Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 26 A
texts: Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Sometimes things can be clear and obvious, but, expecting something else, we can’t see them.
It’s the “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem. We’re so used to hearing and thinking that the whole point of faith in Christ is hope for life after death, we read that into everything we see in Scripture, even today. But if you take the time to look at these readings again, you’ll see that’s not at all what’s being said.
Ezekiel is speaking to people who believe they’re suffering in exile because their parents and grandparents messed up, sinned. God speaks through the prophet and says “nonsense.” Everybody suffers their own consequences. If you want to find real life in me, get a new heart, a new spirit, quit doing the things you’re doing. I don’t want the death of anyone, so turn to me and live, now. Nothing about life after death there.
Paul’s talking to the Philippians about learning together a new way of being, of living. A way like Christ Jesus, who gave up everything to save the world. Paul invites them to work at this, at having the same mind with each other; the same love, being in full accord. Work on this with the appropriate fear and trembling because it’s a hard path to lose yourselves for the sake of others. To look to others’ interests before your own, to live humbly and consider others more important than you. This is all for this life, this community, this path they’re walking together. Not life after death.
Jesus is the clearest if we read properly. Life in the kingdom of God is doing God’s will. There are folks who say they will serve God and don’t, he says; there are folks who say they won’t and do.
So the religious leaders, the second son of the story, claim to want God’s ways, to know God’s ways, but don’t live them. When they hear the Son of God they reject him. Meanwhile, the tax collectors and prostitutes never claimed to be righteous or godly, but when they heard the Son of God talking of a new way of life in God, they followed, started living in God’s ways, living a new life.
That’s why Jesus says the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of the religious leaders. Because they’re already there. They’re living in the kingdom with the Son of God now, in this life, while the leaders are carping on the outside.
Do you see how we’ve tied ourselves up into knots like these leaders?
We know, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, that we have this astonishing promise of life with God after we die, of resurrection of the dead. But we’ve become so focused on that as our only goal, we don’t recognize plain speech when we hear it.
No one’s denying this new life promised after we die. But no one in the New Testament saw that as the primary preaching point. It was about life in Christ here and now, as a sign of the Triune God’s rule and reign.
Now, if you’re down and out, at the bottom, you’ve messed up badly and are pretty sure God’s not pleased with you, and a prophet comes proclaiming God’s grace and love for you, showing you a way to live in love and grace with others, you’re going to follow. That’s what the “sinners” did with Jesus.
But if you’re on top, pretty sure that while not perfect, you’ve probably led a decent life, and you think God would agree with that, if a prophet came preaching God’s grace and love for sinners, calling you to a new way of life in love and grace with others that might require you to let go of your own self-interest, admit your own sin and need, well, that’s when you ask the prophet for credentials. That’s what the leaders do here.
So what do you want from Jesus?
A promise of life after death? Done. Easy.
Do you want more? Are you looking for a relationship with Jesus, and so with the Triune God? Does something about a relationship with a community of faith pull you here, make you feel more connected to God? That’s where it gets complicated, in relationship. That’s when Jesus puts a claim on your life, asks you to love God and love neighbor.
Because that’s the way of God, the way of life, the way to life. Ezekiel knows it, Paul knows it, Jesus knows it, millions of believers have known it. Those disciples didn’t follow Jesus because they hoped for heaven after they died. That understanding came much later.
They followed him because he spoke of a way that seemed better than their life. He showed a new way of living with God and walking with each other that was worth hearing more about, worth learning, worth following.
Because it means sharing the mind and love of Christ, that is, losing for others, letting go of ourselves, we get pretty uncomfortable with this. We hide our discomfort in theology, worrying about confusing grace with works, whether we’re implying we’re trying to earn God’s love.
That’s just silly. If we hear what these folks are saying with open minds and hearts, we’ll see how silly it is. Silly to think that Jesus’ only goal was to save us from death. He could have done that without ever becoming human. The Triune God could, by will, forgive us all, ending death forever. You make the universe, you make the rules, and decide how to enforce the rules.
Instead the Son of God came here among us, and the reason – and people have understood this for 2,000 years – the reason was to call us into a new way of life. It’s time we stopped dancing theologically around our discomfort that Jesus might actually want to change us, for our own good.
There’s something else important here.
If you read all of these again, you’ll notice it. Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus assume there is a vital and real relationship between God and the people. This path to life is lived in the presence of God.
This journey we make together, reminding each other daily of this new life, helping each other find what it means for each of our lives, being fed and graced at this table for that journey, this journey is lived and walked and breathed, every step of the way, in the presence and grace and strength of God.
Turn to me, and live, God says through Ezekiel. Follow me, Jesus says. Work out your way of salvation, Paul says, but know God is at work in you already, working it so that you can will and work for God’s good pleasure.
If you want grace, there it is. Not only are we forgiven in Christ Jesus through his death and resurrection, we have the Spirit of God working in us to do this path, this way, this life.
The challenge is getting ourselves out of the way so we can honestly seek this path together and walk it.
If these three ask anything of us today it is that we grow into a new maturity together as a community in Christ. That we learn to admit we really don’t know a way to live our lives that leads to abundance and joy, but really do want to follow this way of Christ that does.
The humility, the losing, the putting others first, we need to stop letting our fear of those control our minds, our choices, our hearts. Look, the love of the Son of God is so great he was willing to die for the people of this world, for us, for you. He won’t lead you into a way of life that isn’t rich and abundant; he loves you too much for that.
But he also won’t lie and say he doesn’t hope for this new life in us. He won’t stop calling us to the way of the cross with each other. He won’t quit pulling at the depths of our hearts through the Holy Spirit to desire this new way.
Walking our path together as a people of God, learning Christly love and sacrifice as a sign to the world of God’s love, helping each other on this path, we know this is the way to life. It’s why we keep coming here week after week: in our hearts we know there’s more to this life than we’ve found on our own.
It’s time we just admitted it to each other joyfully and started focusing on what this way, this path, this journey might be if we really trusted God’s power at work in us to make us new. It’s how we’ll discover life for us and the world like we never before suspected could exist.
In the name of Jesus. Amen