Or, my working out a sermon based on this Sunday’s Lectionary readings: Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46.
I want to live a life which God would describe as fruitful; to be part of a community whose corporate life God would describe as fruitful. But I’m not sure that is my experience at the moment.
Jesus says that the end of fruitlessness is destruction, but that fruitfulness itself requires a painful breaking process (Matthew 21:43, 44).
Paul describes for us the process that leads to fruitfulness. First he lists those things which God has given him, as pure gift, unearned, undeserved, simply out of unconditional love. Until we discover that God loves us unconditionally, we will always try to earn his love, and while we strive for that we cannot be fruitful. We will be hard on ourselves, and even harder on others, for neither we nor they can match the standards we set. Even if we ‘know’ God loves us unconditionally, we forget; we don’t experience his love.
Do I know that God loves me unconditionally? What evidence can I cite when I am tempted to forget? In what ways do I see the fruit of knowing that God loves me unconditionally in how I relate to others [this fruit is the first-fruits of a fruitful harvest]? Scottish rugby international, Olympic gold-medal winner and missionary to China, Eric Liddell is attributed with saying, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” Note: when I run, not, when I win. When, and under what circumstances, did I last feel God’s pleasure?
Next Paul adds to the list those things he has achieved. We are created not only to know God’s love, but to do things through which God is glorified. We will not be fruitful until we discover and own the things God has created us for. And here, as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. Eighteenth-century Rabbi Zusja is attributed with saying, ‘In the world to come I shall not be asked, “Why were you not Moses?” I shall be asked, “Why were you not Zusja?”’ In the world to come, I shall not be asked why I was not St Paul, but why I was not me: why I shrank back from all that God created me to be and to do.
From a worldly perspective, success is what makes you fruitful: the more successful you are, the more fruitful you are. This is the view shared by those evildoers Paul is warning the church in Philippi against. Owning our success is a necessary stage in the process of fruitfulness – there is nothing godly about false modesty, which merely seeks to cover our shrinking-back – but Paul will take us further.
Why am I not me? Do I play the comparison game? What success have I experienced; have we experienced? Can we name it and give thanks for it?
Paul encounters Jesus, and as a consequence he loses his community, his standing within that community. But as he reflects on meeting Jesus, his perspective shifts from an earthly one to a heavenly one. He does not say, as prudish English translations suggest, that what went before was rubbish: he does not say, in effect, “I can’t believe that I wasted so many years in those ways!” Paul says, I consider those things – the unearned gifts of God, the achievement he has experienced – as excrement. We need to ask, what is excrement? Excrement is the end of good, nutritious food. Paul says, these are the ways in which God has nurtured and nourished me – but they were never an end in themselves. They are now put into their rightful heavenly perspective. They are released; given back to God; for to hold on to them is to kill the future God hopes for us...and so, ultimately, to bring about our own end (eaten by worms, we too become excrement). Only when we see God’s gifts and our achievements in response to God’s gifts not as ends in themselves but as part of something bigger can we experience freedom from the comparison game. Only then can we move from success to significance, to lasting legacy. To living fruitful lives. But this necessary shift is birthed through pain and loss. We see this time and again in Scripture, in the lives of those who respond to God’s call.
Here is another waste-product illustration, from a friend of mine, Paul Maconochie. God gives us breath, as gift. That breath allows us to live and move, to be and to do. But we must breathe out – expelling water vapour and carbon dioxide – in order to receive our next breath. That utilising and then releasing what we were given is necessary, if we are to keep receiving from God.
This is true at both a personal and a corporate level. Those things by which God has nurtured and nourished us come to their natural end: what was good food becomes excrement. Excrement needs to be dealt with; and fresh food needs to be taken in. To hold on to past food – to make it an end in itself; to turn an icon into an idol – is to become spiritually constipated, passing through bloated discomfort to the death that results from the internal build-up of toxins. We naturally and rightly mourn the passing of what was good: but at times that mourning blinds us to the hope that God who has always been faithful will always be faithful, and keeps us from pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us. We have not yet obtained all this. We must forget what is behind, keep moving forward, towards the goal, to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Are we willing to pay the cost? Have we given up? Do we need to reclaim that heavenly perspective? What do we need to purge from our corporate life? What fresh food do we need to eat? How can we encourage one another to press on?
In a nutshell:
Receive God’s love : the invitation to covenant relationship : from UP(God) to IN (our lives)
Respond to God’s love : the challenge to kingdom responsibility : from IN to OUT (impact on the world)
Release, or return, God’s love : completing the cycle of grace : from OUT to UP