16th Sunday after Trinity

Phil 2:12-30; Mt 21:28-32

St Barbara’s 27.9.2020

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Today is our Dedication Sunday, a day when we give thanks to God that 89 years ago this church was built and dedicated to God, for his glory and to his service in this community. This year feels a little different as though there are many of us gathered here, there are even more of us who are participating in this service from home. The church building remains important – a place that can be described as a “thin place” perhaps, a place where the beauty, the stillness, the prayerfulness of the place helps us to draw closer to God, where the distance between us and God is smaller, thinner – but over these last few months we have perhaps learnt other ways and discovered other places where we can draw close to God too. Our worship has continued with or without access to our building at times this year. It is a reminder that the church fundamentally is not a building but a people: we are the church; not the bricks and mortar of this building.

So on this Dedication Sunday it is good to pause and give thanks for all those who have gone before us and all those who are part of the church today, who are living out the Christian faith, who are following Jesus. People, who in Paul’s words, “continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling”. But I wonder, what do those words mean for us today?

Nicky Gumbel in his book on Philippians, A Life Worth  Living, makes the helpful point that salvation can sometimes be better understood as freedom: freedom from guilt, freedom from fear, freedom to love God and others, freedom to be our true selves. Salvation is about being set free from all those things that hinder us, enslave us, entangle us, and free to be the loving, generous, secure individuals who we are made in God’s image to be.

We are called to work that out. As we may have explored in the daily devotions this week, “working out” does not mean trying to solve an intellectual problem like we might do a mathematics equation or a crossword. Nor does it mean making it happen, as though it is by our own hard efforts that we bring about our salvation. Rather, when Paul talks about working out our salvation, working out our freedom, he means that we need to live out, we need to put into practice, the implications of the freedom we have received. I may have been given a fantastic DVD for my birthday, but I am not living out the fulness of that gift until I take it out the box, put it in the machine, and watch it. We need to live out the freedom we have received in Christ. As Jesus showed in his parable of the two sons, words are not enough. We need to act on what we have received, we need to take up the invitation.

And that is something not to be done lightly. We are to put into practice, we are to live out, our freedom with “fear and trembling”. This is not something to be done flippantly. To live out our freedom that God has given us comes with great responsibility and comes with cost, and brings us into the holy and awesome presence of God. When we live out our freedom, when we become more like the people God has made us to be, we come to experience greater heights of joy but also greater depths of sorrow as we see the world through the loving eyes of God.

In the next few verses of Paul’s letter we begin to see three examples of people working out their freedom to love God and others, examples that are themselves based on the ultimate example of Christ that we reflected on last Sunday.

The first example is that of Paul himself. Sarah was sharing with me this week about a leadership styles questionnaire she had done at work, and how it had highlighted how different people may approach the same problem from very different angles given the nature of their personality. It reminded me again that we are all different. Paul was clearly someone who had a strong sense of drive, of focus, of ambition, who was motivated by the goal ahead. Maybe some of us can identify with that, we like nothing better than to have a goal to aim for, a purpose to jump out of bed for in the morning. The challenge is that sometimes those goals may be self-centred, or that the full on pursuit of them leads us to ignore the impact we are having on others.

But here we see Paul’s drive, his sense of ambition, is for others, not for himself. Working out his salvation for Paul meant turning that focus and intensity into something that would be for others, not himself. And so he says he wants to do everything he can for the Philippian church so that “I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.” He is using the analogy of an athlete, and in the Greek city of Philippi with its regular celebration of athletic games including the Olympics his hearers would understand it well, to say that he has given his all to win the prize. And that prize is not glory for himself, but that others have come to know and love and serve Jesus Christ. That’s his goal, his desire, and to achieve it he is prepared for his life to be poured out like a sacrifice on their behalf. Putting our freedom into practice means allowing God to transform our ambitions, our goals, our desires, that what we long for more than anything else is that others may experience the love of God.

Our second example is Timothy, one of Paul’s most trusted helpers. Paul is hoping to send Timothy to visit the Philippians and he writes a few lines of recommendation in this letter so that the church will receive Timothy well.  From what we know of Timothy from other letters Paul wrote, he could be quite shy and unsure of himself, and did not make an immediate impression on people. Maybe some of us can identify with that – feeling awkward or invisible in social situations, or not being sure whether our contributions are being valued. Paul does not say much about Timothy, but what he does say is telling: “I have no-one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare, for everyone else looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” Timothy works out his salvation, his freedom, not so much by his words but by his actions, by his genuine love and compassion for others. He is a reminder of Jesus’ parable: actions muttering more than words. And he is a reminder too of that old Sunday School definition of joy: Jesus, Others, Yourself. His commitment to loving others is what marks him out.

And our third example is Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus had been sent by the church in Philippi to look after Paul, when they heard that he was in prison in Rome. Prisoners were not fed by the state. They were reliant on friends and family bringing them food and provisions or else they would starve. And so Epaphroditus makes the long journey from northern Greece to Rome in order to care for Paul. It is an act of some sacrifice, especially as it seems Epaphroditus experienced quite a bit of home-sickness. But worse is to follow. He falls seriously ill – indeed almost dies – before thankfully he recovers. But what we discover is that Epaphroditus’ primary concern is not for himself but for the church back home – he is worried that having heard about his illness they may worry about him too much. He longs to return to reassure them. It is a sign of how God’s love is at work in him that he cares first and foremost about others, not himself.

In Paul, we see someone of drive and ambition who allows his faith to shape those drives for loving purposes. In Timothy, we see someone who is perhaps shy and unassuming, allowing their faith to speak volumes through their service and loving actions for others. And in Epaphroditus we see someone who could have been absorbed by their own worries and difficulties, but whose faith redirects those concerns into thinking about others, not himself.

When we work out our salvation, when we live out the implications of what it means to be a follower of Christ, we, like Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus, will grow in love, for God, each other, our community and the world.

And then like the church in Philippi, to use Paul’s words, we will shine like stars in the universe. That was the vision when this church began 89 years ago, and it should remain our vision today. In these often dark days, let us be a light in our community. Let us work out our salvation, let us put it into practice, today.