A few weeks ago I was reading a review in the Tribune of the classic play by Arthur Miller, A View from the Bridge. Theater critics often display an uncanny capacity for using hundreds of words to say something that, in the end, is completely inscrutable. Tribune theater critic Chris Jones is an unequalled master of this art; and, while I’m reasonably certain that he was trying to promote the Goodman Theater performance as something every one of us should hurry down to see, by the time he was through I was thoroughly convinced that neither the play nor the production were things to which I would ever wish to subject myself. But I found one sentence in the review so riveting that I saved it on my desk. It’s 86 words long without even qualifying as a “run-on” sentence, but here are just the last 35 words for you to ponder. Mr. Jones writes of
...the overwhelming visual sense of all these human players flailing around and making each other miserable, even as a giant press prepares to reduce them all to coffee grounds, a fate that awaits us all.
That’s just a tiny sampling of the review, but you get the drift. Now you’re wondering why on earth I saved this review on top of my desk. The answer is simple: it made me think of today’s Gospel reading, and I was certain that it would come in handy for a sermon. If we compare Jones with Jesus, a comparison I rarely would make, you have Jones writing about our being reduced to coffee grounds as “a fate that awaits us all,” while you have Jesus saying, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
I think the difference between coffee grounds and dust is inconsequential. And I think Jones was being uncharacteristically and unwittingly prophetic. But Jones made one egregious error: he stated that the coffee grounds fate “awaits us all,” while Jesus makes it clear that the dust fate awaits only those who have rejected the chief cornerstone, which we know was a reference to Himself as the Messiah. Mr. Jones proclaims universal doom and gloom, the only fate rightly anticipated by those who are without faith. But Jesus fearlessly proclaimed a similar fate for “the chief priests and the Pharisees” who rightly “understood that He was speaking about them.”
Some of Jesus’ parables seem almost as inscrutable as Chris Jones’ reviews. But not this one! With 20/20 hindsight we know exactly what Jesus was using the landowner and his tenants to represent. God, in His amazing lovingkindness, withheld His judgment again and again, sending a whole succession of prophets to urge repentance, obedience, faithfulness and covenant-keeping. We know what happened to many of those prophets. Then God sent the great forerunner, the second Elijah, to prepare the way with his baptism of repentance, to make “the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” And we know what happened to John the Baptist.
Finally God, like the landowner, sent His only Son. But even though the chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus was speaking about them, what was their reaction? Once again it was not one of repentance for having rejected the chief cornerstone (Psalm 118:22, 23). Quite the contrary, they fell short of understanding that “the kingdom of God (would) be taken away from (them) and given to a people producing the fruit of it.” They ignored the warning that “he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” Instead, they “sought to seize” Jesus, being restrained only by their fear of the people who, unlike them, recognized Him as a prophet.
What could possibly have caused such spiritual blindness on their part? Just ask the Apostle Paul. At the very beginning of today’s epistle reading, Paul acknowledged that he himself had all the advantages of a first-century Jew, everything one could possibly need in order to put confidence in the flesh. Yet he launched his early career as one who not only rejected the chief cornerstone but as one who actually pursued and persecuted those who bore His Name and proclaimed His word. Then something dramatic, something completely miraculous, happened to Paul that turned his life around 180 degrees: he had a personal encounter with the risen Christ.
And that encounter changed his value system forever. He wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him” (Philippians 3:7-9a). What an amazing testimony! For Paul, such a conversion in the literal sense of that word, a “turning around,” required a personal encounter none of us has experienced on quite the same level. Perhaps that’s high among the reasons why we, instead of coming to view worldly pleasures and achievements as “rubbish,” try our best to cling to them, even when we know better. We, like the scribes and Pharisees, often are too blinded to see that many things which may in and of themselves have value, are to be “counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
Is this asking too much of us? Does it sound a bit over the top to have to surrender things we really enjoy just “for the sake of Christ?” Not according to Paul. In fact, the very thought of what he had given up in obedience to Christ’s call inspires Paul to write one of the most dense and inspired sentences in all of his letters. It might even please you to know that here Paul has whipped Chris Jones with a sentence that, in the NASB translation, actually has 113 words compared to Jones’ 86. With what, exactly, has Paul replaced his rubbish heap? Here’s his list of eight things that, by sharpest contrast, he now finds to be of “surpassing value:”
- Knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord
- Gaining Christ
- Being found “in Christ”
- Having a righteousness that’s not his own, but that comes from God on the basis of faith in Christ
- Knowing the power of Jesus’ Resurrection
- Sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings
- Being conformed to Jesus’ death
- Attaining the resurrection from the dead
Serving Jesus does not require ordination to the ministry. Did you know that St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day was this past Wednesday, was never ordained to the priesthood? Yet we think of him as the very paradigm of those who have served Jesus selflessly and sacrificially. Francis was set up for life in the incredibly lucrative silk business of his father. But he chose poverty, humility and servanthood over comfort, wealth, prosperity and worldly success. His rubbish heap was spectacularly impressive. But do you think a successful silk merchant from Assisi would be revered as a saint 800 years after his death?
What did St. Francis gain when he gave up practically everything? I would be willing to guess that he might have parroted Paul’s list, on which no improvement is needed. Here it is again:
Knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, gaining Christ, being found in Christ, having a righteousness that’s not his own but that comes from God on the basis of faith in Christ, knowing the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to Jesus’ death, and attaining the resurrection from the dead
Read the life of St. Francis and you’ll find that this list fits him perfectly. Well, almost perfectly. What’s still missing? The prize itself. It’s just what Paul goes on to say in the final verses of this passage, where spiritual humility trumps spiritual achievement even at the very highest levels. Paul wrote, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Who among us would have the slightest ground for boasting about what we have accomplished or about what we have given up in order to know and serve Jesus Christ? How are we doing at laying hold of that for which we were laid hold of by Christ Jesus?
Paul, while nearing the end of his earthly life and reflecting on all that belonged to his past, writes, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” How does he do that? He gives us just two simple strategies for pressing on:
1) first, “forgetting what lies behind,” and then,
2) “reaching forward to what lies ahead.”
For Paul, the forgetting part seemed already to have been accomplished. He had put everything aside for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel. Reaching forward, for Paul, soon would involve martyrdom in Rome, literally “sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and “being conformed to Jesus’ death.” For us, martyrdom remains highly improbable. Yet the little sacrifices we are privileged to make “for the sake of Christ” are an indispensable part of pressing on toward the goal.
And what is that goal? It’s “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The KJV just translates this as the “high” calling of God; but Paul’s Greek is stronger than that. It depicts an upward trajectory so clearly that some have translated it as “the heavenly calling of God.” Heaven is to be our focus. We’re to be a people who are characterized by looking up. What happens when, instead, we cave in to the all-too-human tendency to look down? We’re highly likely to drown in depression because, when we look down, we see unspeakable atrocities everywhere we look. You know the catalogue of recent ones without my having to enumerate them from this pulpit.
I would rather leave you this morning not looking down and wallowing in the sin and shame that pervade our time and fill our media, but looking up heavenward to “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The upward-looking Christian is the one who conquers uncertainty, spiritual myopia, depression, fearfulness and faithlessness. The upward-looking Christian does not wallow in worldly woes but rejoices in what is already ours in Christ. And, above all, the upward-looking Christian joyfully anticipates all that is yet to come when we obtain the prize. That’s our upward calling. It will get us through today, tomorrow and every day, enabling us to say confidently with Paul, “Thanks be to God, who always leads us to triumph in Christ, and through us spreads the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place” (II Corinthians 2:14).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen