"Prayer Vs Works" -Sermon by Joe Ellis on Philippians 2:12-18 — Oct. 10, 2021
One of my favourite things to do in a sermon, which is to say I’ve done it before, is to bring characters from the Bible into conversation with each other. As I’ve been working on this passage for this Sunday, Mary and Martha have kept coming by to give me their two cents on this passage. It’s been an interesting conversation, because these two Bible characters gravitate to different parts of what Paul is saying and they keep trying to persuade me to emphasize different things in this sermon. It’s been a confusing week.
You remember Mary and Martha? They were good friends with Jesus. They wrote him a note when their brother Lazarus was dying, asking Jesus to come look after him. When Jesus came too late and their brother was dead, Martha still said, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” In this story, she outshines her sister Mary in terms of her faith. I say that because when we meet them in Gospel of Luke, Mary clearly outshines Martha. Jesus comes over to their house for dinner and Martha is stressed out - busy doing all the preparations for dinner, working to provide a wonderful feast. Meanwhile, Mary is just sitting at the feet of Jesus, soaking in his presence. Exasperated, Martha finally vents her frustration: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. For the rest of church history — Mary has represented the contemplative, prayerful side of the faith. Martha on the other hand, has represented the active side of the faith — getting things done. Sometimes they coexist really well together, but sometimes the Martha’s and Mary’s in this world get frustrated with each other and start a tug of war. Well, its not really a tug of war, because Martha ends up being the only one pulling on the rope while Mary just prays for Martha’s soul. Martha grips the rope and cries out: “Action is more important!” Mary says, “Prayer is more important — unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain!” Which do you think is more important — praying to end poverty, or setting up micro financing programs to help lift people out of poverty. Which would you rather do? Pray for people to know Jesus or would you rather actually tell them about Jesus? That’s the sort of tug of war that happens between the Mary’s and Martha’s in us. Which are you?
So, I had Mary and Martha on my shoulder this week as I was trying to wrap my mind around this passage. Martha initially took really well to what Paul was saying, almost pushing Mary to the background. After all, so much in this passage is about doing. So much of what Paul says is full of concrete action. Paul is encouraging his friends in Philippi to act. Paul emphasizes the doing part of faith because for him the end may be near. He might be poured out like a drink offering — a euphemistic way of saying that he might be soon executed. So, he wants to make sure that the people in Philippi understand the faith. That way Paul can rest assured that his work won’t die with him. In a way Paul is handing off the baton, hoping his friends will take the charge to exalt Jesus’ name in the next generation. “Mmmmmm hmmmm,” says Martha nodding as she hears Paul’s words. For a committed worker of the faith, Paul’s words strike all the right chords. He is exhorting his friends in Philippi to continue in obedience, to continue working out their salvation, to act in fulfilment of God’s good purpose. Working out our salvation is the great counterpart to salvation being grace alone. Yes, we are justified, we are forgiven, we are declared to be in the right before God, in short we are saved entirely through God’s grace. Not through any work of our own. Yet we are still called to work out our salvation. That is, we are to work out the forming of our character, we are to work to become more like Jesus in what we say and do — this is the working out of our salvation. It means our lives will look different as we progress in the faith. And we are to take this seriously, very seriously — Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” This process of becoming more like Jesus is called sanctification. Martha hears all this talk about work and obedience and sanctification and lets out a full-throated ‘Amen!” She pokes Mary in the ribs and says, “Let’s go to work!”
But Martha keeps listening, because Paul isn’t done with his talk about our work. Look at what Paul says next about us shining like stars — this tells you what working out our salvation is all about — it’s all about mission. Paul says we are to shine like stars in the sky for a crooked and depraved generation. Shining like stars gets at what Israel, God’s people, had always been called to do. In Isaiah, God says to his people, “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Again in Isaiah, God says, “I am the Lord, I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Paul is challenging us to take up the calling that the people of God always have had, to be a light of the world, to work to transform this world to be more like the Kingdom of God. We are to work to make it so that in our relationships, our communities, our jobs, our land — in all these we are light, and because of our light they are brought closer to the reality of God’s kingdom. We work to bring everything in our influence closer to God’s idea of justice, and joy, and peace, and harmony. Martha listens in with rapt attention, eagerly nodding. This requires work and action. Paul uses the metaphor of a race. We are to be like the runners in the local Isthmian games — the athletes would vigorously train, they would sacrifice themselves all in pursuit of one goal. The winner of those games was given a crown to wear, a crown of dry celery — the celery crown is nothing compared to the victor’s crown awaiting the faithful servants of God. Paul says we are like training athletes — and we train to shine like lights in the world and so transform the world into the Kingdom of God.
