Putting On The Wedding Garment of Love – October 15, 2017
Bible Text: Matthew 22:1-14 & Colossians 3:5-17 | Preacher: The Rev. Dr. James R. Wheeler
Sara Miles – a woman I got to know on my sabbatical 4-years ago in 2013 and the author of a wonderful book, Take This Bread – the Spiritual Memoir of a 21st Century Christian – tells how she stepped into a church for the first time in her life (St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Mission District of San Francisco). Here’s what she writes in the prologue to her book:
One early, cloudy morning when I was 46, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.
Easting Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.
And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. I organized new pantries all over my city to provide hundreds and hundreds of hungry families with free groceries each week. (Take This Bread, Ballantine Books, 2007, pg. xi in prologue)
Carol and I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, meeting Sara and joining as a volunteer at the food pantry, where we gave bags of groceries to 500 people on a Friday afternoon. Three days later on Sunday morning we gathered in the same hall around the same table and shared Holy Communion. Feeding the hungry and sharing Jesus’ Body and Blood are both feasts of God’s love and abundance. When I hear Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast I like to think not only of the great feast God will one day give at the end of time but also of the feasts we share here and now.
Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast occurs in both Matthew and Luke. A king wanted to give a wedding feast for his son. So he prepared a great banquet and sent his servants out to tell his invited guests that it was time to come to the feast. But they all found excuses and refused to come. So the king had his servants invite other guests – anyone they could find in the streets and the byways – to come to his banquet. More and more guests were invited until the banquet hall was filled.
That’s the basic kernel of the parable as told in both Luke and Matthew. The setting in Luke (14:15-24) is a dinner party. In Matthew Jesus tells the parable at the Temple just a couple days before he was arrested, hung on a cross and killed. So there’s a much harsher edge to the parable as we just heard it in Matthew. The same kernel of the parable is told in both, but in Matthew there is also a lot of violence. The invited guests not only give excuses why they can’t come to the banquet, they also kill the kings servants who try to get them to come. Then the king sends troops to kill these murderers and burn their city. Finally at the banquet the king finds a guest not wearing the proper wedding robe and has him thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Why so much violence in Matthew’s version of the parable? First is the violent context of Jesus’ imminent arrest. The Jewish leaders of the day rejected Jesus and asked the Roman government to kill him. When traditional Judaism rejected Jesus the early Christians, who were also Jewish, opened up the offer of God’s grace and love to the Gentiles, to all people everywhere. Second, the Gospel of Matthew was written in the years following one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history. The Jewish people rebelled against Rome and the Roman legions utterly crushed the rebellion, burning and leveling the holy city of Jerusalem. The violence in Matthew’s version of the parable reflects that history.
And why is the one wedding guest without a wedding robe thrown out of the banquet. What’s that all about? When a new convert to the faith was baptized the new believer was stripped of his/her outer robes, went into the water, was baptized and then given a new white robe to symbolize his or her new life. The new believer was to strip off the old life and put on Christ. So, anyone not wearing the wedding garment of new life in Christ is in danger of being thrown out of the banquet.
Theologically what we find in the parable is the tension between the call and welcome of all people into God’s grace and love. “Go therefore into the main streets,” said the king “and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” So the slaves went into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matt. 22:8-10) The invitation is extended to everyone. So there’s the tension between that open invitation and the expectation that those who respond positively to the invitation and come also have an obligation to live into that kingdom’s values. The violence in the Matthew account serves to heighten that tension
Here’s how Paul describes the theological shift of conversion in his letter to the Christians at Colosse.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ in all and in all!
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:5-14)
While everyone is invited to the Kingdom the only sufficient credential for Kingdom citizenship is a transformed life. If we don’t put on the garment of love, the garment of new life in Christ; if that transformation doesn’t take hold in us, we are in danger of being thrown out into that outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The life of God’s Kingdom taking root in us in a transformed life is what God expects. It is our part in the feast to share in the life and values of the Kingdom. The good news of the parable is that the invitation is extended to all. Sara Miles is such a beautiful example of that. She literally was walking down the street and for no reason she recognized at the time turned into the church of St. Gregory of Nyssa. Unchurched, unbaptized, an agnostic who had no use for religion, suddenly was invited into the feast. When she ate Jesus in Communion something happened to her. She began to be transformed. She wanted more of this life and she wanted to share it with others in the form of sharing food. In that way hundreds and thousands of others have been invited to share the feast in the form of food for poor people living on the edge.
We are gathered in Holy Communion. This way of worship is a kind of feast. In the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer, at the holiest moment of the worship service, the priest breaks bread and proclaims: “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” And the people respond, “therefore let us keep the feast.” One of the names for Holy Communion is “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” Sound familiar? We are in the midst of Jesus parable of the wedding banquet. Maybe Holy Communion is not full participation in the ultimate banquet promised by God to celebrate the union of God’s people with his Son at the end of time. But Holy Communion is a foretaste of that Messianic Banquet.
When we break the bread and sing “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast,” let us thank God that he has invited us into this banquet and let us pray that he clothe us with his love so that we may continue and extend the wonderful life of his Kingdom. Let us not just be partakers of the feast but let us seek to live in its values of love and service. After all, none of us want to end up in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing our teeth.