Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Paul challenges the believers in the church in Philippi to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” I invite you to reflect with me on what this imperative means not only for leadership in the church, but for each person called to be a disciple of Jesus.
The first question which needs to be answered, of course, is “what is the gospel?” The term gospel comes from the Old English, “godspell,” meaning “good story,” which comes from the Greek word, eu-angelion, meaning “good message” or “good news.” So what is the news? And what’s good about it? How would you tell the message of Christian faith? It’s good to have what I call the elevator ride version of the gospel. If someone asks you to tell them why you’re a Christian in 2 minutes or less, what would you say? Perhaps the best summary is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or another of my favorite summaries is Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
The point is this: the good news is an announcement about what God has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. Salvation is a gift of pure grace; there is nothing you can do to earn your redemption. The gospel is the proclamation that God’s social order is not about merit, but about mercy. Paul writes, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us…”
The gospel is not about religion or irreligion, but about relationship to God through faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel has three dimensions: first of all there is this message, the announcement of what God has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Secondly there is the personal impact of the message. We either receive or reject this message. As we as we receive the good news, believe it to be true for us, our hearts and minds are changed. The word repentance in Greek (metanoia) literally means “to change one’s mind.” It’s so dramatic for Paul that he talks about to him, “living is Christ and dying is gain.” Even faith is a gift, the work of the Spirit of Christ, and so to live fully paradoxically we die to self as more and more of the Spirit fills our lives. But paradoxically, as you die to self and yield to Christ, you become more the person God created and calls you to be. The beauty of death for the Christian is that we experience the fullness of God’s love, face to face. And in the meantime, we become more and more concerned with what God is concerned about. Our world view is transformed, and our words and actions change. God’s Spirit makes our spirit new…
And thirdly, there is the social impact of the gospel. We not only see ourselves differently in the world; we begin to see others around us differently. We begin to live into a new reality called the kingdom of God, a new order where God’s justice and goodness become our ultimate concern, and where we are no longer controlled by the idols of materialism or worldly status. We are called to be what Mark Labberton calls “boundary-crossers” because we are not limited by tribal, racial, ethnic, class or other social categories. We are free; free to live, free to suffer, free to give ourselves to something/someOne greater than ourselves…
Jesus alludes to kingdom life as he concludes his parable with the outrageous claim, "So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last." Almost immediately after the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the disciples could not avoid the temptation to compare themselves to one another, and to begin the age-old pecking order routine found in any social grouping. Jesus teaches that to follow him means letting go of entitlements and the quid-pro-quo systems of this world. Clearly, the world's metrics are not God’s metrics.
Today’s parable is as much a teaching about the graciousness of God as it is about the relationships between the workers in the vineyard. The vineyard owner ends up going out five different times during the day to recruit workers for his vineyard, even those who no one else would hire, and at the end of the day he pays them all the same wages. What a generous master!
Through the gospel of Christ we come to know that nothing we do determines the amount of love that God offers. In Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, "We know that a person is put right with God only through faith in Jesus Christ, never by doing... not even by doing what the law requires." The workers received their wages because they agreed to work in the vineyard. Their wages had nothing to do with how much work they did. What a generous God we have!
Notice also that God does not only invite the workers who are the strongest, the best trained; the good looking, intelligent types. God chooses us not because we are necessarily qualified, but because God has the authority to qualify us, and God has so chosen to value us with unmerited favor, lavish love and amazing grace. That’s just who God is... God will take all of us in, no matter what we may be in the eyes of the world. God will receive us and give us work in the vineyard - and God will pay us the benefits of a recreated, redeemed, restored life.
This parable then gives very practical teaching about how our views about God need to change. And this parable gives us a very practical teaching about how our views of one another need to change. In other words, living a life worthy of the gospel involves viewing people as beloved children of God, as our brothers and sisters. Not just those who look, talk, think, or believe like us, but those who are different from us. I think this is important as we install new leaders today, as we enjoy the ministry fair and welcome newcomers into our community, as we seek to cultivate new relational patterns in family and friendships, as we continue to yield ourselves to God’s Spirit forming us as a loving and serving church.
But here’s the surprise: The real struggle of living a life worthy of the gospel is about faith… It’s about daily recalibrating our lives around grace; that God loves us, therefore we can love one another; that God has forgiven us, therefore we can forgive others; that God has shown to us mercy and compassion, therefore we also can show to others mercy and compassion.
Anne Marie Reijnen last week at the colloquium provoked us with the claim thatwe all need conversion every day! Rabbi Cohen told the story of how the new rabbi eager to change the world. After a few months of beating his head against the wall, he decided he couldn’t change the world… so he would try and change the synagogue. He worked really hard, but became frustrated with how the synagogue wouldn’t change. After months of beating his head against the wall, God spoke to him. Now the rabbi is seeking to change himself.
Learning to live a life worthy of the gospel takes time and is a process of daily faith and repentance, of dying a million mini-deaths to self. An important part of the process is learning to be still and listen for God’s voice… It’s counter-intuitive. Rather than trying harder, we need to rest, to be still and listen to God, laying aside our own motivations and ambitions…
There is this great scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick where the sailors are laboring fiercely; and toiling and straining, concentrating on the task. The cosmic conflict between good and evil is joined; chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab. The scene is full of action and activity. In his boat, however, there is one man who does nothing. He doesn’t hold an oar, he doesn’t perspire; he doesn’t shout. He is languid in the crash and the cursing. The man is the harpooner, quiet and poised, waiting. And then Melville writes, “To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.”
That’s an amazing line. I’ve never thought of myself as a harpooner, but I wonder if there isn’t a foundational truth here for all of us who would be leaders, or at least men and women who desire to impact our families, schools or companies… Can we patiently say no to that which is not our calling, so that we can say yes to that which is our calling? Melville recognizes that knowing the difference requires listening, and listening requires idleness, quiet Sabbath rest…
This is really good news people! Paris is a great city in which to enjoy idleness! Sit and have a coffee. Stroll or sit in the park and watch the children play, or visit the museums and enjoy some of the greatest art in the world. Have a nice meal and a glass of wine. Rest and listen. As Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in my favorite poem, “Christ plays in ten thousand places…” or as Paul writes, that “God is “above all and through all and in all.” It is important to be still so that we can know and enjoy our God and all the many blessings God has given. This city can be a place of ceaseless toil and frenetic activity, of course. That’s the temptation. Beware the busyness that becomes an obsession. Then we stop listening. Remember the Latin root for deafness? Surdus, the root for our word absurd!
If you pay attention to what Paul is saying, he remains focused on supporting the Philippians in making progress and joy in faith: That’s a good litmus test for your spiritual life. Where’s the joy? Kara in the Greek. Very close to charis, the word for grace… I love what G.K. Chesterton says about joy and here is my paraphrase: “We are more ourselves, we are more human, when joy is the fundamental thing in us, and grief is superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.” Living a life worthy of the gospel is “standing firm in one spirit” and striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. It’s all fueled by joy!
As we install leaders today and explore various opportunities to share and receive gifts together, I encourage you to reflect on what it means for you to live a life that is worthy of the gospel… This struggle of faith in Christ is important because we will all give our lives to something in the end. The question is, to what? To whom? And to what end? We are all called to labor in the Master’s vineyard, but if we are going to hit the target, to harpoon the great grace of God’s heavenly prize, paradoxically the real work to be done is learning to be idle, to listen and yield to God by entering into joy, the uproarious labour by which all things live! While we are called to suffer and die for the gospel, throwing the dart and “living in a manner worthy of the gospel” begins and ends with joyful faith.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.