Sermon – 5th October 2014

Notes from the sermon preached by Peter Hemming

Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Rules Wreck Relationships: Faith Forms Friendships

So Moses comes down from the Mountain and greets the Children of Israel in the desert. ‘How did you get on then?’ they asked.

‘Which do you want first – the good or bad news?’ said Moses. ‘The good,’ they replied. ‘Well the good news is I’ve got him down to ten. The bad news is that adultery’s still in.’

We love rules. The OT reading for today is from Exodus Ch 20 – the Ten Commandments for living.
If only keeping them was all that we had to do!

When I was working, I had two people in my team who always wanted me to set out exactly what they should do. That way, if anything went wrong, they were in the clear, if they’d stuck to the rules. If someone didn’t like what they did, it was not their fault, and even more awkwardly, whatever rules there were, applied to everyone, which was incredibly inflexible – and never worked.

Rules are fine – just inflexible. Rules, on their own, don’t work. We need a system that keeps the Spirit of the Rules. I don’t want to dwell on this, but in terms of the Commandments, the positives matter more than negatives. For instance: Coveting. Coveting is bad for the community: it breaks close relationships as people become more concerned about themselves than the community: it leads to the culture where ‘we all want everything’, big wage packets, things going ‘my’ way, new cars, new homes etc. We become resentful when we don’t get them. ‘I have learned’, says Paul elsewhere, ‘in whatever state I am to be content.’

‘The Law’ – ‘The Rules’ – are impossible to keep, because we appear pre-programmed to break rules.

But when it came to ‘The Law’, Paul had been there, done that and got the t-shirt. He knew the Law. He kept the Law. He persecuted anyone who did not follow the Law. Paul, however, now saw clearly that Jesus had become the fulfilment of the Law and all he read in his Scriptures.
His religious zeal had gone from zealous Jew to zealous believer.

‘What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith’.

Paul, the archetypal Pharisee, law-explainer, having jumped through every hoop to be the ‘First Class Jew’ he once was, now considers that ‘all garbage’. Righteousness, the ‘having-been-put-right-with-God-ness’ is now, for him and for us, entirely based on what Jesus did – not what he, or we, did by ‘The Rules’.

Paul’s confidence in the ‘The Rules’ had changed to a confidence in ‘Faith’. Grace had won out for him – as it has for us – as disciples of Jesus.  Faith, a trusting friendship with God, is not just an intellectual understanding of what we believe, but a practical outworking of what we know. Faith is the ‘Fruit’ that the ‘Lord of the Vineyard’ was looking for, the ‘Fruit’ that the tenants had failed to produce.

Faith is not new. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. See also Heb 11 v 1.
God has looked for faith over the millennia and found it, sometimes in obscure places.
Faith allows God to act through and with us, to develop a friendship with us.

If ‘Rules Wreck Relationships’: ‘Faith Forms Friendships’ – and brings fruit.

Written down any time from mid first century, the text of Matthew’s gospel provided a narrative for Early Christians to confute the Jews with an understanding of the Christian Gospel, based on a firm understanding of the Jewish culture and teaching.

Today’s parable, like most parables, has one point. They’re not allegories, full of symbolism, there’s one point made to be taken. Here, ’The Rejection of the Son is a Sin’; however, the Gospel writer also includes the matter of judgment, as Jesus goes on to a quote from Psalm 118. This was well-known by the Jews.  ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, etc.’ would possibly have been ‘known by heart’.

It’s a bit like the minister coming in to church and tapping the microphone and saying, ‘There’s something wrong with this microphone’
and the congregation replying, ‘And also with you.’
They knew their liturgy.
Can we be on autopilot in our relationship with God?

For the Jews, the ‘stone which the builders rejected’ was Israel itself. For Jesus, and for those who heard Him clearly, the stone was now to become Jesus/ the Son/ the Messiah – replacing Israel.
The Jewish tenants had not brought ‘fruit’.
They did not approach God by faith, but wanted to follow the rules.
Now they were being judged. New tenants would be different.
A ‘legalised friendship’ is an oxymoron.

The Pharisees and Chief Priests got it – they saw Jesus was talking about them.
I do wonder if the people’s response was more to do with their desire for ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’, living in an unjust society. If it was bad news hearing that the Vineyard, (see Isaiah 5 vv 1 to 7) which always represented Israel in Jewish thought, was to be ‘given to others’, it was even worse news that ‘others’ = Jesus and his followers.

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” What is the fruit we should be producing? Today?

Two things: first – a proper response to God’s judgment. It is draining to ‘go on about Judgement’ when hearers will not admit a falling short of God’s standards.

Amos said, that God had ‘sent famine’, ‘drought’, ‘crop damage’, ‘illness’, ‘war’ – with the refrain ‘yet you did not return to me, says the LORD.
Today, Famine: is Africa wide – Drought: look at our weather – Crop Damage: the oilseed rape crop will be 25% down as farmers can no longer use nicotinoid insecticides – Illness: Ebola? – War: Syria, Iraq, Ukraine?

How should we respond? With repentance – a re-thinking of where we’re at!

And, the second ‘fruit ‘– to ‘seek me and live’ – not in the places that are familiar with the past, but in a friendship for the present.
A living friendship with God will produce fruit …

… and this faith/friendship is the ‘fruit’ that the Jews could not produce. Desperate to preserve their culture in the face of Roman Occupation, they could not see God acting in new ways.
Having only the Law, but no faith, they could never enter the friendship with God that allowed them to hear what He was saying.

So, how do we avoid ‘rejecting the Son’? (Rules Wreck Relationships)

Beware Rules: Rules aren’t bad, but beware rigid observance. Organisations like rules, and we like rules – even I like the discipline of daily prayer and bible reading: when I don’t, I feel I’ve missed out, broken a personal rule … … … and
Rules aid negotiation – but God doesn’t do democracy.

Beware judgment: Stay right with God. Grow into a friendship with Him – giving this time, energy and effort, daily – developing time to listen, and obey.

And be encouraged: God is a God of surprises. Our friendship with God, as Disciples of Christ, is secure because of what Jesus did. Individuals and communities that produce fruit are accepted by God.  Doing mercy, loving justice, showing love and acceptance and walking humbly with God – is living ‘by faith’.  Is this us?

I have chosen two hymns where we have ‘said things’ that need ‘following up’.
We sang: ‘Jesus shall take the highest honour’ – will you let Him take that place in your lives? Is friendship with Jesus as high up your list of priorities as Paul’s?
We will sing: ‘Here I am Lord’ – will you listen to Him day by day?

We are sent to make disciples of all people, to attract folk to Christ.
The Holy Spirit will do the hard work.
Our job is to provide the environment where that can take place.

The Jews didn’t recognise Jesus. If he was here today, would we?
Are we getting it right with what God is calling us to do?
All of us?

I pray that our Faith will Form Friendships and bring much Fruit! Amen

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