SERMON 15th SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY (PROPER 20). Readings: Matthew 20:1-16, Philippians 1:21-30
It was a question of timing, really, wasn’t it? If the workers who’d worked all day in the vineyard had been paid first, they would have received their pay, been satisfied, and left. But they saw the last paid first – and paid generously. So when their turn came, those who had worked in the vineyard all day expected to get more than had been agreed. But they didn’t. They got the same as everyone else, although they had worked much longer. So they grumbled. The vineyard in the bible is a common symbol of God’s church on earth. Here, Jesus represents God as the landowner and shows us how generous God is. “Are you envious because I am generous?” says the landowner to the grumbling workers. Ironic, isn’t it, that his generosity led to grumbling and a feeling of unfairness – which as the landowner rightly says is really just envy. We see too in this parable that God is gracious. He comes searching for us, finds us, and brings us to his vineyard. Five times in our parable today we hear that the landowner “went out”. He went out and chose his workers and gave them work to do. We must be careful not to get the wrong end of the stick here. Christians have been saved, by God’s gracious love through the work of Jesus. There’s no question about people working to earn their salvation. Christians aren’t saved because we do work for God – we work for God because he has already graciously chosen and saved us and given us work to do.
So what is the work God has given us to do? Most of us don’t work in vineyards – this is the 21st century: as Christians, what is our God-given work? We can do a lot worse than turn to today’s first lesson to see this – and it would help me if you would please turn in the pew bibles to page 1113, Paul’s first letter to the Philippians, chapter 1, verse 21. The page number is on the front of today’s news-sheet – page 1113, Philippians chapter 1, verse 21. Isn’t that a most surprising thing to say? Paul is in prison for his faith – and whatever we might think about the state of our prisons today, prison in Rome in AD 62 wasn’t somewhere you’d want to be – it really wasn’t! Paul is living in awful conditions, knowing he will soon be executed for his faith. So we might expect him to say something like, ‘for me, to live is a tough fight, a miserable struggle, and to die will be gain.’ But he doesn’t. ‘It’s not, I’ll grin and bear it now and have Christ when I die’ – it’s not what you might call the “pie in the sky when you die” view. No – for Paul, it’s Christ now while I live, and more Christ when I die. It’s win-win! It’s Christ all the way! But what does Paul mean when he says that to him, “to live is Christ”? It certainly doesn’t mean he’s expecting an easy time. He’s not thinking he’ll hang up his boots and enjoy comfortable retirement for a few years before he dies. Oh no. Paul’s faith may not be “pie in the sky when you die,” but neither is it “steak on the plate while you wait”! No, life for Paul means work. He says this in the next verse 22, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me.”
Back to our question from the parable of the vineyard – what is the work God has given Christians to do? It is fruitful labour, as described here by Paul. Paul’s objective, his focus, his aim in life, is that Jesus Christ is honoured, and the gospel of Jesus advances. That’s what he means when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ…” You sometimes hear questions like, “what are the one or two things you want to see before you die?” Paul is quite clear – he wants to see Jesus honoured and his gospel advance. But Paul is not setting himself up as some sort of special Apostle here – he’s modelling how all Christians should think, feel, talk and act. He wants all Christians to see what their life objectives should be. They’re to be the same as Paul’s – that Jesus Christ is honoured, and that his gospel advances. What should that look like in our daily lives? What is the fruitful labour we have been given to do? Please look with me at verse 27, where Paul says to the Philippians, and through them to us, “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel.” That’s our job – that’s the work God has given us to do. But how are we to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel” and “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel?” Two things. Firstly, by reading our bibles. The gospel is written in our bibles. If we don’t read them, we can’t live as citizens of heaven, we can’t stand firm in one Spirit, we can’t strive together for the faith of the gospel – we won’t really know what it is. We need to read our bibles by ourselves (I know many here do this) and also together, searching our bibles as if looking for buried treasure – which of course we are. We’re to look for what the bible tells us about God and Jesus Christ. That’s how we get to know Jesus. Not by touch, or sight, but in the way God intended – by reading his word, the bible. And as we explore it, we learn how we are to live as citizens of heaven, how we are to stand firm and strive together for the faith of the gospel. How we are to defend the bible against all who would deny it, mock it or are scandalised by it. That’s how we can help defend our church from false teaching, as we said in our collect today. In short, as we read our bibles, we learn how we can bring honour to Jesus and contend for his gospel.
The second way we can “stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel” is through prayer. Prayer changes things. Prayer changes us. As with bible reading, we should pray by ourselves, but we should also make time to pray together – that’s another way we can strive together. Just two or three of us gathered together in prayer is enough. More is great! But what do we pray for? Do we pray, “please get me out of this mess”? It might be God who deliberately got us into this mess, to give us an opportunity to honour Jesus. There are some great examples in the bible of God putting people into awful situations so that they could serve him – come and talk to me afterwards if you’d like some! Paul does not want his friends praying for him to get out of prison – he makes it perfectly clear in this letter that his being in prison has advanced the gospel and honoured Jesus. If the gospel is advanced and Jesus is honoured by Paul being in prison, why would he want to get out? So perhaps instead of praying ‘get me out of this mess’ we should pray, ‘Lord, please use this mess I’m in to honour your name and prosper your gospel.’ ‘Please show me how I can do that in this situation.’ And when we pray for others, do we ask God to get them out of that mess, or get rid of their illness, or to help them get on at school or work, or stop their suffering? Nothing wrong with these things, but are they the key? Shouldn’t we pray first of all for others that God would help them live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ – that he would help them honour Jesus in the situation they are in? That’s what Paul would pray for them! That in whatever situation, momentous or trivial, they would honour Jesus. We thank God for our vicar, Folli. How can we support him? By honouring Jesus – that’s how we can support him. I didn’t know Daphne Weston, a member of this church who died recently, but I’m told that when someone wished her good luck, she would insist that it’s not (fingers crossed) but (hands together in prayer). In other words, Jesus is Lord, he’s in control – not lady luck. And so in that momentary situation, she honoured Jesus wonderfully. Let’s make that our aim, the focus of our life, that we honour Jesus and strive together for his gospel. That’s our job. That’s what Paul did, and that’s what Paul wanted us to do. That’s the work God has graciously and generously given us to do in his vineyard. And reading our bibles and praying will take us a long way there.