"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Am I Qualified Enough for Christ?

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Am I Qualified for Christ? October 5, 2014, SJE
Phil 3:1-17, Matt 21:33-46 (parable of the tenants), Psalm 19

I’ve titled the talk today, “Am I qualified for Christ?” as the thought that links together Paul’s words to the Philippians, with Christ’s teaching of the parable of the wicked tenants.  What is it that ‘qualifies’ us to claim redemption and salvation through Christ’s death?

If you’ve spent any time looking for jobs, you may have noticed that it seems like every position, regardless of what the actual work might be, seem to list an unbelievable number of certificates or qualifications that are preferred pre-requisites.  I have a number of friends who have worked through the onerous path of becoming a ‘project management professional’ or PMP, and I’ve worked through an impressive list of credentials on my own.  Now, I’m not suggesting that qualifications are somehow morally bad, but I sometimes wonder at the belief system that underlies this quest for certification.

I know in my life, the quest to become better certified has, at points, had behind it a bondage, a lie about my real worth.  It’s true that education has been a great blessing to me, something that allows me to support my family.  What I’m speaking of is my motivation to engage in the work to gain new certifications – where the inner intention of my heart actually lay.  In my past it was not tied to a calling of Christ to live out my gifts within God’s creation – the rightful focus of all Christians in discerning what it is we are to do with our lives.  Rather it arose out of a deep-seated sense of inadequacy and incompleteness, and those undertakings were motivated more out of a need to buttress up my own bondage.  I still struggle with those thoughts today – and in many ways I think this is very much a western, first world type of bondage.  When surrounded with so much bounty, so many blessings, it is easy to feel inadequate or hard done by when we see what everyone else has that we don’t…particularly if we are working out of a transactional sense of relationship with God and thinking we need to store up gold stars in heaven.  That is, this question: what is it we have to do to become saved?

This is the place that Paul speaks against from his personal position as a guy who had punched all the right tickets within the Jewish power structures of that day.  He recites his resume for the listeners merely to establish that if anyone has reason to rely on the flesh for salvation, Paul was the man.  This is the bondage many of us wrestle with.  The lie behind this is that since everything we seek in this world comes with greater qualification, greater credentialing…and we therefore conclude that we need to deal with God in the same way.  To be saved, I need to store up treasures on earth so that when the judgement comes my list of credentials will be enough to tip the scale in my favour.

Back to Paul.  He outlines his particularly Jewish qualification: He’s fulfilled all aspects of Torah, the Law: circumcised on the appropriate eighth day, an Israelite, of the elite tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews – that is, he was genetically and culturally Hebrew, and had not fallen prey to the other cultural influences.  Paul first says that he is genetically right inside the inner circle of the society.  He then goes on to outline what we might call his academic qualification: as to the Law, a Pharisee.  As a Pharisee, Paul committed himself to not only following the Law of Moses, Torah, but also to strictly abide by the hundreds of additional commandments that were contained in the Midrashic teachings.  So the Law of Moses said rest on the Sabbath, while the Midrash told you exactly, and in great detail, what that meant.  Paul has set himself aside from the culture as a person of particular holiness and righteousness because he followed the Law of Moses exactly to the letter.  Paul starts by telling us that there was no one as qualified as he was to rely on the letter of the Law to make him righteous and blameless.

You start to see that particular bondage working out in Paul’s resume – that the idea of Torah, the Law, is that one can achieve righteousness by the force of one’s own will.  Behind Paul’s words you can hear the lie: if I work hard enough, then I may achieve ‘righteousness under the law, blameless’.  We carry this idea forward today, and this is perhaps always been a trap for God’s people – that if I do enough good, I will win myself a place in God’s kingdom.  Nope.  That’s not the way it works, and this is what Paul immediately turns to tell us.  The key transition sentence in Paul’s text comes at verse 7: whatever gain I had, I count it as loss for the sake of Christ.  Think about what it is in your life that you’ve worked hard for, the things that you take that define your worth as a person – be these credentials, job performance, a nice car, a well-behaved family, beautiful children.  Paul puts all these badges of honour into proper context when faced with Christ.

He moves to even stronger language in verse 8, that he counts everything as loss, everything because compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, all of these things fade into the background.  What’s more, they not only fade, but Paul counts them all as rubbish. This is a polite translation, you’ve heard Don speak of the Greek used here (Skubalon)…which literally means dung or the sweepings thrown to the dogs.  Paul counts all of his life’s work to that point as crap.  Wow.

This is very hard to hear, for Paul is saying that his high school diploma, his college certificate, his hard-earned university degree, his class 3 power engineering license, his class 1 driver’s license with air brake endorsement, his honoured place as the hardest worker in the shop, or the best trouble-shooter on the crew, these things and statuses have all gone out with the morning’s garbage with the stuff he sifted out of his cat’s litterbox.  Everything he has worked for in his life up until his conversion, as respected as it all was by the world around him, he has thrown away.  This is one of those painful reversals that we find so frequently in God’s economy – wait, are you telling me all those late nights deriving Maxwell’s wave equations when compared to Christ are like the mouldy tomatoes I pitched out on garbage day?  Yup, that’s exactly what Paul is telling us.

