Philippians 3: 4 -14
Matthew 21 : 33-46
Maggie Cogan - Reader
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; Amen
Recently I read about a therapist who says ‘When someone wants me to help them, the first question I ask them is ‘What story are you a part of?’” As you’d expect from a therapist it’s a really good question. I wonder what you and I might say. What story are we part of? Here are some stories. ‘If I’d passed my exams and got a good job and friends I’d be alright, but life is always cruel to me.’ ‘My husband’s not so well: I just want as many years together as we can get.’ ‘Nobody wanted me when I was a child, and I don’t belong anywhere.’ ‘My great grandfather had this farm, it’s been in the family ever since and I love every blade of grass.’ “What story are we a part of?” Then the therapist went on, “Counselling is helping people to tell a better story about themselves”. That’s the wonderful gift of counselling.
But the wonderful gift of faith is that we are given a story. We are given a big story to belong to. It is the best possible story, the great life-giving story of God, in which our own stories are held. This is a story so full of energy and grace and love that our own stories are healed and blessed and fulfilled by it. What story are we a part of?’ As we sit in church this morning, one of the reasons we are here, is to re-affirm the big answer to that big question. We are part of a story that begins with God creating, goes on with Jesus rescuing, and evermore with the Holy Spirit keeping us going. And there are lots of other people in this story with us. We belong with a huge party of people on this Christian journey, and all along the route, and at the destination too there will be a place for us. It is God’s life-giving story and our individual stories fit into it.
That’s what is going on in both our readings this morning. In the gospel, the parable Jesus tells about the landowner and wicked tenants was clearly intended to tell the story of Israel, God’s chosen people, his vineyard. The tenants who were Israel’s religious and political leaders had for generations mistreated God’s prophets, and they would kill his Son. So God was about to remove them from power and work through others who would, as Jesus says, “produce the fruits of the Kingdom”. This is a text precious to the early church communities for which these gospels were written, because it gave their lives a clear identity and purpose within the greater story of how God was unfolding his world. Small, struggling Christian communities surrounded by Jewish, Greek and Roman authority, religion and power, needed to understand how to live in danger and yet with faith and hope. They found strength to live their own stories because they were part of that bigger story in which God was working his purpose out. And for us two thousand years on, this bigger story also defines who we are and what we are about. Still God is working through his people to draw as many as will respond into the blessing he wills for all his creation, which is the blessing of communion (and I’ll come back to that in a moment).
In the Epistle reading, Paul has a dramatic U-turn of a story. On the Damascus road his vision of Christ had turned his life round 180 degrees. He had been a card-carrying, hard-line, purist religious Jew; he had built up a huge bank balance of religious credit, which he now finds completely useless, or worse – he calls it rubbish. The voice from heaven, that stopped him in his tracks, has made religion personal. Paul has come to see that instead of a blameless record of personal achievement, what he needs now is this relationship. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” This is like the pearl of great price which Jesus talks about in another parable; when the man found it he went and sold all he had so that he could buy that one superlative pearl. But material things are not the answer, not even pearls. What we see in Paul is not another thing in which he can find pleasure and security, but a relationship. So if we go back to the therapist’s question “what story are we part of?” there is now another, deeper question: ‘what relationship are we part of?’
The story of God is an experience of relationship. Within the Holy Trinity the life of God is relationship. How else could God be love? The Christian story of life is that we are drawn into that relationship. In a sense, we find ourselves within God’s story not in the way that we read a novel or watch a film, we are drawn into God’s story as if we are at a play and the actors on the stage come down and take us by the hand and draw us up onto the stage and into the action. We have lines, we have actions, we have relationships, we listen for what others say and we join in; we catch the story together and we become part of how it lives, and develops. The Christian story of life involves being drawn into the relationship that is going on within the Holy Trinity. It is a most amazing place of love, and understanding and joy. That friendship is being shared with the whole people of God across the world and down the centuries. So Paul discovered that the personal achievement credits he had relied on were completely the wrong currency; they were worthless if the story is actually about love. A bank balance can make you self-reliant, but if your account is empty you have to trust someone to care for you enough to help you. Paul had given up what he calls “righteousness of my own” and was seeking “righteousness from God based on faith in Christ”. He was investing in a relationship, no longer his own capacity.
This way of life looks to the future not the past. His previous way of life depended on the track record he had built up in his past; his new way of life looks forward, as he says “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” So this morning we re-affirm that we are living in God’s story. But what does it mean for us? I’m going to list five things and leave you to fill out the rest.
The first thing this great story of God gives us is to know that we are loved. Whoever else loves us or doesn’t love us, we are loved by God, who knows us completely and loves us completely, forever. No wonder Paul was passionate about this relationship.
Second, the great story of God also gives us boundaries: there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil. Life has worth, people have worth, behaviour matters. When we get things wrong and own up and ask forgiveness we can be forgiven. We are in a relationship of mercy and truth.
Third, the great story of God is also a story of community: we are not expected to survive alone; we are given a great extended family to travel with, the family of God, disciples, church, redeemed humanity on pilgrimage. We are travelling with some really inspiring companions.
Fourth, within the great story of God we become our best selves. God rejoices in the uniqueness of each of us. We are not just numbers, we are not anonymous and unremarkable people; God delights in us for the unique creation he is making of us. We are not constrained in his story, we are liberated. After all, this relationship is love, and the eyes of love see only delight and joy and beauty.
And fifth, this story is about finding purpose and meaning. In this story we find our meaning and fulfilment in joining in with what God the Holy Trinity is doing. God is creating and sustaining creation. In Jesus God is suffering with the afflicted, and rescuing and redeeming the lost and the broken. Jesus and his people are bringing good news to the poor and the conflicted and the sad and the sinful. Jesus and his people are welcoming strangers into the banquet he has prepared, of which this Eucharist we share is the foretaste and the sign. We are made whole as we join in with what God is doing. So, if this is the great story we are part of.
Here is a prayer we could use in our prayer times this coming week.
Let us pray
Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, you have made us for yourself, so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Grant that in your story we may live our stories, and in your service find our perfect freedom; through Christ, our Lord .Amen