“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
In the setting of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus encounters the less than welcoming high priests entrusted as God’s representatives in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus did not come here to the Temple in Jerusalem to bask in the revelry of his glorious entry. Jesus came to Jerusalem to clarify God’s message of grace and mercy – a message that had been distorted by many of these religious leaders – distorted even by those who considered themselves called by God to their positions of power and prestige.
Through this parable of the two sons, without incriminating himself, Jesus is making the point that the religious leaders have accepted their call to be God’s representatives, yet they have dishonored that commitment – they have said yes and then reneged. On the other hand, there are others to be gathered into the kingdom, often those less typically identified as God’s representatives. These, who come later, Jesus identifies as the tax collectors and prostitutes – those who are seen to have forfeited their lives by extortion and degradation. These latecomers are those who first say “no” to God’s call, but later recognize and respond to God’s call; these come late, yet when they come with great intention, they come humbly and faithfully to follow the will of God.
Through God’s grace and mercy, the door remains open to tax collectors and prostitutes as well as to these spiritually short-sighted religious leaders maintaining the Temple.
Among these religious leaders of the day, we could imagine a young man by the name of Saul. Born a decade or so after Jesus and reared by diligent Jewish parents in Tarsus – modern day Turkey, the young boy Saul likely fulfilled the dream of being accepted to study in the Temple in Jerusalem at the feet of the great leaders. And, as he grew and learned more of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, Saul came to despise those of the movement whose message often challenged that of the chief priests. As a non-believer in this movement, Saul set out with great intention to extinguish the movement through persecution of the followers of Jesus.
But the life of Saul of Tarsus was to take a dramatic turn on the road to Damascus where he encountered for himself the crucified and risen Christ. As Saul was seeking to carry out the persecutions of the followers of Christ, he, Saul himself, was transformed; he became Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, known as the most prolific of all Christian writers and the most famous of all leaders of the early Christian movement. We read from Paul’s epistles nearly every Sunday.
Paul could represent the son in our parable who said, “I will not go, but later changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard” – witnessing, founding church houses, writing, shaping the early Church, setting down guidelines for how the Church is to be formed and lived out, and, later, traveling by sea to Rome where his life ended in martyrdom.
For our modern perspective, some of us said “yes” early, having never known what it is to be without the Church in our lives. From earliest childhood, Sunday meant Sunday School and church attendance; summers included Vacation Bible School and Church camp; Wednesday evening was the time set aside for choir practice and prayer meeting. Others of us knew nothing of that lifestyle. And for most, our “church life” is something in between – ebbing and flowing through our lives. Yet, we are all here today.
For those who said “yes,” faith has been pursued with great intention since early age; for others, even if we went through the motions, we did not become intentional Christians until a later time in our lives. Perhaps, being intentional about your Christianity is still not something you consider consciously, though you are present and continuing to seek a greater awareness of God’s presence.
Regardless of where we’ve been along our faith journey or where we are going, we all stand redeemed. The wretched Saul who, like the religious leaders in confrontation with Jesus in the Temple, believed himself to be pursuing God’s call, though that call was corrupted from his distorted view of God’s will for his life. God would change that dramatically on the Road to Damascus.
Similarly, time and time again throughout history and today, those we would consider to be the most unlikely – the most wretched of souls – have found God’s redemption made available through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John Newton, the eighteenth century Anglican priest and author, had lived a scandalous previous life of drunken debauchery. As the son of a highly ranked officer in the Royal Navy, Newton spent much of his early life as a sailor who was picked up and brushed off after many a drunken brawl that led to his near demise more than once. Finally, pulling himself together well enough to become a financially successful ship captain, John Newton invested in the highly lucrative business of transporting slaves across the sea. Early on, John Newton was a well-known slave ship captain.
Yet, in a fantastic demonstration of God’s ever present offering of the gift of grace, John Newton turned from his wretched abhorrent life; the seeds of faith having been sown in early childhood by Newton’s mother; finally, those seeds sprouted. Late in life, John Newton began seeking God’s will for his life. He was ordained into the Anglican faith.
Today, John Newton is best known for penning the words that were the source of his guidance into a hymn that almost everyone knows regardless of the degree of “churchiness.” The hymn is Amazing Grace – penned by this former slave ship captain. John Newton had come late, but he was redeemed nonetheless. The poignancy of the hymn is accentuated, not by the fact that it was created by an Anglican priest, but because it flowed from the fervent converted heart of a former slave trader who for so many years said “no” to God’s call, but then said “yes” with the greatest intention.
John Newton and the Apostle Paul first said “no” but then came later to the vineyard. And, Paul continues to speak to us in his timeless epistle writings such as these words included in Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi that we have read today – words known as the Christ Hymn. Paul writes to the Philippians from prison. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Say “yes” with great intention, to the ministry to which you are called by God.
As the Body of Christ, we are representatives of Jesus Christ; we have said “yes” very publicly to the work of the vineyard. The world is watching to see if we will distort God’s message and renege on that call or accept it with great intention.
Few understood this truth better than the latecomer, the Apostle Paul, reminding us: “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” [Phil. 2:13] – enabling our work in the vineyard, it is never too late to say yes and to go.