Saturday, 1 October 2011

15th Sunday after Trinity: Nailing up the curtains

Philippians 3:4-14
even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Matthew 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Many years ago, when we first met, Ali and I had a mutual friend, I’ll call her Ruth. Now Ruth was a very intelligent scientist, but ironically she was not the world’s most practical person, and I have never forgotten going to supper with her and her then new husband, who I’ll call John. Now Ruth and John, like most young couples in their first years together, had very little money.

They had just bought their first house and were trying to decorate it on a shoestring budget, which meant they were doing it all themselves. They did all the painting together, they chose the curtains together, and they even chose the curtain rails because the previous owners of their house had taken the rails with them.

Now Ruth was not very hot on DIY, but the next Saturday, when John went to work, she decided she would surprise him by putting up the curtain rails and curtains. However, Ruth didn’t know that in order to put something on a wall you first have drill a hole, put a rawlplug in it and then screw the fixing, in this case the curtain rails, into the plug to make them secure. No, Ruth knew none of that, but she still put the curtain rails and the curtains up.

So when John came home from work he was wonderfully surprised at how enterprising his new wife had been. But his surprise turned to horror when he looked more closely and discovered that Ruth didn’t know about screws, so instead she had simply got a hammer and nails and nailed the curtain rails to the wall.

Why am I telling you this? It is simply this, to an outward view that didn’t look too closely Ruth had done a good enough job, but the reality was that her work was useless because she had simply used the wrong tools for the job, and that’s what I want to talk about, mainly in the context of the letter to the Philippians.

St. Paul was writing about his journey towards heaven and pretty much half this portion of the reading is about all the wrong tools that he had been using. In trying to get into heaven he had been relying on all the wrong things, and he lists them for us: He had been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth; he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin; he had been a Pharisee and so was an expert in the Jewish law, Torah, and how to keep it.

He had persecuted the church because he was sure they were doing the wrong thing, and as far as keeping the law went, he had never broken it. According to everything that he knew he had been using all the right tools in order to be holy. Until he met Christ on the road to Damascus he had, as far as he was concerned, already arrived.

And then Jesus changed everything and made it clear to him that all of these outward things, all these outward trappings of religion, were worthless. As far as becoming a part of the kingdom of God these were totally the wrong tools for the job. The work he had accomplished may have looked good, just as Ruth’s curtains looked good, but they were actually worthless.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about that. Do St. Paul’s tools of religion look anything like the tools we have tended to use? They were all very outward displays of things he had done. How much do we depend on being in church, saying our prayers, receiving communion regularly and all those outward trappings as being our way into heaven?

If we look at what Jesus said about the Pharisees we can see how little regard he had for the outward and visible displays of religion, and that actually they were worthless as tools for holiness and salvation.

Now I want you to be clear of what I’m saying here, that if we come to church and pray in order to get into heaven, then we’re on a hiding to nowhere. Religion as a tool for getting into heaven is simply the wrong tool. Our responses in church must be precisely that, responses. We are here to worship the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit as a response to what God is doing in our lives.

But if we’re doing it to get into heaven, that’s using the wrong tool. Worship is a response, church is a response to God’s initiative, and that’s what was wrong for the Pharisees, they thought that all the outward stuff, the keeping of the law, the praying in a particular way, being pure, would earn them a place in the kingdom of God, but St. Paul realised that was the wrong approach.

What we see in his writings is a complete change from his original position of trusting in the law. He regarded all of what had gone before as a total loss, and instead of coming from a position of having already arrived, what we find in his writings are the words of a man who realises that he is on a journey.

Rather than saying, ‘I know’, he says, ‘I want to know’. Instead of the language of arrival through religion what we get is the language of journeying through faith, and that is the element that has been missing. The tools he was formerly using, the useless tools, were the outward practice of religion, but what he now knew was that the right tools for the job were having faith, and it wasn’t faith in what he had accomplished himself through purity but were instead faith in what Jesus had accomplished by his death and resurrection.

And that is the whole point. That’s why he was able to write, ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own.’

We have not arrived in heaven, but we are on a journey there, but the most important thing we can do is recognise that there is nothing that you or I can ever do to earn our place there. Our place in God’s kingdom comes entirely from putting our faith in the work of Christ and that’s what we should put our trust in.

That’s why church worship can be in so many different styles with none of them being the correct or right way of doing it. Worship is meant to be a response to God, not a tool of salvation. We come here to respond and grow in faith in what Christ has accomplished. We should never put our trust in church or being righteous, because those are the wrong tools.

The only tool for the job of salvation has already been wielded, Jesus on the cross. Let us put our faith in that and respond in worship, for that is the only tool for the job. Amen

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