Pentecost 16
Donna G. Joy

Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Many of you know that I was raised an Anglican, left the church for a number of years then returned to the Anglican Church when two of my children were preschoolers and I was pregnant with my third child. Soon after my return to church I felt drawn to religious studies, and, well, the rest is history.

So, initially as a lay person, and throughout the past 24 years as an ordained priest, I have seen many changes in the church; I have seen numerous trends come and go. As the culture in which we live has experienced extraordinary change over the past few decades, this has radically changed the place and role of the church and in the midst of these enormous shifts the church has experienced tremendous decline. In response to this escalating situation I have seen all sorts of attempts to build the church back up. Many of these trends have included (what I would identify as) desperate attempts to make the Christian message and experience more palatable; more attractive; more fun, because, after all, we have been trying to 'attract' new members. I recently heard of one church that has opened up a Starbucks Coffee Shop in the hope that this will attract more people.

It is interesting to note that Jesus, himself, seemed singularly disinterested in the notion of attracting people. In this morning's Gospel reading, for example, he tells the people who possess the greatest power, the very ones who had power and authority and influence over the masses, that tax collectors and prostitutes (those who are greatly despised) will enter the kingdom of heaven before they will!" What he means, of course, is that those who humble themselves before God will discover the gift of God's grace more readily than those who do not. We are all sinners, but those who acknowledge their sinfulness, seek forgiveness and turn (redirect) their lives toward God will discover the gift of God's grace in astonishing ways.

Well, I have reached a point where I am convinced that these desperate attempts to attract people have been - in large part - the very steps that have (ironically) escalated church decline. These attempts have led to the church's loss of identity, which has led increasing numbers of people to wonder what is the point and why bother to come. I believe that church renewal comes with establishing (re-establishing) our focus and sticking with it. Jesus has come as God's long awaited Messiah. He died a painful death on the cross so that we may be reunited with God. He rose to new life so that we may have life eternal and carry on His work as we await his coming again.

That's our story and we need to stick with it.

Our reading from the letter to the Christians in Philippi takes place in the midst of a first century church that is fraught with persecution and uncertainty, and this particular piece of the letter speaks of a sense of unity they find in maintaining their focus on the identity of Christ and the role they are called to fulfill as his followers. In this portion of the letter, they are remembering who Christ is, what he has done, and how humans are called to respond.

What we have in this reading (verses 5-11) is an early creedal hymn that expresses the core beliefs of the early Christian church and identifies the ground of their hope. Reciting from memory the fundamentals of the faith had its roots in ancient Israel. Every devout Jew knew the words from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” These words articulated the heart, the core, the centre of their belief. The verses following the declaration reminded the people to teach this truth to their children, to talk about it with one another, and to write the words on the doorposts of their houses and on the gates. They reminded the covenant people of who God was and who they were to be.

In the New Testament we find brief, spontaneous confessions of faith on the lips of individuals, expressing the heart of the gospel. Recall that huge moment in Mark’s Gospel where Peter declares, “You are the Messiah!” Or when Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Or the Ethiopian eunuch, confessing as he requests baptism, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”And this is just a handful among many.

But in an age when access to these writings was limited, it was easier to learn and memorize the fundamentals of the faith by setting them to music. And still, today, we know that our theology is often found in hymns and songs. In the creedal hymn of Philippians 2, the congregation was able to sing what they believed, unanimously, succinctly, and simultaneously. They were able to articulate their core belief ‘in one voice’. They could point to the ideas expressed in the hymn and say, “This is the bottom line. This is what our faith is about. This is what unites us.”

I think we’re probably all aware of the current trend for companies, colleges, churches, seminaries and other institutions to have mission statements, which tend to be brief expressions of who the people are and why they exist as a body: what purpose they serve. Much time is spent developing and refining mission statements, and there are limits on the interpretations that can be put on one. The statement helps an institution or business stay on track and focus on what is essential.

Just recently, St. Peter's leadership team (corporation, vestry, staff, honorary assistants) spent much time and preparation that led to a statement that is designed to articulate the very core of who we are at St. Peter's and what we're called to do. The final draft is still yet to be determined, but it looks like it may be either, “St. Peters is a Christian community that seeks to grow in faith and serve in love." or Through the power of the Holy Spirit, St. Peter's models Christian community by loving God, growing in Christ and serving the world." or something pretty close to these two.

Well, it seems that the creedal hymn quoted in this morning’s passage from Philippians does all that and more. Paul knew that their faith was under fire. They were being persecuted, as he was, by enemies of Christianity. Rehearsing salvation history in his hymn was a persuasive argument for Christian identity, mutual support and unity. The hymn served as a reminder that Jesus was their centre and their model for a life pleasing to God. Besides humility and obedience, Jesus was a model of compassion and forgiveness.

These verses encapsulate salvation history. Singing them would instruct children and catechumens in the central truth of the faith: that God so loved the world he sent his only son to save sinners (to absorb into his own being the sin of the world in his death on the cross); that God raised him from the dead so that all may have eternal life. This is the very centre, and to believe this is to have faith. And it is this truth that unites us.

Generous Orthodoxy is the title of a book published by Brian McLaren a few years ago, and it is also the name of a movement that has been gaining momentum over the past while. It encourages the importance of being strong in the centre of our faith and flexible at the margins. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it offers us great potential as Christians to live and speak and sing in one voice, because it seems to suggest that if we stand united in the very heart or core or centre of our faith, then we can embrace diversity in those matters that are not considered central.

The truth – the only truth – strong enough to bind us together as one body, now and for eternity, is the truth of Jesus Christ: crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again.  

That's our story and we're sticking with it.