Sunday, October 5, 2008

God's Unworldly Peace

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

TODAY IS WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY. On this day it’s nice to think of people all over the world, sitting down together in peace and justice at the Lord’s Table, sharing in the communion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the same time, we know that peace and justice are in short supply in this world. We’d better get busy and make them happen, right? After all, isn’t is all up to us? God is sitting back on His throne waiting and watching for us to get it right. And we will get it right, won’t we? We just have to lobby and legislate and conference and connect and do all those earthly things sincerely enough. If we can just come up with the right program, peace will come, justice will reign, and like the old song says, we’ll "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." And God the Father will pat us on the back and tell us how wonderful we are to have accomplished all this; in fact, He’ll tell us He couldn’t have done it half so well Himself.

Time out! Did you believe one word of that? I hope not! I hope you were saying to yourself, "She’s got to be putting us on. Anybody who’s got any sense at all knows you can’t bring in universal harmony and justice and world peace by legislation and policies and thinking happy thoughts! Things are too complicated for that!"

If that’s what you were thinking, you were absolutely right. Things in this world are too complicated for that. We can’t usher in universal peace by imposing it from the outside by our human efforts. And we certainly can’t get everyone in the world to sit down in fellowship together by pretending our differences don’t matter, by overlooking all the very real disagreements and differences human beings have between each other. The peace of God does not come to the world by way of human effort, not even by the human effort of loving Christians like you and me. We do not have everything under control here. If there is going to be universal peace when some wonderful day all people will enjoy sweet communion with one another, it’s going to have to come from Someone else.

True peace does come from Someone else, and it comes in a way this world would never suspect, through a cross and a grave that was filled for three days and has been empty ever since.

It’s ironic that one of the lectionary readings today should be this one from 21st chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Our denomination is urging us to take today to think about peacemaking, and the Gospel lesson is all about violence and conflict! It’s full of thefts, beatings, murder, and retribution, all over fruit from a vineyard. But through--not in spite of-- all this, this parable of our Lord gives us the key to the peace, justice, and prosperity that will one day bring all the world to fellowship at one table.

Jesus begins, "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard." All His listeners would know that the vineyard stood for the nation of Israel. You can read in Isaiah especially how God’s chosen people were the vineyard He had planted, and how He expected the fruit of righteousness and obedience from them.

Jesus continues, "Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey." Just like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, God delegated responsibility and authority over His people to their judges and kings, their prophets and priests. It was up to these civil and religious leaders to set a good example of righteousness and make sure that the people did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. They were accountable to God to teach and lead Israel so that the nation would reflect the glory of God and cause His name to be exalted among the Gentiles. Jesus’ hearers knew that, too.

But did they? No, you read the Old Testament from Judges to Malachi and it’s one continuous history of conniving kings and pandering priests. Even the prophets, the men and women the Lord sent to call Israel back to His law, more often then not prophesied for money and standing, and perverted the Word of the Lord. And when, as Jesus says in His parable, God the vineyard owner sent His true servants the godly prophets to call for the fruit of righteousness, the tenants, that is, the religious and civil leaders, had them beaten, stoned, and killed.

What if Jesus had wound up His parable by saying, "But things are better now. The chief priests and Pharisees are zealous for the Law. They’re leading the people well, they’re perfect examples of peace and justice, and they’re giving God all the honor and glory He’s due"? No one would have complained about that, the chief priests and Pharisees least of all.

But that’s not what Jesus said. He goes on with His parable like this: "Last of all, he [that is, the vineyard owner] sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said." He describes how those tenants, who everyone knows are the religious and civil leaders of Israel, determine to kill the Owner’s son, how they think that if they do that, they won’t even have to answer to the Owner any more, that the vineyard somehow will become theirs. Maybe they’re thinking the rule of adverse possession will kick in, maybe they think they’re so powerful nobody could come and arrest them for this crime, maybe they’re just deluding themselves. However it was, Jesus depicts these tenants, these leaders as trying to make the vineyard totally theirs.

And that’s ironic, too. Because when the Pharisees first got started as a movement, they did a pretty good job of looking after God’s vineyard. After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, they led the charge to keep the Jewish nation free from the idol worship and scriptural ignorance that got the people removed from their land in the first place. Eventually, though, they stopped being concerned for God and what He said was due to Him, and focussed more on how they thought things should be. Oh, yes, they’d still tell you they wanted to bring in the kingdom of God, but it was by their methods, their techniques, their rules. And ultimately, it was for their glory, not for the glory of God.

