Theme(s): God's generosity / God's mercy / the first will be last / living worthily of the gospelSentence: Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.(Philippians 1:27)
God our ruler and guide,
when we come to the place where the road divides,
keep us true to the way of Christ,
alive to present opportunities,
confident of eternal life,
and ever alert to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Paul (in Philippians below) is delighted that Philippians have heard the gospel and become Christians. There could not be a greater contrast re preaching and its outcomes than between Paul's delight and Jonah's sulkiness.
Jesus tells a parable (in Matthew below) in which early recipients of an employment contract are bitter about only receiving the same pay as late recipients of a contract. This bitterness has some common ground with Jonah's bitter response to people responding to his preaching and repenting because of it. In both cases there is a lack of joy that people not in 'my group' receive a blessing I thought only belonged to that group.
In this psalm we read/sing beautiful, comprehensive, inspiring words of praise to the God whose greatness is 'unsearchable' and whose character is 'gracious and merciful.'
I have no idea why we have switched out of the last chapters of Romans to Philippians!
But what a great passage to switch to. Nowhere in his writings does Paul better declare his passionate devotion to Christ than in this chapter. Writing from a dank prison cell, in verses 21-24 he expresses his torn desires between living in this world (fruitful labour as he encourages the churches and preaches the gospel) and departing this world to live in eternal, full-and-intimate fellowship with Christ.
He will remain in this world (25) for the sake of the Philippian church (25-26).
Paul lives and dies for Christ but the church is very close in his passionate commitment: he will stay physically alive for the sake of the life of the church. How devoted are we to Christ and to his church?
But the Philippian church are not babes to be nannied by Paul. His role is to assist their development as Christians, not to do everything for them. He expects them to be mature in their faith. Hence verses 27-30.
They, and we, are asked to 'live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' (27).
Presumably that includes matters such as forgiving others (since the gospel tells us of God forgiving us) but here Paul emphasises three matters (27b-28) after 'so that' (27a):
1. 'standing firm in one spirit'
2. 'striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel'
3. 'in no way intimidated by your opponents.'
In other words, living lives worthy of the gospel is living lives in solidarity with other disciples, sharing the intention to both proclaim the gospel (evangelism, see 1:1-18) and defend its truth (chapter 3), all without fear of what opponents may do.
That opponents of the gospel cause suffering, such as Paul himself is experiencing, is a real possibility. The Philippians are experiencing that but Paul reminds them that this is actually, under God, a 'privilege' (29-30).
We could call this passage 'the parable of the gracious employer' or we could call it 'the parable of the ungrateful employees'.
Following on from last Sunday's passage about generous forgiveness (18:21-35), we read here that the kingdom of heaven is as equal a blessing to those who turn up to it early as to those who enter at the last minute.
God's generous welcome into the kingdom is not proportioned to give more to those who commit to the kingdom from the first, with crumbs of blessing given to those who come last.
The parable (20:1-15) is framed by the comments in 19:30 and 20:16 about the last being first and the first being last.
In part this refers to the inclusive and expanding nature of the gospel (cf. Matthew 28:16-20): as the Gentiles are included in the scope of the gospel, Jews may be resentful that the Gentiles are the 'Johnny comes latelies' as recipients of God's blessing. Jews in Matthew's community of gospel readers/hearers must understand: the last are equal to the first.
In part this refers (noting what precedes 19:30) to a general lesson to all disciples: God loves all equally and welcomes all into eternal life which is without distinctions between those who respond early and those who respond late.
Such parables drive certain values deep into Christian consciousness: (1) God is gracious, (2) no Christian is more meritorious than another, whether we are lifelong Christians or deathbed converts we are all one in Christ.
Very importantly, all people are equally worthy of hearing the gospel, of receiving our charitable actions and of being the objects of our prayers.
In practical and political terms, a recently arrived refugee is as valuable a citizen as a sixth generation descendent of early settlers from Europe or as Maori descended from the arrivals in the tenth century.
In the life of our churches, it can be a challenge to treat the newest newcomer with the same Christian affection as the longest standing members. All too often a natural reserve inhibits our deepest inclusion of newcomers. Today's gospel challenges us to overcome such hesitation.