Saturday, 14 October 2017

Philippians 4.1-9 (NRSV)

Philippians 4.1-9 (NRSV)

1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.


2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I refer to A M Hunter’s short commentary to begin our reflections on this lovely epistle.

My text is written in Philippians 4:7:

 the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

Paul exhorts us to stand firm, for the crown or garland of victory will someday be ours. At this point, Paul remembers something that had happened to specific people and where there had been disagreement – more than this we know nothing about them – other than that they had quarrelled. What a terrible thought, to be remembered for this alone! Paul encourages them to ‘agree in the Lord.’ When we realise our common bond in Christ, reconciliation will not be far away, but sometimes we need the intervention of a third party to help us along the way. Who this was remains an unsolved mystery. There is nothing sadder than when Christians fall out with each other; sadder still when people have died and there has not been peace with others.

From verse 4, Paul returns to one of his favourite themes: ‘Rejoice in the Lord ...’ He repeats himself in order to convince his readers, ‘... and again I say ...’ that joy can accompany afflictions. A M Hunter suggests that the Greek in verse 5 can be translated using Matthew Arnold’s famous ‘sweet reasonableness’ referring to what the Greeks saw as justice and something better – what the NRSV translates as gentleness. Hunter explains: ‘... It describes the person who knows when to relax justice and let mercy come breaking in ...’ and we do this because ‘... the Lord is near ...’ echoing the words of the Psalmist (145.18) ‘... the Lord is near to all who call upon him ...’

Do not worry about anything. Wow, if only I could learn this lesson for it has consumed so much of my life! Jesus made the same exhortation (Matthew 6.25; Luke 12.22). Paul continues to explain suggesting that true prayer and anxiety cannot (or should not) coexist ‘... the way to be anxious about nothing is to pray about everything ...’(Hunter) The word ‘supplication’ refers to the cry of personal need. When we pray and make our requests known to God we should always add thanksgiving. If we do this, Paul promises us in verse 7 that we will know God’s true and rich peace.

Paul promises the ‘peace of God’ which passes all understanding’ – something that is beyond human comprehension will keep, literally garrison their hearts and their minds. Hunter explains: ‘The paragraph began with joy; it ends with peace. Is Paul saying that if we have not God’s peace in our hearts we cannot have his song on our lips?’

Verses 8-9 are apparently unique to Paul because they contain words that are not found anywhere else in his letters – or even anywhere else in the New Testament – but also because they commend virtues that are more akin to those found in Greek philosophy, especially the stress on ‘truth’, ‘justice’, ‘excellence’ and what is ‘worthy of praise’. Why did Paul emphasise and want his readers to reflect on these ethical virtues?

It is not impossible that the church in Philippi were not willing to acknowledge anything good in the values of those outside the church, so what Paul is commending here is that we should acknowledge and even commend all those things that are ‘good’ no matter where we might find them and to ‘take them into account’ when deciding what to do.

Paul then ends with a return to what he had taught them as well ‘...learned and received and heard and seen in me ...’ i.e. what he had taught and what he had revealed to them by his personal example. Hunter concludes: ‘If the Philippians do this, “the God of peace”, the God who is the Author and Source of peace ... will be with them ...’

I echo these thoughts in my own experience. For nearly 20 years I have been teaching in the United Kingdom, many things including history and the philosophy of history, Renaissance and Reformation Theology, New Testament, Philosophy of Mind, Religion and most recently Ethics and now religious authority: in the process I have needed to explore things both inside and outside the Christian faith. Until recently I have also been teaching Buddhism as well. All these things have enriched me and I am grateful for the privilege of sharing these things with pre University young people who have kept me on my toes. While I always return to the fundamentals of the faith in Scripture, I know that I need to take all these things ‘... into account ...’ and am blessed with peace in the process; if for no other reason that the glimpses of truth that these other ways have always seem to me to refresh my understanding in the ultimate and compete truth that is only available in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

A few thoughts from J H Holden’s commentary on the Prison Letters.

This passage of Paul’s writing is a detailed commendation of virtue as a Greek would have seen it. Holden suggests that Paul, ‘... unselfconsciously acts upon that positive evaluation of pagan ethics which he gives in Romans 2.14: ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the Law, do instinctively what the Law requires, these, though not having the Law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness ...’

The non-believer is perfectly capable of knowing the main ethical principles by which humans are meant to live, and when people behave in this way, they enter the presence of God as Paul explains in verse 9.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.’

St Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said: “Preach the Gospel everywhere and only when necessary, use words.”

Nothing can be more attractive than a holy and pure life, not a ‘holier than thou life’. We have all met judgemental people who think they have all the answers and who are always critical of others. Nothing can be more off-putting. But we have also all had the privilege of meeting people whose lives are filled with the joy of the Lord, those who rejoice. What is a characteristic of the life of love is gentleness, prayerful living and peace, even in the midst of terrible things. Paul exhorts us today to live in this way and then we will know God’s peace and fulfilment and we will attract others to become disciples of Jesus. And he also gives us a very practical way of doing this, and that is to prayerfully fill our minds with whatever is:

·         True
·         Honourable
·         Just
·         Pure
·         Pleasing
·         Commendable
·         Excellence
·         Worthy of praise

Is this characteristic of what we watch on television, film, what we look at on the internet, the books we read, the music we listen to, and what we study?

If we seek to live in this way and with God’s grace and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, for none of this can we ever achieve in our own strength, we all can know what Paul speaks of in verse 7 in our own lives:

 the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Matthew 21:33-end

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
33 ‘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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They 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.’

