Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14;
Matt. 21:33-46; Isa. 5:1-7
‘I WANT TO KNOW CHRIST’
- Talk about the experience of having a garden, the hard work it takes to keep one. What would happen if you put in all that work and the garden hardly produced anything? Do any tools help? How so?
- Our lessons talk a lot about God keeping a vineyard. If it doesn’t produce, God will turn it over to someone else. I think this means turning it over to someone else’s care, now that the right tool has come along. That right tool is the love and forgiveness we know through Jesus Christ. It matters what we teach and learn about God in having the vineyard produce good fruit.
“I want to know Christ.” That is the theme verse today, as we continue in our “Loyalty Season” theme of “Our purpose is the same.” It rings out the theme of discipleship as St. Paul testifies to the desire, the purpose, that saves us, naming, knowing Christ. And the first part of what St. Paul says afterwards certainly rings true for us: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” That is easy for us to want to know: the power of resurrection, the power of eternal life. Who wouldn’t want that? And so we Christians tend to emphasize this portion of the Good News. We become disciples of the one who has the power to raise us to eternal life, and we most often make disciples of others with an emphasis on that theme, right?
But did you notice two “and”s after St. Paul’s “I want to know Christ”? “I want to know Christ and (1) the power of his resurrection and (2) the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” When you signed up for being a disciple of Jesus Christ, you probably signed up for the first and, knowing the power of his resurrection. But did you sign up for that second and, “the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death”? Did you sign up for that? What’s up with that, anyway?
To begin to understand this puzzling aspect of discipleship, I’d like to go back for a moment to a sermon from about a month ago. I suggested then that we need to teach some basic things about our faith differently, if the Gospel is going to produce good fruit. In that sermon, I said that our emphasis in the church, for a long time now, has been on salvation in terms of what happens to us when we die. We say that we are saved when we go to heaven instead of hell.
I want to do something a bit risky this morning. I’d like to suggest that the state of our current teaching in the church is perhaps still not bearing the kind of fruit that Jesus came to enable in his disciples. As I talked about in the Children’s Sermon today, what we teach about God makes a big difference in bearing fruit. And the risky part comes in trying to be clear that I’m not trying to take away the teaching about heaven and hell completely. It’s somewhat a matter of emphasis. Our view of salvation gets too focused on what happens to us when we die. Which means that we have a diminished view of what it means to be saved right now, here today.
I didn’t have time to get to this a month ago, so let me get to this today. It is a teaching about Jesus and about our faith which has helped me tremendously in my discipleship to know Christ, both the power of his resurrection and what it means to share in his sufferings in the meantime. It is a teaching from the teacher we are studying right now in the Adult Forum, biblical scholar N. T. Wright.
▸ Extemporize on Wright’s notion of “Life after life after death” as the full hope of the Gospel.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-20)
Do you see how this is a hope that embraces the whole creation in the here and now? And we, the children of God, Christ’s disciples, are the key to God’s vineyard, the Creation, finally reaching the full glory of redemption from death and decay. The power of resurrection life began on the first Easter and is continued through Christ’s disciples as we learn the way of living with the present suffering in hope — a hope shaped by the God of life and love and forgiveness that we come to know in Jesus Christ.
But our work in God’s vineyard is blunted and thwarted from producing fruit if we use the wrong tools. One wrong tool of teaching has been too much emphasis on heaven as a place disconnected from God’s creation, heaven as an otherworldly place of life after death, without that more ultimate promise of life after life after death for the whole creation.
The second bad tool of teaching I want to touch on briefly involves the God of love and forgiveness we come to know in Jesus Christ. In the past two weeks, we have talked about how in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus doesn’t mean for us to see the wealthy landowner in the parables as identical with God. This is even more important in today’s Gospel, especially if we are going to assume at the end that the landowner slaughters the wicked tenants who kill his son. Notice very carefully that, in Matthew, Jesus doesn’t supply this ending himself. He asks the teachers of his day to supply the normal ending that we human beings tend to provide.
How does this Parable of the Tenants match up with such a view of faith, especially its apparently violent ending? I would ask several counter questions:
- After the first set of slaves were killed, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army right away, or another delegation of folks to be killed? We would have wielded that violent authority right away, wouldn’t we? But this owner of the vineyard doesn’t. He continues to send more delegations with the invitation to respond in good faith.
- After this series of delegations sent and killed, then, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army to “put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41), or to send your son? It wouldn’t be to send the Son! But this owner is about persistently making the invitation to the point of sending it through his Son.
- Now, after the son is killed, how significant is it that Jesus (in Matthew’s version) asks his listeners what they would do, instead of supplying an answer himself? Jesus lets the chief priests and elders supply the answer that they would have given after the very first delegation was sent. And their answer is exactly what we would typically give: “put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41).
- Then here’s the crucial question about this parable: we know what our answer would be, but what, in fact, was God’s answer in Jesus Christ? When we did kill God’s Son on the cross, what was God’s answer? To put all of us miserable wretches to death? No! He raised the Son not to bring vengeance but to bring forgiveness! If the owner of the vineyard in this parable is God, then Jesus was about to live God’s answer to us tenants who like to think that we own the vineyard. Jesus, the stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone of God’s household, into which he continues to persistently invite us.
- I have one more question. When we fail to act as God acted in Jesus Christ — in other words, when we act with violent vengeance instead of loving forgiveness — are we failing to represent the invitation of God into his household the Church? When we ourselves have been forgiven for killing the Son, can we turn around and not live with forgiveness toward others? Even when someone does something so hideous as to fly planes into buildings, are we going to make the same age-old response of “putting those wretches to a miserable death”? Or can we begin to find ways to respond as God in fact responded to the killing of his Son?
Our Lord is here once again this morning to offer us that persistent invitation to live in God’s realm of forgiveness. Come to his table. Accept his invitation….
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran,
Milwaukee, WI, October 2, 2005