Sunday 25 • 24 Sep 2017

Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

This week I had a couple of days down in the world’s most liveable city. Welcome to Melbourne: cafes, bookshops, wide streets, the world’s largest tram network, home of the AFL, 4 seasons in 1 day – though to be fair the weather was pleasant, the air was heavy with spring scents – and all would be well, if Iphones, Samsungs, Androids, emails, facebook, Instagram, social media in general had never been invented.

Walking down Swanston Street the pavements were awash with students: heads down, checking the latest message and, so as to demonstrate a capacity for multitasking, one set of ears after another bedecked with expensive looking, noise reducing airphones. Here I am weaving my way in and around a bevy of bodies all seemingly intent on their privatised worlds of friends, likes, emojis.

It’s clearly time to be self-aware; you need to be aware lest your path ahead is cut off at the last minute – or someone accidentally bangs into you – and, in the midst of a muffled apology, it occurs to me what would the apostle Paul make of all this coming and going. Not that he would regard Melbourne as the most liveable city in the world, of course. For him that might have been Rome, or Ephesus, maybe his home town of Tarsus or perhaps that newly revitalized town Philippi, carved out of nowhere on the borderlands between Asia Minor (Turkey) and what we know as Greece, and done so for the sake of veterans who had served in the imperial army.

The apostle would no doubt have been bemused by our means of communicating. The most up to date technology for him was a letter, an epistle rather than an email. There would have been none of the instant connections we take for granted: there was no NBN (there still isn’t in Parramatta), sound-bytes, down loads. Space had to be negotiated – maybe by horse, maybe by sea, maybe by personal courier – and time – well, time took time. No fast food outlets; no prepared chilled meals.

No one would have received an email and then read it silently to themselves. Epistles were not that common: they were often the equivalent of official or public correspondence. And they would all have been read out loud. No one read quietly. Imagine the moment anyone and everyone received an email and needing to read them out loud. Imagine that on a confined space on the train.
These rather fanciful thoughts crossed my mind as I made my way down Swanston Street. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a Christmas present my son had given me some years ago – this book here: Jesus on thy face: social networking for the modern messiah. It’s light-hearted; some might be troubled by it – but it imagines Jesus of Nazareth living his life and carrying out his ministry in a digital age

And, so by way of extension, I wondered what would an email rather than an epistle from Paul have looked like? What might he have said in a tweet, if indeed he was seeking to twitter not fake news, but good news? What kind of emoticons would he have used – feeling sad, joyful, not ashamed, righteous? The truth of the matter is that it’s hard to imagine Paul being an apostle in our time – his letters are too long for an email. The ideas are often too complex; and it’s becoming hard to imagine how what he has to say about the Christian life and that call to imitate Christ might capture the hearts and minds of those now reared on social media, skype, zoom, Reddit and Linked In.

I suspect that Paul would have struggled with the demands of our being on-line, 24/7. It’s true that he liked to be connected with his brothers and sisters in Christ in the churches that he had founded in the course of his missionary journeys. He liked to know they were standing firm in the faith that they had received. Were they holding fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ that he proclaimed to them?

Or were they facing difficult circumstances from the powers-that-be, maybe even their neighbours and fellow citizens? Were they now having to address issues that had arisen in his absence and for which they had never been prepared? Paul liked to maintain his links with the churches he had established – and his letters, his epistles bear witness to that commitment.

But his reason for his writing had little to do with just a general enquiry as to how you were doing. I suspect that he would have been completely lost in the world of Facebook where you can acquire virtual friend after virtual friend, - where you can express your likes and a horror with a click and contribute a comment to a discussion thread. Paul’s epistles are a far cry from student activity walking down Swanston Street.
His letters are what are called occasional. They are responding to specific issues; there’s a problem in the life of the church here and there; he is giving his advice and in the course of his letters he is spelling out what it means to follow the risen and exalted Christ, for let us remember Paul did not know it seems, Jesus in the flesh. He is at a remove from the kind of ministry to be found in the gospels. There are no parables like the one we find in this morning’s reading form Matthew to be found in Paul’s correspondence.

This letter to the Philippians follows the normal pattern of an epistle from that time. It begins with Paul saying who he is; he extends a greeting – grace and peace to you – which is what we might call a cross-cultural greeting: grace is the Greek greeting, peace, shalom is its Hebrew equivalent. These greetings are saying so much more than a casual g’day or how are you? I haven’t seen you for a while; they convey so much more than an emoji or a tap on your smartphone.

Grace has to do with the bestowal of a gift; it conveys a sense of thankfulness, and the Greek word from which is taken is also related to our English word joy. It brings together these three things – gift, thanks and joy. And peace, shalom, - that is more than the absence of conflict; it is more than an interior state of mind and well-being. It is a greeting that brings together well-being, wholeness, completeness; safety.

