17th Sunday after Trinity
Phil 3:1-14; Mt 21:33-45
St Barbara’s 04.10.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
We are used to politicians not always answering the questions they are asked. The American presidential debate this week may have been a case in point. Sometimes we expect it, sometimes we don’t. For example, if you were to ask me whether I play a musical instrument and I was to reply: “Well, I go with my family to listen to an orchestra once a year” you may look at me with some confusion. My answer may be relevant – it may show that I like music and that I know what musical instruments are like – but it doesn’t really answer your question. Or if you were to ask whether I play football, and I was to answer that I watch the Champions League matches that come on tele, again you may feel that I haven’t quite answered the question you were asking.
Imagine further then if I was to say that the only proof that someone played an instrument was that they listened to an orchestra, or the only proof that someone played football was that they watched it on TV, and then began to put people into absolute categories on the basis of it, and you would rightly begin to think I had lost the plot.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi to warn them that they may get visited by those who themselves may have begun to lose the plot regarding faith. Who if you asked “Do you have faith?” would reply, “ Well, I have been circumcised, I am a Jew, I keep all the commandments.” Possibly signs of faith, but then again, possibly not. And yet these people, known as Judaizers, went further and said unless you show these signs, you have no faith at all. Something that could occasionally be helpful for faith, or were perhaps pointers to faith being there, had been turned into something which was essential to faith.
And so imagine how this would have made the Philippian church feel, a church made up almost entirely of Gentiles, when these confident preachers arrived telling them that their faith was only real if they got circumcised, or followed all the Jewish law. They would have felt perturbed, worried, unsure of whether they were indeed Christians. For Paul, these preachers would have been like the tenants in the parable that Jesus told and that we heard in our gospel reading, misleading God’s people, bad-handling those who held them to account and abusing their position of trust.
And so Paul writes to reassure them. He says, if anyone had grounds for saying that these trappings of faith were essential, it would be him. After all, he ticked every box. Not only was he fully Jewish, not only had he been circumcised at the right time as a baby, but he came from one of the elite tribes of Israel and he could speak Hebrew, the language of the Scriptures, fluently. Not only that, he had trained in the most religious school of Judaism, he had kept the Jewish law faultlessly and he had shown incredible commitment and zeal. And yet, he had discovered that none of this mattered, none of this was essential for faith.
There are times when the outward observance of our faith – going to church or participating in these services online – or the living of an ethical and moral life – are pointers to the faith that we have. But those pointers must never become the summary of our faith. For such things then will easily become dry and lacking in love and life.
So what is essential to our faith? What is it that defines us? It is what Paul has written many times about before, and what we may have heard many times before too, but its truth is worth repeating again. What is essential to faith, to life itself, is knowing Jesus Christ. Not knowing about him, in the way that we may know about inspiring figures of the past like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa, but knowing him as we might know our spouse or parent, or child or sibling or closest friend – knowing him intimately, his joys and sorrows, the things that matter to him. That type of relationship Paul describes as “righteousness” – being in right relationship with God.
How do we come to being in such a relationship? How do we nurture it when we are? Think about your most loving, most intimate relationship. What is it that helps that relationship to grow and flourish? Time, perhaps. Openness and honesty. Communication. Joy in what the other is doing, even pride. Sharing one’s own joys and sadnesses. Involving them in the areas of your life. All of those things describe how we can grow in our relationship with God, how we can know him, not just know about him.
For just as in our human relationships, although following a list of rules or following some prescribed actions may provide helpful frameworks at times, what gives that friendship life and meaning, vibrancy and joy, is the heart, the emotions.
And as you may have found with a close friendship, or in marriage, when you have that level of connection, the external trappings come to matter less. Its just the being together that brings joy and makes the friendship special, the what you happen to be doing becomes less important.
Its in that spirit that Paul writes that he considers everything a loss (in fact, he uses the word rubbish, or stronger still, excrement) compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Just knowing Jesus, being in a place of intimacy, of friendship, with him, is the most special, the most precious thing in all of life. Nothing else can compare with it, Paul says.
Like me, you may at times feel a long way off from that. That the language Paul uses is almost too intense, too challenging. That yes I love God, but that I love him so much that everything else is rubbish in comparison? I’m not sure I’m there yet. I have good days when I’m aware of His presence and his love in most of the things I do, but I also have less great days, when I live the day as if Christ is not there at all, and I am distant and withdrawn from him. Well, it seems Paul himself acknowledges that. He writes: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal”. He, like all of us, is on a journey – Paul no doubt had days when his relationship with Christ infused everything he did and said and experienced, and other days when Christ seemed distant and remote. And so he knows that he needs to focus on that relationship. Like a runner in an Olympic race, if he is to gain the prize of knowing Christ, it requires focus and dedication, a desire and a longing. Can we, alongside Paul, say “I long to know Christ”?
A final thought. Paul writes: “I want to know Christ – to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” A relationship of love means sharing in the life of the other. My marriage would be diminished if I did not care about those things that bring Sarah joy or if I remained indifferent about those things which cause her grief or anxiety. To love someone means to share their joys and sorrows, to journey their life with them.
To know Christ means to share with him in his sufferings and death. That means weeping over the things that sadden him – people’s inhumanity to one another, people’s illnesses and deaths – and embracing those in pain and loss. To know Christ deeply means to know his love and pain for all that is not right in the world.
And to know Christ deeply, means also to know the hope and power of Christ’s love, to transform situations of darkness into situations of light, to bring life from death, hope from despair. To know Christ deeply means to know his resurrection power at work in us, giving us confidence to be people of faith, hope and love.
May we, like the church in Philippi, grow in our love of Christ. May we grow in being people of compassion and hope.