Speaking Of Life 2045 | The Cornerstone Question Greg Williams I am no carpenter by the stretch of anyone’s imagination. Even though I did contract my own house in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I was there from the day we dug the footings until the locks were set on the front door. In my construction experience, I crossed paths with many people in the building trade – framers, cabinet makers, brick masons, and others. A universal lesson I learned is that it is extremely difficult to get square corners and straight lines. And throw out the idea of ever building a perfect house. In God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus, the answer to square corners and straight lines is addressed. Notice the metaphor Jesus uses in Matthew: Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Matthew 21:42 (ESV) When the stonemasons looked through the quarries, they looked for the cornerstone which had the exact lines, weight, and shape to hold a whole structure together. They might use rejected or misshapen stones somewhere else in a building, but the cornerstone had to be flawless and fit the gap exactly or the whole structure falls. This is how we might frame the question of Christ in our own minds and in our conversations with those who don’t know Jesus. Come at it from one direction, and it might seem absurd: an itinerant peasant preacher from nowhere is actually God? But if you see the gospel as the cornerstone—as that foundational starting piece that makes all the other pieces hold together, then the cornerstone—originally rejected because he didn’t seem to fit—holds up the whole structure. The gospel doesn’t always make life easier, or even happier, or even more exciting, but it does enable life to make sense. That’s why Jesus is the answer to the cornerstone question. And it is in him that you and I are fitly framed together and made strong. And it is him the perfect house is being constructed. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 19:1-14 • Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • Matthew 21:33-46
The theme this week: God’s gracious hedge. The call to worship, Psalm 19, sings the praises of God who gave these instructions for how best to be human. Exodus 20 gives us the original Ten Commandments—a hedge of godly behavior setting apart God’s people. In Philippians 3, Paul describes the climactic end of all rituals and markers of being God’s people: knowing Christ. Our sermon, “The Self-Emptying Love of Christ,” is based on this reading. Matthew 21 tells the painful story of the vineyard management gone bad, and the vineyard owner sending his son there, and son’s resulting murder.
The Self-Emptying Love of Christ
Philippians 3:4b-14 ESV
Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. It’s one of those cliché phrases that a middle-aged dad might use to describe a kid burning by on a motorcycle. I already did that—I’ve already had that experience. It’s often used to describe negative experiences as well: Divorce? Car accident? Colonoscopy? It’s a way of saying: I’ve had that experience, it’s nothing new. No need to do it again.
Ask the members to share a been there, done that kind of experience. This could be a fun discussion, or you can relate an anecdote from your own life. After this discussion, read the text.
In a way, Paul is saying the same thing here. From what we can tell, there seems to be a movement of old Israelite rituals entering the new church of Christ. People, as people do, were starting to draw the in-and-out lines. It was becoming US (circumcised, following Mosaic law) versus THEM (Greco-Roman in background, uncircumcised).
There was a movement of people trying to tack other works and rituals onto the free grace of belief in Christ. Paul’s reaction screams off the page—as if he was calling them every name he rightly can to show that these old rituals are no longer needed. He is emphasizing that the Jesus movement isn’t just a call back to more stringent Judaism or more stern obedience; it is something new.
And to those who are congratulating themselves on keeping the old ways, Paul offers this vivid description of how he has been there, done that, got the t-shirt.
“They think they are faithful? I am Hebrew’s Hebrew! I’m a poster child for Israel, from a high-end Israelite family—all ducks in a row, all t’s crossed!”
But then Paul calls it “rubbish” (v. 8) compared to knowing Christ.
Let’s zero in on this dramatic passage today to see the story Paul tells here and how the story can intersect with our own.
The context of this letter is important. Paul is writing to the fairly young church community in Philippi. This was a city known for Roman nationalism, and a retirement spot for Roman soldiers after they had completed their time. The Roman culture there was strong: They had bled for it and were supported by its taxes.
So calling Jesus the true king, and Caesar not, had proven to be a problem for a lot of people in the community. Rome didn’t care much about which gods you worshipped, but they cared very much who you acknowledged as the rightful king and emperor. They also had a mandatory cult that worshipped the emperor, which was one of the ways that he kept his power over a gigantic kingdom. The early Christians got in far less trouble for worshipping Christ than they did for NOT worshipping Caesar.
I think it’s also important to see the context of Paul’s life. The Philippian church is beleaguered, persecuted and trying their best to make it, and he is imprisoned. Not only that, he’s in a Roman prison. As a Roman citizen, he would have had a meager diet that wouldn’t keep you living very long. He was otherwise completely dependent on friends and family, or in Paul’s case on a church community. He’s writing to thank them for their financial help, a gift brought by Epaphroditus (ch. 2), because he needed it to survive.
So we have a small powerless community supporting a malnourished, banished prisoner. Not exactly the backdrop for one of the most enduring pieces of literature in history! But it is here, with the guards staring at him and the rats scurrying across the floor, that Paul writes what’s been called the happiest book of the Bible!
But it couldn’t happen in a better context, really, when you think about the contents and the theme. Philippians finds its center of gravity in a poem or hymn about Jesus that makes up most of chapter 2:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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. (Philippians 2:6-11 ESV)
This is by far the most famous part of this book. It was likely a hymn or poem that was already in use in the Christian community that Paul relates back to them. It focuses on Jesus’ self-emptying love to come to earth—to give up all his rights and privileges as the Son of God to live in helplessness.
And that’s the center of this book that echoes through the whole thing: what Jesus gave up for love. That’s such an important angle, of loving someone, isn’t it? There’s plenty that people do as parents—protecting, providing, disciplining. But what about the things they do without? They give up their freedom, their choices, their spare time. They give up their pursuits and career when the children are young, nights of sleep when they are teenagers, never-returned-loans when they are young adults.
