Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Stone that the Builders Rejected

Matthew 21:33-46

 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes.

Years ago Newsweek magazine published an article called, “the Other Jesus” by columnist Kenneth Woodward. In it he discusses why--although many religious traditions have adopted Jesus as their own--the Jesus of the gospels in unique. He writes,

“Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus' death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, "is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus." There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence--and hence there is no reason to believe in him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead.”

Our Gospel reading today brings us face to face with the rejection and murder of God’s son. In it we learn that Jesus’ imminent death was not a mystery to him. He understood it to be the consummation of his mission, the very purpose for which he was sent. It was prophesied beforehand. He quotes from Psalm 118:22 to indicate this.  It the Lord’s doing he said. Somehow God is able to turn the deepest human rebellion into his greatest blessing to humanity.

The people to whom this revelation was entrusted, his own nation, the nation of Israel, could not perceive it. He tells of his rejection and crucifixion under the cover of a parable. The landowner is God, the vineyard he plants and provides for is the nation of Israel. He built a fence around his vineyard, meaning he called them to be holy and separate. He entrusted his vineyard to tenants, meaning the rulers and chief priest. He looked for fruit but found only wild grapes. The servants he sent—his prophets—were shamefully treated, beaten, and killed. Finally he sent his Son—Jesus himself—but they cast him out and murdered him.

Interpreting Jesus’ parables can sometimes be challenging, but this one seems obvious to us, in light of what we know about to happen to Jesus. Jesus’ hearers, Israel’s religious leaders seem incapable of hearing what Jesus is saying to them. What should happen to the tenants that have murdered the landowners son? “Kill the wretches!” they say, “give the vineyard to other tenants who will be faithful!”
They were unable to see that Jesus was speaking of them!

If their problem was merely ignorance, then they would have received the prophets with joy, for they brought them the light of revelation. If all that was needed to direct them to righteousness was a bit of guidance, than a wise teacher or religious sage would have been savior enough. The problem was much deeper and more pervasive than this however.  It wasn’t that they were ignorant of God’s ways--after all he had given them the law and sent them the prophets—the problem was that they were captive to a wicked power, a spirit of rebellion fundamentally opposed to God. This needed to be broken. Their rebellion needed to be overcome, and their sins which separated them from their God, needed to be atoned for.

Israel’s rebellion against God and their rejection of his Christ was not unique to them, rather their rebellion and captivity is a picture of the state of the whole human race. Because we have rebelled against God and rejected his rule, we have fallen under captivity to the devil, sin, and death. Only the death of God’s Son is able to liberate us from this captivity.

Jesus is the Stone that the builders of this world rejected. In ancient architecture the cornerstone was the principle stone placed at the corner of a great edifice, such as the temple. The Cornerstone was the most precious, valuable, and carefully constructed stone in the entire building. It was the stone upon which all others rested and it brought unity to the whole. The Church can be compared to a temple with each of us being like living stones. Christ is the head corner stone. Our strong foundation, the one who holds us all together, and the one given the greatest honor. The metaphor is similar to the picture of the Church as one body with Christ as the head. This one, that has been scorned and rejected by the world, is the one whom God has given the chief importance and the greatest honor.

The stone is a common image for Christ throughout the Bible. For instance Christ is the rock which was stricken and gushed out water for the people of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus is also the Rock prophesied of in the book of Daniel. The stone not carved by human hands that would smash the kingdoms of this world to dust and become a mountain that will fill the whole world.

Those who fall on this stone—who are offended at Christ and reject him as Lord—are broken to pieces. None can oppose his rule. Either we receive it with gladness or we are destroyed with all that stands in opposition to his righteousness.

In seeking to destroy Christ, the evil forces that rebel against God and hold the human race captive—sin, death, and the devil—were themselves destroyed. They saw in him one who was meek, lowly, and defenseless like a lamb and like wolves they descended on him to slaughter him, but instead found themselves consumed by his mighty power like gazelle who sought to oppose a lion. They railed against the indestructible stone of his divinity and were shattered into pieces.

As Saint Paul says, if the rulers of this age knew his true identity they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinithians 2:8).
The Early Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, used this power metaphor,

“the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down [by the devil] along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active."

Christ bore the worst of human sin on the cross. He absorbed our rebellion and destroyed it in the blazing fire of his righteousness. Through his death, death itself died. Although we rejected him, God raised him up and gave him the name above every other name. If we share with him in a death like his, we will also share in his undying, resurrection, life.
Christ made our denial of him the means of our acceptance, he turned weakness into strength, disrespect into honor, and death into life.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

True Humility






Philippians 2:1-13

As many of you know, we began a marriage course here at Christ Church a few weeks ago. On Friday nights a group of couples in our parish have been meeting to share a meal together, watch a DVD teaching, and work on exercises with their spouse designed to strengthen their marriages. My wife and I are going through the course ourselves. The words of our Epistle reading this morning speak to one of the consistent themes that I have noticed in the course. Paul writes,

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

A necessity for a harmonious marriage--any relationship really--is the ability to put the needs of our spouse before our own. If each partner is directed first and foremost to the interest of the other rather than acting out of selfish ambition than each one will feel loved and affirmed by the other. If each partner considers their own sin to be the biggest problem in their marriage, rather than conceitedly thinking that all the fault lies with their spouse, than conflict will draw them closer together rather than farther apart. 