Martha’s view is prevalent in society. In fact, Martha’s priorities play out in the strangest places — After church, go home and listen to a song played by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros — the song is called “I Don’t Want to Pray.” If you took Martha to her extreme, this song would be her anthem — it goes “I don’t wanna pray to my maker — noooo! I just wanna be what I see… See I’m looking to become not the pray-er, but the prayer.” This isn’t a Christian band, and I’m 100% sure that Martha would have a lot of difficulties with the song — but you get it — its an ode to a pure Martha spirituality. The song is more Martha than Martha. Yet the song speaks to a lot of unspoken Christian convictions. Many of us are very comfortable with a Martha Christian work ethic — we are all too happy to forget about the life of prayer and just get to work. Many of us are drawn towards Martha’s Christian work ethic because you can actually see results! You can actually measure it! If we are called to be a light to the world, let’s measure the lumens we put out. This year we built 6 houses. This year we did three baptisms. This year, 10 people came to Christ. We fed this many people. We did this in our youth group! One reason that Martha’s approach is so attractive because it is so measurable, its so concrete, it’s “get-er-done.”
After we finish listening to the song, “I Don’t Want to Pray”, Mary taps us on the should and clears her throat — the one who reminds us of the one thing needed. She says, “Yes, Paul does tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but don’t lose what he says next!” Paul says, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. For it is God who works in you to desire and to act in order to fulfil His good purpose. Get this — our work is God’s work — our actions are the result of God’s activity in us — it is God working in us that even brings about our desire to do good, to serve Him. So, that means that all of our work in working out our salvation… all of our work in shining like a light among the nations, all of our work to transform this world to resemble the Kingdom of God — all of that must have its beginning and end in God. Our desire to serve God, and the action itself, Paul says, is always rooted and grounded in God. Jesus put it this way: We must be the branch attached to the vine. If we are not attached to the vine, we might think we are a light to the nations, yet find ourselves nowhere near God’s agenda for this world. When people work out their salvation and are detached from the vine, the worst things can happen. Yet those things are still done in the name of Christ! Jesus warned us about this: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” For many years this passage deeply confused me — how could this happen? As I’ve gotten older this passage has actually become strangely comforting. When we are confronted by some of the vile and atrocious acts done in the name of the Lord — residential schools, for example. These actions were done by people who carried the name of Christ but had long since fallen off the vine. When we fall off the vine, when we are detached from Christ in our life of prayer — our character withers and our actions become misguided. So when Mary reads this passage, she says “Yes, Paul says that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling — but it is God who is the source of the working out. God is the source of our obedience. God is the source of our desire. God is the source of our action. We need to stay attached to the vine. We do that through prayer.”
And this is where it comes full circle — Mary and Martha were never really pitted against each other. Throughout the course of church history, Mary and Martha learned to be friends. There is a 13th Century cathedral that has stone carvings of Mary and Martha. In the cathedral are carvings of Martha doing works of mercy, and there are carvings of Mary praying. Yet in the centre they come together, and the sisters are shown to be holding hands. That is the proper relationship between prayer and work. Our work arises from our prayer, from contemplation. Because it is God who works in us to desire his will and act in his ways — it makes sense that we would spend time with this God inviting Him to fill us with His desire and direct our steps. Through prayer, we invite the Spirit of Jesus to fill, to shape, to transform, to direct us in order to fulfil his good purposes. So, we enter our time of prayer and contemplation with Mary, and when we finish praying, we rise to work with Martha. We rise from our prayer a bit closer to being like the blameless and pure children of God that Paul describes, and so we are a bit more ready to shine as a light in a warped and crooked generation.
Paul knows this — which is why throughout his writings we see such an emphasis on both prayer and of action. Mary and Martha were always meant to hold hands. Yet, I think we can often be drawn more towards one or the other. Sometimes we can be drawn to works, and forget prayer. Or we can be drawn to prayer and forget works. I wonder if the Spirit of Jesus might be nudging you in one way or the other. Perhaps he is saying, “Come, sit at my feet. You have been going on your own, doing your own good works for too long. Return to the one thing that is necessary.” What would that look like for you? What might be a simple spiritual practice that you could start regularly implementing? Maybe it could be reading a Psalm a day. Maybe it could be reading a short passage from the Gospels and thinking on it for ten minutes.
Or maybe the Spirit is saying something different — perhaps He is calling out the suppressed Martha in you, saying, “The time is now. The harvest is plenty and the workers are few. Arise! Now is the time!” What might be some small ways that you could act in your workplace, at school, at home, in this community — that make this place a bit more like the Kingdom of God — full of goodness, justice, kindness, joy and peace? Know that either way, in prayer or in action, it is God who gives you strength. From beginning to end, he is our Saviour.