1 October 2017 – Building our lives

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The Rev’d Jonathan Gale

Exodus 17: 1 – 7
Philippians 2: 1 – 13
Matthew 21: 23 – 32

Travelling in Europe and the UK certainly has one thinking about history, and the history of religion in particular. Religious buildings always reflect what the designer thinks and a church building certainly gives one an idea of what the architect thought God was like.

What do you think God is like?

Clearly the Israelites, fresh out of the Red Sea and on the way to Egypt, didn’t know what God was like for they ask, says Moses,  ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ This in spite of the fact that God was clearly there before them in the form of a pillar of cloud. They were of course asking a rhetorical question to prove a point, but that’s another matter.

In the email Holly sends out with Day One I mentioned the passage we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
Paul says 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

Jesus, in all the splendour and power of his deity, voluntarily emptied himself of all that, so that he could save us. This is what God is like – like Jesus. I don’t know if anyone has designed and built a church that reflects that! Perhaps the chapel at Vaughan Park? It is receptive, womb-like.
No ecclesiastical building that I know gives one quite the same sense that you should enter carefully because in there, what issues from your life will be reflected back to you and grow into something that is greater than you. The ‘god’ you take out with you will be born in your image.
If that sounds heretical, it isn’t. Think about it. God doesn’t force himself upon us, and yet we force ourselves upon God – frequently. Does he fight back? Does he say, “You should be more gentle?” No, he doesn’t. Like a lamb that is led to slaughter he opens not his mouth.
What you take in is what you take out, only more so.

God is not a authoritarian figure who treats us like puppets.
‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ ask the authoritarian Jews. But Jesus doesn’t answer because it’s the wrong question. He simply gets them thinking about whether his message comes from heaven or not. In other words, Jesus is more interested in authenticity than he is in authority.
Yes, we have authority in Jesus, but it is not the authority of a triumphalist God, it is the authenticity of a God who has emptied himself of his power so that he can engage with us, and in the way that he engages, demonstrate to us what he is like and hence how we should be.
It is a simple fact. God does not force himself upon us. It is far more often the other way round.

The way we are required to be is plain to us in the Scriptures, especially in the life of Jesus. All too often we seek the Lord in order to justify ourselves, not to be changed by him.
This simple fact places a huge responsibility on us. If we are not looking for the servant Jesus we will emerge with the “ugly Jesus” – a reflection of our own self-seeking.

3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, says Paul, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,

We live in a dispensation of grace, not of law. Certainly not of lawlessness, which is becoming more acceptable in the secular world as the old cultural barriers begin to dissolve. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The wild worship of lawlessness and the materialist worship of law end in the same void.”
But for those of us in church circles (both in Paul’s day and in ours) when grace is too difficult because it demands relationship with God, we revert to the default position of law.

Law says, “Do this!” Grace says, “Live by the Spirit.”

Law is assertive because it says, “I know exactly where I stand and what I want.”
Grace is gentle because it says, “I am giving myself to you. Take me and make of me what you will.”
Law says, “I have all the answers!”
Grace says, “How can I love you best?”

Because of this, the responsibility grace places upon us is huge. It is no wonder that Paul, after describing Jesus as the self-limiting God, (the God who empties himself of himself) says this:
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
and then he says something that, if it were read out of context, would appear contradictory: 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

The God who is at work in us can only work when we are in relationship with him, and can only work with what we give him. He doesn’t force himself upon us.
You know the story of the wealthy woman and her poor servant? At the end of her life on earth the servant enters heaven and St Peter shows her to her home: an absolute mansion, beautiful and bright. She thinks, “Gosh! I wonder what my mistress’s heavenly home will look like if this is mine!”
The wealthy woman finally walks through the pearly gates and she is led by Peter’s assistant to a little hut. “Is this mine?!” she yells. “I’m afraid so, Madam,” says the assistant. “It’s all that we could build with what you sent up.”

Architects design churches based on what they think God is like.
We design our lives based on what we think God is like.
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

In summary:

  • God is not authoritarian
  • How we think about God will shape our lives
  • Jesus is the best picture we have of God
  • He emptied himself of his self-importance
  • As disciples (followers) of Jesus, what does that say to us?
  • What you take in, is what you take out; only more so.