesn’t need to paralyze us. God’s forgiveness frees us to move ahead. Paul, as he writes in verses 13-14, presses on. He strives be more loving because he’s confident that God’s grace has taken away the guilt of his past and his anxiety about his future.
Yet while the truth of God’s grace is absolutely certain, our understanding of it isn’t. So, by God’s Spirit, Christians seek to grow in that grace as well. Philippians 3’s hearers and proclaimers grow in that grace by, among other things, trying to view people as God views them. When we see others as those who no more or less deserve God’s grace than we do, we see them as God sees them.
Yet when we see others as those whom God desires to save, we see them with Christ-like love too. Then we also see God as a holy, righteous God who wants us to share his passionate love for his children, for Jesus’ sake.
In her book, Nothing but the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School, Judith Kogan writes: “Singers look and act different from instrumentalists because (some say) they are vulnerable in a way that instrumentalists are not. The singer is his instrument.
“The singer is judged not only on what he does with his instrument but on the quality of the instrument itself… the voice faculty that rejects a candidate seems to say there is a structural defect. Singers are more touchy, more flamboyant, more exuberant than instrumentalists because, in a way, there seems to be more at stake.”