Kids can crush your heart. That’s no secret.
We know what you do for romantic love. Long walks and conversations, special gifts, romantic gestures. But what about what you give up—especially when a relationship gets serious? You have to share space and life with someone. Your decisions no longer just affect you. You have to support someone in sickness and health, through rigors of old age and death.
It is this self-emptying love that forms the central theme of Philippians. That’s why Paul could write the happiest book in the Bible from prison. In terms of chapter 2, we might break it down into bestowed honor and earned honor.
In terms of bestowed honor:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. (Philippians 3:4-5 ESV)
He is an eighth-day one, a real Israelite among Israelites. When people found out his heritage, they stopped what they were doing and listened. He was of high pedigree and he turned heads. This is a powerful, even intoxicating, power to have. Who doesn’t want to be the hero in the western movie who strolls into the saloon and stops all the action, commands the attention?
In terms of earned honor:
“As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6 ESV)
Not only was he an Israelite—he was really good at it! Paul was a rising star, on the road to the corner office, winning the religious, social and cultural game. And he gave it all up to become a nobody. He gave all that up to become a spokesman for a strange new sect that nobody believed would last.
Do you see the theme? This self-emptying love which Christ showed in coming down to us, was imitated by Paul as he gave up all that he once counted as his greatest achievements. There’s an old cliché, well-worn for a reason: “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” We see this in the example of Christ and the example of Paul, giving up their legitimate rights to enter into God’s work.
Back to the parenting analogy. The longer people are parents, the more they realize it’s not about being perfect or chummy or even memorable, it’s about being THERE. That’s what shapes the kids, that’s what leaves an impression years later. The gifts they are given will fall apart, they will forget 80% of the grand wisdom the parents bestow on them, but they will remember whether there parents were there for them. They will remember that they turned off the TV, put down the phone, skipped that work meeting to spend some time with them.
And in a marriage, it’s better to show up on time than to show up late with flowers. This is one of the deepest currents of love, and it’s what Jesus—legitimate Lord of the universe who became a lower-middle class kid—showed us immensely. Paul followed suit and encouraged the Philippians and all of us to follow suit as well.
The conclusion of our reading today offers us another clue as well. The Jewish and Greek parts of the ancient world didn’t always get along. The Jews thought of themselves as the chosen, the Greeks looked down their noses at the Jews and thought of them as unrefined and barbarian. They weren’t always at odds, but there was tension nonetheless.
The gospel comes along and tells them all to break the same bread and sit at the same table. All are included in Christ, and the ground is level is at the cross. These divisions were something Paul dealt with often in his letters, telling them that these old signs of status and religion are obsolete now. We see a subtle hint at that in these next few verses:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14 ESV)
Paul gives this picture of himself as practically a Jewish hero and says it’s all meaningless. He follows it immediately with the metaphor of a runner—the Olympic hero of the Greeks. He says, I used to be the ideal Hebrew, and now I want to be an ideal Christ-follower, pressing on like an ideal Greek! And he declares with honest courage, “I’m not there yet!”
Paul gave up a heritage and a place in society that a lot of us can relate to: a recognized name, a good career, some solid accomplishments. These things were in no way bad in themselves, but God called him to freedom from them. God called him to pack light and be part of something new, to empty himself of everything but love for Christ and his people.
What does it mean to have this self-emptying love?
- Everyday love—Paul wasn’t describing anything dramatic or otherworldly. He was called to lay down daily conveniences and comforts. Many of us might idealize giving up our lives in martyrdom or mission work, but God calls us to simply put others first, give a listening ear, be present. This is the everyday love of emptying yourself for others.
- True love for true self—Paul walked away from so many status symbols and other reasons for cultural pride. It’s easy to let these things gather and cling to us, even in church. I’m part of this group or this ministry or I’ve been here for 30 years. Religious pride is one of the worst kinds. It’s hard to recognize the smell and rout it out.
- Our identity is not in our heritage nor in what we do, but in who we are. We often spend a lot of time trying to achieve what we already have—a relationship with God, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation. Rather than focus on the self, we are called to focus on Jesus and those whom he is focused on, and then love them as he loves them.
- “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.” (v. 13)—What a blessing to read verse 13! Paul calls us to that true life and true love that isn’t afraid to admit its own imperfection. He doesn’t chide them, or us, for not having our act all the way together. He says, “Press on, I’ll be doing the same.”
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life:
- Let’s read this quote from British thinker GK Chesterton about how the gospel answers the human question: “…in answer to the historical query of why it was accepted, and is accepted, I answer for millions of others in my reply; because it fits the lock; because it is like life.” Do you agree? How does the gospel “make sense” of life?
- Why do you think people routinely rejected Jesus—“the stone the builders have rejected” (Matthew 21:42)? How might we have rejected Jesus if he came in our time? How do we reject him when he does?
Questions for Sermon:
- Have you ever had a been there/done that/got the t-shirt kind of experience? What’s it like to watch someone—especially one of your own kids—having that experience themselves?
- Philippians 2 gives us the picture of Jesus emptying himself of power and strength for love and Paul gives the same picture of himself throughout the letter. Have you ever had to “do without” something for a relationship? Was it worth it? Were you glad you gave that up?
- Look again at verses 12-14. The gift of salvation is free through God’s grace—absolutely and completely. Why is Paul talking about strenuous effort, which he likens to an athlete in training, in this section here? What is he getting at?
Quote to ponder: “Humility is the displacement of self by the enthronement of God.” – Andrew Murray, South African Missionary