42 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”?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

To place our Gospel reading into its context, Matthew puts these parables in a section that deals with the authority of Jesus as it was being challenged by the religious authorities of his day. In Jesus’ response he makes it clear that unless we are producing fruit, a new obedient people will take the place of those who previously had the privilege. As Ivor Jones explains:

There will be unexpected entrants into the kingdom of God who will replace those who expect a place. … a new obedient people will take the place of those who revolt against God and his Son.

The vineyard is one where the owner had lavished great care. He is also generous in leasing it to the tenants. But they go to extreme lengths to deny the owner his lawful rights – killing those whom the owner sends – and as a result they are displaced. Of course, Jesus is here referring to the people of Israel of his day. They had been God’s chosen people, but they had rejected the prophets who sent warnings over the ages, and so had suffered serious losses – the northern kingdom by this time had ceased to exist because they had been defeated by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah had been defeated by the Babylonians, they had their temple destroyed, had been exiled as slaves in a foreign land and had only relatively recently in their history returned, and rebuilt the temple. And now God sent his Son, Jesus, and he was here prophesying what they were going to do to him, what the tenants did to the owner’s son in the parable. Verse 42 is a quote from Psalm 118:22-23.

“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 

Here Jesus is making a fantastic claim, because he is claiming to be the cornerstone – a direct reference to the messiah. In the early Church, the first Christians also used this Psalm to warn of the seriousness of rejecting Christ. The telling verse is verse 43:

43Therefore 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

To the people who heard Jesus tell these parables, the meaning would have been crystal clear if they knew their scriptures: the vine was a reference to Israel especially the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. But they would have been challenged because no human father would ever send his only son when his slaves had been killed. In fact, we all know that the idea of the way Jesus saves us seems an offence to reason, because most would find it easier that the tenants be left to the consequences of their actions – no matter how dire they might be.

To return briefly to the parable of the cornerstone. This is a reference to the Temple, which had always been at the heart of the Jewish worship of the time. Matthew was probably writing at a time after AD 70 when the Temple had been destroyed yet again, and the people forced to flee, but now can make sense of what Jesus had said earlier. The new tenants – the followers of Jesus – us – would be a new nation – not one of race or language, and not one with physical borders, but a holy nation, a new people – born from above. The author to the first letter of Peter chapter 2 explains in verse 9-10:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
10 Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.

But the central message is clear – it is important that whomever the tenants in the vineyard are, they must bear fruit, or else the privilege they have will be taken from them and given to someone else.

But how does this challenging passage touch our lives as we gather as the tenants in God’s vineyard in Loughborough?

Firstly, it tells us a great deal about God: It reminds us that God trusts us to get on with producing fruit for him. He does not stand over us - he lets us get on with things. He trusts us to love one another, to forgive one another, to bear the fruits of the spirit with each other: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Are these the fruits of our lives, are these the virtues people would use of us – both as individuals and as a church community – and as a Methodist Circuit. Does love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentles and self-control spring to mind as those things that stand out about us.

It tells us about God’s patience with us. In the parable he sends out messenger after messenger – even when they are appallingly treated. He did not punish the tenants as they deserved, he gave them other chances. Do we follow his example, or do we take offence and right others off as soon as we clash with them?

It tells us of God’s judgement. In the end, the master took the vineyard from the cultivators and gave it to others. This is a stern judgement – when he takes away a task that he has called us to do. Barclay writes: “A person has sunk to their lowest level when they become useless to God.” But herein also lies a positive blessing: perhaps when we feel down and useless, we need to ask: “Lord is there something that I can do for you, that I am not doing?” because it is also true that one feels most blessed when we know that we are being useful to God – even if it is doing the simplest things that others might not even notice.

Secondly, it tells us much about humankind: It reminds us of our great privilege. The vineyard was well equipped with everything – hedge, winepress, and watchtower – which would have made the task of the cultivators most effective. Whenever God gives us a task to do – whenever he calls us – he also equips us. When we do not bear the fruits of the spirit, it is perhaps because we are not being united with the spirit in prayer and the sacraments, when we are trying and failing because we are trying in our own strength and not the strength that God supplies.

It tells us of human freedom. God leaves us to fulfil our calling as we like, he gives us the freedom to express our callings in ways which enrich our sense of self because our obedience liberates us – it makes us even more ‘free’. Jesus said: My yoke is easy and my burden light.

It reminds us that we are answerable – that we need to take responsibility for whom we are and how we act toward others. If we are bearing fruit, we liberate others, if we think exclusively of ourselves, we bind them instead of setting them free. I love the African notion of Ubuntu­ – for me the great gift of African theology to the world. Simply put it is the idea that – I am whom you enable me to be. We are answerable to God and each other in the way we set others free; or bind them.

It tells us of the deliberateness of human sin: In the parable the tenants are deliberate in their disobedience. Sin is deliberate disobedience, a liberating thought because we all so often fall short because of our human frailty, and I am convinced that God makes the distinction as we as parents do for our children and as we should all do for each other in the family of God.

Thirdly, it tells us much about Jesus: It tells us that Jesus claimed to be the long promised Messiah. The owner’s slaves symbolised the Hebrew prophets, Jesus is the Son. This parable makes one of the clearest of Jesus’ claims to be unique.

It tells of the sacrifice of Jesus: It is clear that Jesus know what lay ahead for him – he would be handed over to the wicked and be killed. But he went ahead because he know that it would demonstrate how much God loves us all.

Jesus is the stone: the foundation stone on which everything is built, the cornerstone which holds everything together. To reject Jesus and his ways is to batter one’s head because it is in living in this way that we live life and that in all its fullness, and not merely exist.

We live is a society that has rejected the foundation and cornerstone that gives life real meaning and purpose. And we need to ask: Are we tenants in the vineyard that are producing fruit – fruit in our own lives so that others may want to share in our harvest – and offering fruit to others so that they too might have life?