Now this does not mean that it is time to shred and burn the things that permit us to live and work in the culture in which we live – this is not a call to become ‘free men and women on the land’.  We’re called to live within the culture, to achieve to our fullest potential because that’s what God’s people do as a part of their work within God’s good creation.  What we’re not called to do is to take those trappings of this world, and to hold those up before the throne of Christ of proof of our intrinsic worth.  Salvation does not come to us through achievement, but through our admission that there is only one path that brings the end of death and life eternal, and that is the cross of Christ.

Paul goes on to tell us more about how we are to live this out.  What comes to us through faith (through faith!) in Christ is righteousness, not on our merits, but based on the merits of Christ.  Paul presses on to make this his own, not because this is something he can possess and claim, but rather because his membership in the community of believers through Christ means he has already found his true home.  He does not take this for granted, but rather continues to strive and strain forward for what is ahead, the prize awarded a victor in the upward call of Christ.  This is the work of the Christian, and that work comes to us not through academic qualification or through spending every moment of our waking lives feeding the hungry (although these are important tasks), but rather through living into our individual calls in Christ.  Paul also tells us that if we begin this journey in faith, God will reveal to us what it means to forget what lies behind, and to strain forward.

Paul calls us to imitate him, and moreover to keep our eyes on those who walk according to the example of Christ.  This is another call to the community of believers – for it is in the community that we will find Godly brothers and sisters who will serve as examples for us as we seek our path in the world.  This is a two-sided call, so I have just as much obligation to seek out examples to pattern my life after, I also have an obligation to be that example for others in the community, and to be there when people call with questions or seeking reflection on their struggles.  That two-sided call is the domain of all believers, it is the calling that rests on all of us in this community and for all who call themselves Christians.

Paul ends with a warning about who to watch out for – those who have chosen to follow the God of this world, who Paul says, ‘walk as enemies of Christ’.  There is an interesting phrase used here: Paul says that these people worship, ‘their god is their belly’.  Coupled with the closing word that tells us these enemies have their minds set on earthly things, this god of the belly sounds a lot like consumerism.  It leads to the same question I started with – in what do you place your trust?  Is it with your own will and wits to win in a trying world?  Is it with the ability of the first world to solve any problem with science and technology?  Is it with the ability of a coalition of the willing to suppress all evildoers in far-away lands?  Or is it with a humble carpenter from Galilee?

There’s a vicious circle that can be set up in that god of the belly, depending on where it is we turn for our nourishment.  When we come to the community meal on Sundays and gather around the Lord’s table, we come as worthy through Christ’s sacrifice, not because of our own achievements.  We come before that table as equals in the faith – the real meaning of membership as brothers and sisters in the faith.  We come here and are fed with the mystical food of the blood and body of Christ, and we leave nourished and healed, as each of us have need.

The alternative comes through destruction/appetite/shame through placing our trust in the god of this world.  The problem with using the world as your source of nourishment is that each of us is endlessly needy, and that hunger can never be fed with things.  Try as we might, we can never have enough stuff, or enough recognition, or enough sex, or enough power to satisfy that endless hunger.  If we follow the path of the world, we strive for that end point at which we know we will have arrived, and we will be happy…that windowed, corner office in a tall office tower.  Once we arrive there and sit on the throne of our achievement, we will almost immediately find that sense of emptiness returns, for the god of the belly demands constant sacrifice.  That Paul tells us, is the path of destruction and grief.

This dynamic is seen clearly in the Gospel passage today.  This is an unusually transparent parable, and sets out for use the fate of those who rely on this world as their god.  Rather than tending the garden of the Master, they ultimately kill his son in the hope of keeping the vineyard for their own.  The parable turns on irrationality – there is no way that the killing of the Master’s son will somehow result in the son’s inheritance flowing to the tenants.  There is an unspoken thought in that act, which is the hope that the Master will not show up at some future point to call the wicked tenants to account.  This is the epitome of placing trust fully on your ability to achieve righteousness, as the wicked tenants see that by hanging on tightly to the vineyard, the physical world, they will somehow end up better off through their own work.

Against that lie, the lie that reliance on the world will bring you fullness and salvation, God sends Christ, the cornerstone that was rejected, a stone that breaks into pieces all of our careful plans and preparations, and calls us to turn to the only one who can act to save us.  Righteousness is not a goal or a prize to be obtained through hard work, sparse living or self-sacrifice.  It is instead a gift freely given to anyone who confesses with their lips and believes in their hearts (Romans 10:9), that Jesus is Lord.  That’s the only qualification you need to find eternal life.  That gift, freely given, is ours through our profession of faith, and through our membership in the community of the apostles here – not because we are particularly virtuous or perfected, but because Christ has made us that way by calling us as his own.  “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to himself.”  Amen

————————————————————————–

Saint Francis understood that transition well…

‘Francis, Rebuild My Church’; a sonnet for the Saint and for the new Pope

‘Francis rebuild my church which, as you see
Is falling into ruin.’ From the cross
Your saviour spoke to you and speaks to us
Again through you. Undoing set you free,
Loosened the traps of trappings, cast away
The trammelling of all that costly cloth
We wind our saviour in. At break of day
He set aside his grave-clothes. Your new birth
Came like a daybreak too, naked and true
To poverty and to the gospel call,
You woke to Christ and Christ awoke in you
And set to work through all your love and skill
To make our ruin good, to bless and heal
To wake the Christ in us and make us whole.

-Malcolm Guite

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Written by sameo416

October 4, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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