Much is often made of the Bible’s instructions to wives in Ephesians 5 to submit to their husbands, but submission is a two way street. In the same passage husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her. In other words, husbands should be willing to sacrifice their own desires for the sake of their wives.

What is true of Marriage is true of Christian relationships in general. The pattern for our life together as Christians is mutual submission. We are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Jesus is our model of this life of submission and self-sacrifice. As his disciples we are called to be imitators of Jesus’ perfect humility. We are, in Paul’s words, called to have the mind of Christ.

What does it mean to be humble? Some have an entirely negative and even morbid idea of what humility is all about—associated exclusively with the consciousness of sin—but if Jesus is our supreme example of humility, this must be mistaken.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  Humility doesn’t mean having a low opinion of your own worth. An overly introspective self-accusatory attitude is merely another species of pride.

The missionary and Christian author Andrew Murray has a wonderful book on humility. In it he writes, “If we are indeed to be humble, not only before God but towards men, if humility is to be our joy, we must see that it is not only the mark of shame, because of sin, but, apart from all sin, a being clothed upon with the very beauty and blessedness of heaven and of Jesus…When we see that humility is something infinitely deeper than contrition, and accept it as our participation in the life of Jesus, we shall begin to learn that it is our true nobility, and that to prove it in being servants of all is the highest fulfillment of our destiny, as men created in the image of God.”

In other words, Humility is a divine attribute. As we grow in humility, we grow more and more in the likeness of God, specifically God the Son. Again Murray says, “Christ is the humility of God embodied in human nature: the Eternal Love humbling itself, clothing itself in the garb of meekness and gentleness, to win and serve and save us.

In order to impress this truth upon his own readers, Paul quotes from a hymn that must have been well known to his hearers. The hymn extols the humility of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Similar to the opening words of John which read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” the author of the hymn is writing about the Son of God before he entered the world and became man in Jesus Christ. He possessed the very essence of divinity, being equally God with the Father. He didn’t consider equality with God something he had to desperately seize or cling to like a robber clings to his spoil.

Our Father Adam, on the other hand, was raised up above every other created thing and given the honor of direct fellowship with God, but he was neither secure nor content with what he was given. Instead, he arrogantly grasped for equality with God and as a result he fell. 

Prideful men feel they have to grasp at greatness. They always have to be first even if it means stepping on others to get there. They demand to be treated with special respect by others. They may come across as cocky and full of themselves but the reality is that they are deeply insecure. Christ, on the other hand, had no insecurity about his status. He didn’t have to argue for or defend his supremacy and so he was free to give himself to others.

He did not consider his own life as too precious to be poured out even for the sake of us sinners. He condescended to be clothed in our sinful humanity. He did not shun even the virgin’s womb. He consented to be born in a manger among straw and dung. He allowed his holy hands and feet to be nailed to a Roman cross and he died in agony. He wasn’t thinking of himself, he was thinking of you and me. He was thinking of his Father’s glory.

Following the example of Jesus means willingly giving ourselves in service to others in the same way. It means not seeking our own glory but the glory of God. Ultimately it is not our work but the work of God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Just as Christ emptied himself of his divine glory to come in the form of a servant, so must we empty ourselves in obedience to him and love for one another.

Those who grasp after glory in the end will be humbled.  But those who pour themselves out for the sake of others will receive honor.  Jesus himself said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If you have been reading the daily office this past week, you read the story of Haman and Mordecai in the Book of Esther. Haman was a high ranking advisor to the King of Persia. He was consumed with hatred because Mordecai refused to bow to him. He wanted him dead. Mordecai on the other hand found favor with the King after saving his life. The King wanted to honor Mordecai and so asked his advisor Haman, “What should be done for the one the king desires to honor?” In his pride, Haman thought “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” He said, “Let a crown and fine robes be put on him and have one of the king’s noble officials lead him through town on horseback proclaiming, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’ To Haman’s surprise the King said, “Go and do this for Mordecai the Jew!”

In his attempt to grasp for honor, Haman was utterly humiliated but Mordecai, who sought the well-being of his people, was exalted. 

No one humbled themselves more than Jesus and no one stooped lower for the sake of others. Likewise, no one has been exalted higher than Christ. God gave to him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.