But, Jesus says, the Owner isn’t finished. He doesn’t stay away and let the wicked tenants have the vineyard now that his son was dead. "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those wretches?"

His hearers said, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."

Exactly. That’s the way things would work in their earthly economy, and even more, that’s how it would work in the judgement of God. Jesus caps His story by quoting a couple verses from Psalm 118. He says, "Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?" Of course they’d all read that. They’d known that since synagogue school when they were little kids. These verses just rub in the point about something valuable that’s rejected by those who are supposed to be responsible for putting things together. The builders look like fools, but the Lord takes this rejected stone, and makes it the chief element in the whole building and makes everyone marvel at what He alone has done. The rejected son may have been thrown out and killed in the vineyard parable, but the rejected stone does not stay rejected: it brings shame to the builders and glory to God.

And here is our Lord’s conclusion to the matter: The kingdom of God will be taken away from the irresponsible, ungodly leaders and from the faithless people. It will be given, He says, to a people who will produce its fruit. And the rejected stone will bring judgement and destruction upon those who run afoul of it.

But that was hitting way too close to home for the chief priests and Pharisees in the crowd. Verse 45 tells us they knew good and well Jesus was talking about them and their misconduct when He told this parable. And they didn’t like it one bit. They didn’t like the way Jesus was obviously making Himself out to be the son of the vineyard owner, the Son of God. They didn’t like how He was claiming to be the capstone of the nation. Matthew tells us, "They looked for a way to arrest him."

Ironic, right? It’s like they were determined to make the parable come true, by putting the One who claimed to be the Son of God to death. They refused to take warning and change their attitudes and their ways, and so they fell on the Stone which is Christ, to be broken to pieces.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not profit from Jesus’ teaching. But we don’t have to be like that. We can hear, and heed, and become part of the people who will produce fruit for God in His kingdom. We can be the nation that can offer the world true peace in Jesus Christ and invite men and women everywhere to sit down in holy communion at His Table.

Do you want that to be true about you? Then hear what our Lord Jesus says. He says that God is the landowner, not us. His is the kingdom, and power, and the glory, not ours. We hear about the kingdom of God, but if we think that’s something we can bring in by our own efforts, we make the same mistake the chief priests and Pharisees did. For what is the kingdom of God? It is that state of affairs where God is totally in charge, beginning with your heart and mine. It’s a state of peace, justice, and righteousness that only God can give. On this earth it hasn’t come completely or fully yet, and Jesus says that God gives the kingdom of God on this earth to those who humbly acknowledge that it is a gift, and not something they earn or own by right or title. It’s lent as a trust to those who will produce its fruit, the kind of fruit we read about in Galatians chapter 5:22-23. And the greatest of these fruits is total dependence upon God and His ways.

We do not bring forth the fruit of God by using the methods of the world. We give God His due by giving up our human control and abandoning own human schemes--however religious or spiritual they might be-- and turning the ownership of our lives and efforts over to Him.

And isn’t that what St. Paul is saying in our Philippians passage? If any man could claim to be the perfect tenant of God’s vineyard strictly going on his religious pedigree and accomplishments, Saul of Tarsus was that man. But he used his religious power to persecute the church! And let his knowledge of the law convince him He knew better than God.

But our Lord Jesus Christ in His mercy put to death the wretch that was Saul of Tarsus and caused him to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit as Paul the Apostle. It became Paul’s only goal to produce the fruit of the kingdom in himself and in others, not in his own strength, not through his own righteousness, but through Jesus Christ who had taken hold of him and claimed Paul for His own.

What is true peace, in this world and the world to come? As it says in verses 10 and 11 of Philippians 3, it is to "know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead."

That’s not the kind of peace this fallen world wants or desires. But it’s the only lasting peace God our Father has to give. In Christ’s sufferings we find comfort, in His death we find justice, and in His resurrection we find peace forever more.

On this World Communion Sunday, we can have a foretaste of the first fruits of that great banquet, when people will come from east and west and north and south and sit down at table in the kingdom of God. Each and every time we meet as a church anywhere in the world and set aside bread and wine from a common use to a holy use and mystery in Christ’s name, we join in God’s peace with our brothers and sisters of all times and all places, the peace won for us through Jesus’ violent death and earth-shattering resurrection.

To know Jesus Christ is to know peace, for He is the Prince of Peace. As good tenants of His vineyard and joyful citizens of His kingdom, let us come to His table and share in Him, the Son of God, the Living Stone, and our only spiritual bread.

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