In a way that perhaps might escape us Paul is breaking the norms in this hi-tech form of communication for him and his day – the letter. He is being cross-cultural; through his choice of words he is making use of greetings that are used in different cultures- and the is baptizing that greeting so that it becomes Christian.

It is Paul who is binding together this talk of grace, peace, God our father and Christ Jesus – so that this gift, this joy, this sense of safety and well-being is to be found not in the equivalent casual handshake but only in and through Christ … and so, Grace and peace you, the church of Christ in Crows Nest: halle, hallelujah, praise the Lord.

What then follows is an act of thanksgiving. There is a certain form and courtesy to be observed in this means of exchange. You think about the person who is going to receive this letter, this epistle and you give thanks for something about them. And, in Paul’s case, he gives thanks to God for your faithfulness, for your prayers, for your witness to the gospel – on every occasion in the epistles that we have, he does that, with one exception – the letter to Galatians: you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who calls you – in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel.

Our letter this morning to the church at Philippi. It is the first church that Paul establishes in what we would now regard as mainland Europe. It has its origins in the home of Lydia, a seller of purple, a woman of means in her day. The city in which their church is set is a Roman colony. And it seems as if these Christians are undergoing some form of suffering for the sake of their faith while Paul himself is languishing in prison. He is in chains. He is uncertain about his fate. He does not know whether he will live or whether he will die. It out of concern for them that he writes.

And he follows the pattern. He give thanks to God every time he remembers them; they are not to think of themselves as a small, isolated and vulnerable community. They are part of something much larger; they are partners in Christ and so Paul prays with joy because of “your partnership in the gospel, in the good news, from the first day until now.”

And then he does something unusual. He speaks with them in the most intimate of ways. He lets them see into his heart and mind so that they can catch a glimpse of what he is feeling and thinking. He uses words here which allows us to see that he is quivering. He hopes he will not be put to shame for what he believes – and yet whether he is to go on living or is this to be the end – he does not know; he does not know which he prefers; he is trembling in between the options. And he can say this because this church at Philippi is a community of Christ, for which he has deep affection, a very deep yearning.

In his day a letter was thought to convey through its words the presence of the person who sent it. It is not like a tweet delivered into cyberspace or a facebook post. This epistle is like a receiving warm pastoral visit from someone who has undergone much trial and tribulation, but has not let overpower them, for he is concerned or you and your well-being.

And his advice: Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel. What might that mean for us now? What might that mean for us when the world in which live can attract and excite - and at the same time play upon our fears as well as our selfless and selfish desires? What might that mean for us when so many of our neighbours have become what one German theologian has called Jesus-averse and Jesus-weary?

What might that mean for us when being associated with the Christian faith can seem like being out of sync with the surrounding culture? Does it mean that we are consigned to feelings of shame and embarrassment at what has happened in terms of abuse and misconduct done in institutions aligned to the wider church? Does living a life in a manner worthy of the gospel mean pouring time, money and energy into an organisation where the resources for its work seem to be thinning at too rapid a rate?

What might it mean to live a life in a manner worthy of the gospel in a time and place where things happen in an instant – in a time and place where we are pulled in so many different directions all at the same time? How does one live faithfully when there are so many competing pressures and what is true, what is good news, whose right and whose wrong doesn’t seem to be clear as once these things were? What does it mean to follow Christ when so much of our lives are fashioned by what things cost, how will budgets be met, what the health system, education system, what’s the neighbourhood like?

The questions tumble over one another. They are not the kind of concerns the answers to which can be found on line through a quick google search or on Wikipedia. The gospel of Matthew puts a great deal of weight on waiting, being attentive, staying awake, having eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand. These things take time; for Matthew they are part of call to be wise, to be just; to see the presence of Christ in the least and the most needy – and sometimes to be generous to those whose seem least worth it.

The men and women for whom Paul wrote his epistle to the church at Philippi did not enjoy our mod cons. They had no internet access; they had no smartphones; they would not go about their business day by day with their head down crossing the street consulting their latest facebook posts or SMS texts. They lived within the constraints and pressures of their own day.

Their world was face to face; in writing to them Paul would encourage them to live a life worthy of the gospel; he would set before them the example of Christ who did not count equality with a God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself; - and, in so doing, invented a new virtue, humility – next week’s theme; he called upon them to imitate Christ and thus live out their lives on the basis that they were a forgiven people; and, they in turn were called to forgive others – which vocation we know is far from easy, and seldom dealt with in an instant.

Why not in the busyness of the coming week, in the situations you find yourself in our highly interconnected world, pause for a while. Why not ponder upon those words and let them dwell within you: only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What might that mean for you?

Now there’s a tweet for you to put alongside those out there in cyberspace to do with such things as a rocket man, a dotard and ‘covfefe’. Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel.