St Mary’s, Robinson–Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:28-32
At the risk of stating the obvious—as Christians, one of the expectations we have of ourselves, and of our fellow Christians, is that we gradually come to think and act more and more like Jesus. That’s just a given, right? We believe that we are called to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that it is specifically through the experience of Christian faith and the practice of Christian religion—the indwelling Holy Spirit, the grace of the sacraments, the power of the Word of God operating in our lives—we believe it is through these means that we are supplied with the resources we need to become Christ-like.
For the most part, this way of thinking is an effective map that gets us where we want to go. But, sooner or later, we run into a glitch—an anomaly, an exception—that seems to call the whole framework into question. I’m talking about the conundrum presented by what we might call the “unbelieving saint”—in other words, an individual who has demonstrably Christ-like character, but who does not believe in Christ, or profess to follow him. Mahatma Gandhi is probably the most high-profile example of this phenomenon in living memory, but we have probably all known a truly good and noble and ethical person who may be nominally Christian, but is not active in the Church, or perhaps even patently non-Christian, or even anti-Christian or anti-religion-in-general: a truly lovable atheist!
I am reminded of such “unbelieving saints” when I read this parable of our Lord about the father who asked his two sons to help him out with some agricultural chores. The first one says “No—sorry, Dad, but I’m not available to work in the vineyard today.” In his words, he denied his father’s request. In actual fact, however, he showed up for work. So with his behavior, he granted the request that he had denied with his words. Indeed, we have people who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling or simply won’t bother to say the Creed, or to formally profess Christianity, but who behave in ways that are exemplary of the way Christians are supposed to behave. They say “No” but they do “Yes”—they walk in love, justice, righteousness, and peace. They help stitch together and build up the fabric of human community. In their lives, they honor a God whose very existence they may deny.
Equally perplexing is the conundrum of what we might call the “orthodox scoundrel.” This is an openly religious person—maybe even a priest or a bishop, maybe even an influential Christian teacher or writer or musician—who is puffed up, self-important, judgmental, condescending, inconsiderate, and generally obnoxious in his or her personality. We’ve all known such people. Maybe we’ve even been such people at times!
In today’s parable, there’s also a second son who is asked by his father to work in the vineyard. His verbal response is along the lines of, “Sure, Dad. Count me in. Let me go get my overalls on.” But in fact, he never shows up. In word, he says “Yes,” but in deed, he says “No.” With his behavior, he denies the request he had granted with his words. So, we have people who are impeccably orthodox in the doctrine they profess. They may be pillars of the Church—serving on the vestry or the Altar Guild, showing up wherever the doors of the church are open. But their lives are marked by pettiness, egotism, manipulation, suspicion, and back-stabbing, abusing and exploiting the people whose lives cross their path. They say “Yes” but they do “No.”
Now, while we would have to agree with Jesus that the first of these profiles—saying “No” but doing “Yes”—is preferable to the second—saying “Yes” but doing “No”—neither of them is really ideal. The ideal would be a consistency between words and deeds—saying “Yes” and doing “Yes,” openly following Christ in the fellowship of his Church, but also living a life characterized by genuine personal holiness, the flowering of both the fruits of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, and an authentic sense of vocation and mission.
Fortunately, we have a model for just this sort of life. It is described for us by St Paul in the second chapter of his epistle to the Philippians.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Christ “emptied himself.” The self-emptying Christ is our model of consistency between word and deed, saying Yes and doing Yes. The self-emptying of Christ as described by St Paul, which led inexorably to humiliation and death on the cross, can be viewed in the light of Jesus’ own teaching about self-denial: “He who would be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” And “self denial,” in turn, is another way of speaking about “dying to self.” The path of self-emptying consistency between words and deeds leads us through the territory of dying to ourselves: dying to the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, dying to the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, dying to the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God, dying to that which is merely good, in order to have that which is God’s best for us.
The self-emptying of Christ, then, is more than just an example for us to emulate. It is a sacramental experience into which we are incorporated. This happens when we’re baptized, and then we spend the rest of our lives unpacking the experience. The self-emptying of Christ conforms Christians—those who follow Christ in both word and deed—the self-emptying of Christ conforms us to nothing other than, nothing less than, the shape of the cross, the shape of Christ’s own cross. There is no evading the cross. We must come to know its shape—through suffering—if we are ever going to know it as the “way of life and peace.”
But the very shape of the cross also contains the hint, the glimmer, of what lies beyond it. St Paul continues
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The destiny to which self-emptying conforms us is one of resurrected glory. The end result of both saying Yes and doing Yes is participation in the glory of the risen Christ, complete joy in the presence of God. Let our words be our deeds, and our deeds be our words. See you in the vineyard! Amen.