Texts: Philippians 2.1-13 and Matthew 21.23-32
There’s a saying, among preachers, that all the letters of St Paul can be summarised with three sentences:
Greetings in the name of Jesus.
Stop messing about.
Blessings on you.
That’s because, when you start to
examine them, it’s obvious that Paul was writing, usually, to correct some
abhorrent behaviour on the part of new Christians in the churches he had
planted. His letter to the church in Philippi
is no exception.
Imagine, if you will, that I went
away on an extended break, but that while I was gone, you receive an open
letter, from me to the whole congregation.
Imagine that letter said things like “Do nothing from selfish ambition
or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves.” You would soon conclude that I had heard that
some people were acting up in my absence! That is exactly what Paul is doing, when he
writes these letters. He’s trying to steer his distant congregations along a
straight course – along the Way of Christ, we might say. But he knows that is a tough ask, so he
tactfully dresses up his criticisms with greetings and blessings.
This tells us something important
about the early church. It’s easy for us
to imagine that the early church was somehow purer, or more holy than us. But following the Way of Jesus has always
been hard work. 10% inspiration, and 90%
perspiration, as the old saying goes. Jesus himself called it ‘the Narrow Way’
– a path that is easy to fall from, or to stray from. Let no-one tell you that the Way of Jesus is
a path to glory, or to riches, or to guaranteed good health. The Way of Jesus requires us to surrender
selfish ambition. It is the path of the
servant, the Way of the Lord who washes his own disciples’ feet.
It is also a path that is easy to
begin, but not always easy to follow through – which is the point of this
morning’s Gospel reading. It’s part of a
clever debate between Jesus and some of the chief priests of his day. These are wealthy men of great status. And they like to think they are clever
too. But after neatly shutting them up
over a question about John the Baptiser, Jesus tells them one of his fabulous
stories. ‘Imagine’, he says, ‘that a man
has two sons – and he asks them to go to work in the fields. The first son says he won't go, but then does so. The second says he will go
(initially), but then does not. Which of these two sons did the will of their
In other words, Jesus says, we are
judged not by what we say, but by how we live and the choices we make. We can sing all the hymns, read all the prayers,
receive the holy food for our journey – but unless we walk the walk of the
Christian, we are like the son who said ‘I’ll go’, but then failed to do
so. For Jesus, the prostitutes and tax
collectors (who actively and purposefully followed The Way) were much
preferred. Certainly they were preferred
to the chief priests who wore the right clothes, said the right prayers, even
taught the right theology, but whose way of actually living fell far short of
the Way of Christ. Which is a cause of
some reflection for those of us who wear the fine robes!
Some of us might be confused, at
this moment. I can see a question
burning in some of your eyes! “But I
come to church! I say my prayers! I give to charity and the church! I even study the Bible sometimes! Are you
saying that I am not walking the walk on the Way of Christ?!” As uncomfortable as that challenge may be, it
is a challenge that Jesus himself lays down.
Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 7, to be precise) Jesus says ‘Not everyone who says Lord, Lord,
will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my
father in heaven.’ In chapter 25, Jesus
describes the separation of sheep from goats – two groups of people who look
remarkably similar from the outside (especially considering the similarity of
Middle Eastern sheep and goats). But the
life-choices of those two groups, and especially their decisions about how to
love their neighbour, mark them out as either true or false followers of The
How shall we know? How do we know whether we are sheep or
goats? Or the first or second son? Or whether St Paul would write to us to tell
us to ‘stop messing about’? The most
persistent and easily-grasped indicator, according to Scripture, is the way we
use our money.
The Church of England has
designated this as ‘Generosity Sunday’ – a none-too-subtle plea for generosity,
after the contemplation of God’s generosity to us during last week’s Harvest
Festival! I’m a bit cynical about such
national church initiatives, and I hate talking about money – especially in the
middle of a cost of living crisis. But
today, I’m going to conclude this sermon by doing precisely that, because my
friends, you may not know that, at present, only 27% of the costs of running
this parish – this branch of the kingdom - comes from me and you. The rest comes from the generosity, the
grants, and the generous legacies of past generations.
“But I earned my money,
Rector!” Did you?
You see, if you have earned your
money through a well paid job, or a family inheritance, it is because you were
blessed to be born in a certain class of society, in a certain country, to a
certain family. You were probably given
an education which you didn’t pay for, and the opportunity to earn, or receive the
money you now possess. Your wealth is
directly related to where, and in what circumstances you were born – it is a
gift from God. Do you honestly believe
that if you had been born in a desert, or a jungle, a thousand miles from the
nearest city, that you would be as wealthy as you are? Everything you have has been given to
you. Even if you live on nothing but a
state pension and housing benefit. It is
not yours to play with. It is yours to
steward. It is for the sacred, holy task of building God’s kingdom here on
earth. Take what you need, for the
essentials of life, and the awful costs of living. That is God’s gift to you too. But give what you can, for the work of the
In this week’s Fortnightly News,
you will find two articles about how to give money, tax-efficiently and
regularly, to the work of the kingdom through this church. I’d like to encourage you to read them
carefully, please. Read them with the
Christian attitude to money in mind. Read
them while hearing St Paul say, ‘stop messing about!’ Read them while inwardly acknowledging that
everything you have, whether large or small, comes to you as a gift from God,
or at least from the accident of your birth.
For to those to whom much has been given, shall much be required. Amen.