Trinity 17 – Running the race

Trinity 17

8th October 2017

Philippians 3:4b – 14; Matt 21:33-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A couple of years ago the artist Grayson Perry made a series of huge tapestries and an accompanying TV series called The Vanity of Small Differences.

Through that work he explored and illustrated the myriad ways that English people differentiate themselves from each other in terms of class and taste: how one person’s flying duck on the wall may be a sign of aspiration, to another may be laughably bad taste and to another may be retro and ironic.

Whenever two English people meet how they instantly judge each other in terms of dress and deportment and, if they are forced to speak to one another, how they judge one another on accent and how quickly they ask subtle questions to find out where they live and what they do for a living in order to ascertain where the other person should be placed on the social strata and, therefore, whether the conversation can be safely continued.

In some ways, in fact in many ways, clergy are odd bods in the social structure and many people are unclear quite how we should be pigeon-holed.  Although I will always remember when I first arrived in Hadlow someone said to me, and I genuinely can’t remember who it was so please don’t be embarrassed if it was you; they said: “I only have one question for you – how do you pronounce the word “Faith”.  So I said “Faith” and she said “Thank goodness for that.”’

But I should tell you that clergy are also experts at seeking to pigeonhole each other.  If they don’t know each other they will look at colour of shirt first of all: generally speaking the lighter coloured the shirt the less Catholic the theology.  But then, usually within minutes if not seconds, they will ask each other where they trained for ordination.  If you went to Cuddesdon then you are destined for greatness and should be offered due respect, if you are seriously Catholic then you went to St Stephens House and if seriously evangelical you went to Wycliff and so on.  Sometimes clergy have said to me: “Did you go to Westcott House?”  Westcott is sort of moderately Catholic and not destined for greatness.

Whenever that happens I put on my best East End accent and say: “Nah mate, I did the Norf Thames Ministerial Training Course wiv associated plumbin’, which was cushtie-like.”

I am sometimes a bit naughty like that.

However, although most of us here are intimately familiar with the myriad small differences of being English it is probably the case that every human society ever has had its own complex pecking-order, and that phrase would also suggest that this also applies to every non-human society too.

And it is certainly true that the Roman and Jewish societies in the first century AD had just as many gradations of who was like us and who was not like us.

We see some of that in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi today.

The town of Philippi lay at the top of the Aegean sea in the area roughly between modern day Greece and Turkey.  It was a Roman colony and, in the context of the Roman empire, to be a Roman citizen was a huge marker of status.  The church in that town probably consisted of a mixture of Roman ‘God-fearers’ and Jewish ex-pats, for want of a better phrase, who were seeking to be followers of Jesus.

Paul wrote to this fledgling church to thank them for all that they had done so far and to encourage them to continue in their new-found faith in Jesus.

In chapter 2, before today’s reading, he exhorts the people of Phillipi to imitate the humility of Jesus – “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”

And he then gives us the words which we use at every service of nine lessons and carols:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his advantage; rather he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant.”

It has to be said that in terms of social stratification God has to be pretty much near the top.  And yet, Paul is saying, if God the Son can step out of that position and take on the form of a servant – here we are perhaps reminded of the Maundy Thursday washing of feet – then our own hierarchies and vanity of small differences can look rather petty.  If God can serve us then surely we can serve one another without hanging on to how important we are.

And then in chapter 3, our reading for today, Paul encourages his readers not to place undue pride in their earthly positions and he starts by lisiting some of his own:

He is a proud Jew, circumcised in accordance with the law, and of the tribe of Benjamin.  He uses the phrase: “A Hebrew of Hebrews”.  This is a bit like “a Man’s Man”.

He goes on that he belongs to the Pharisees, that he was zealous in persecuting the church (as we know from the book of Acts and the stoning of Stephen) and then he makes a very bold claim: “As for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”

There are something like 613 laws in the Torah and Paul is not saying that he had a jolly good stab at keeping them – he says he was ‘faultless’.  You have to have quite a high opinion of yourself to say that and Paul seems to be writing without irony.  In his own eyes at least he was faultless before God.

Interestingly what Paul does not mention here, but we know from elsewhere, is that he was also a Roman citizen.  And so on every measure of success in that Roman and Jewish society Paul was a model of achievement – he would have made every mother proud.

Except here is something you won’t know unless you started reading this letter at the beginning.  Whilst he is writing Paul is actually in prison in a palace somewhere – in chapter 1 he tells us that he is in chains for Christ – and by this he seems to mean both because of Christ and, paradoxically, in order to advance the gospel of Christ further.  So his high position in both Roman and Jewish society have counted for nothing in relation to his new identity in Christ.

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 / rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

And then, remember what Paul said about his own righteousness under the law – that too is worthless:

“…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.”

His own efforts and his own status achieved through dint of birth and hard work are as nothing, nothing, to the power of knowing Jesus and his resurrection.

Don’t forget that Paul’s conversion from his previous life was as a result of the powerful intervention of God whilst he was on the road to Damascus, and this experience is sometimes held up as an example of what conversion to faith ought to be like for all of us.  Some may try to tell you that unless you can remember such a conversion that you are not really a Christian and that once you’ve had it you are home and dry with God.  However, here Paul himself suggests that conversion of life is only the beginning and that we have to keep pressing on to higher things:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

When athletes run races they don’t run constantly looking over their shoulder to see how much of the track they have covered already, they focus on what lies ahead and strain towards the finish line.

But the race in which we are engaged is not a purely individualistic thing, with the gold medal going to the quickest over the line.  The church is always a community, whether it is the church in Philippi or the church in Hadlow.

Paul is urging the church community, and its members, not to rest on the laurels of earthly status or achievements and not to lord it over one another or seek to boast about who we are or were outside of Christ but, rather, that we should be like Jesus in setting aside status to serve one another, to be like Paul in setting aside our life to be in chains for Christ, and to help one another looking not backwards at everything which has gone before which can never be changed, but looking only forwards straining ever forward towards the goal which is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

That sounds like a much greater goal than mocking each other over flying ducks.