Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 26], rcl yr a, October 1st, 2023
2nd Sunday in Stewardship Focus
EXODUS 17:1-7; PSALM 78:1-4, 12-16; PHILIPPIANS 2:1-13; MATTHEW 21:23-32

make my joy complete

In 2007, the leader of the American Megachurch Willow Creek presented some discoveries in a book long report about that church. In many ways, many would have looked to Willow Creek as an example of success. They had deeply influenced the landscape of North American Christianity, having pioneered the idea of “seeker sensitive” churches—the idea that if you give people what they want, they will come to church. It led to church services that looked as much like a rock concert as it did worship; you might not even hear a sermon, but see a play.

And in terms of growth, they were right. They had a membership in the 10s of thousands. But in 2007, they said “we made a mistake.” What was this mistake “Increasing levels of participation in [church programs] does NOT predict whether someone’s becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more.”

Willow Creek’s own research told them that just getting people in the door, even if people are doing lots of church based activities, does not lead to discipleship. And so Willow Creek started on a path of building disciples; the result was that their attendance actually declined.

Last week I spoke of Paul’s joy simply that Christ is proclaimed, even by people who, according to St. Paul, weren’t living out the gospel. Just to speak the name of Jesus was enough to bring Paul joy, even if they were in fact his opponents. And today we hear more from St. Paul about joy. What St. Paul speaks about today, is not just joy, but about a joy made complete.

And what makes St. Paul’s joy complete? What makes St. Paul’s joy complete is not simply in proclamation of Christ, but Christian discipleship. Not just proclaiming Jesus, but following Jesus. Be in agreement with one another, says St. Paul to the Philippians. Love one another. Don’t act selfishly, thinking only of yourself. In fact, think of others with generosity. Don’t look out just for yourself. Instead, look out for the interests of others.

This is all good advice, though it is directed at a particular community, with its own particular problems. Paul felt the Philippians were in too much disagreement, so he wanted to be clear that following Christ brings unity to the church; the Philippians were selfishly concerned with themselves and their own honour, and so he asked them to bring greater honour to others, and to be attentive to the needs and interests of others.

All good advice! But it was meant for the Philippians.

And we are not the Philippians, are we. We are what, the St. Johnians of Kitchener, Ontario? I imagine Paul would have different advice for us, the St. Johnians of Kitchener. He would have joy that in our liturgy, every Sunday, we proclaim the Lordship of Christ. That in the liturgy, and the sermon, we proclaim the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension of Christ. We might bring joy to St. Paul, but I wonder, what would make St. Paul’s joy complete, if he were to visit the St. Johnians of Kitchener?

We don’t get those specifics, do we. What St. Paul gives us is something better, actually, than specific advice. St. Paul reminds us of the centre of any discipleship, the heart of our faith lived out, and the nucleus of the Christian life: and that centre, that heart, that nucleus, is Christ himself. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” say St. Paul.

Jesus is the ethical centre here. That is, the shape of Christ’s own life is a guide to our life. And what’s important for St. Paul, as we imagine what it looks like to follow Jesus and be like him, is that Jesus, though he was God, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” That is, following Jesus looks a lot like humility, and self-giving, of not holding on to our power, or our wealth, or our privilege, just for ourselves.

And Jesus is “obedient to the point of death,” “even death on a cross.” Following Jesus means giving over the whole of ourselves to God—indeed the wholeness of our very lives. “Act like Jesus.”

Rhis ethical model of following Jesus—this “act more like Jesus” way of imagining discipleship—has been the way many of us have been taught to imagine the Christian life. But it’s both too much and not enough at the same time. It’s too much about what we do; and it’s not enough about what Jesus does, what God does, what the Spirit does in us. That’s to say, if we think following Jesus is about simply doing our best to be more like him, what we are missing is the grace part.

The grace part has to do with what only Christ can do: and that is, that it is only Christ who saves; the grace part is that it is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies, it is the Spirit that shapes us into the form of Christ, as people and as communities. Jesus isn’t just a role model for us, Jesus is not simply someone to emulate, someone to mimic.

Instead, to have the same mind in us as Christ Jesus is to be drawn into Christ’s own body, and to be given the mind of Christ—by Christ and the Spirit, and in Christ and the Spirit. We are given into Christ’s own life in such a way that discipleship is but the activation of grace, and our cooperation with grace. Where even our discipleship, our following Jesus, and being made like Jesus, is by the power of God’s own Spirit.

And so what would it look like, for us, the St. Johnians of Kitchener, not just to proclaim Christ with joy, but also to be disciples of Christ, and to make that joy complete? What would it look like for us to be a church that is welcoming on Sunday, but also a church that grows deeper in the love of God and in our likeness to Christ, by the grace of discipleship?

One part of that is being answered in our stewardship program this year. We are about to celebrate those whom God has welcomed into our life as a church. We are about to share our joy in Tianna, and in special anniversaries and birthdays like William’s. We are also making invitations to grow deeper—to give of yourself sacrificially in terms of your financial donations to the work of St. John’s—looking to the interests of others, not just our own. We are making invitations to grow deeper at our ministry fair in two weeks, through offering of yourself to ministry.

Over the next weeks we will be doing the work of discovery, the discovery of what we have to offer the world, and to one another, a deep dive of discovery into what it means for the St. Johnians of Kitchener to follow Jesus in the power of God’s Spirit. And always according to the shape of Christ’s own life—that is, sacrificially; in the hope of the resurrection; and all for the glory of God.

And this by grace, in the power of the one who makes our Christ-shaped life possible. This by grace and with joy, the joy of the proclamation of Christ, and also in the fullness of joy, a joy that is made complete by following him, and growing into his likeness not on our own, but in him and through him, the author of our salvation, and the one before whom every knee shall bend—our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.

The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD