parable of the wedding feast
The 20th Sunday After Trinity
Psalm 11, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10, Ephesians 5:15-21, St. Matthew 22:1-14
The Reformation Proceeds
And so we come, beloved, to a milestone in the long march of Christ’s church. Two days hence, on October 31, the eve of the Feast of All Saints, we will mark the 500th anniversary of that momentous day when – according to the lore – a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
So began the Reformation, at the outset an effort to call the church back to the Bible. The result, alas, was a splintering of that church into thousands of pieces, some larger and some smaller, and the chaos that prevails today, half a millennium later.
Protestants fired the pope . . . and made every man his own pope. We have divisions and divisions within divisions. Nowhere are the fractures more evident than in our own Anglican Communion.
Its primates met earlier this month in Canterbury. I would like to say “our” primates, but in truth they are not “ours” and we are not “theirs.” Lest there be any confusion, they made this condition abundantly plain in the statement they issued to sum things up.
To those of us in the Anglican Church in North America they said, “you are not Anglican, but we love you as Christian brothers anyway.”
We are members in good standing of the Anglican Church in North America yet they tell us we are not Anglican. It’s enough to give a guy an identity crisis. I’m reminded of the fellow who wrote a book on the Indiana University basketball program that outraged its coach, Bobby Knight.
Knight – always a model of restraint – called this fellow a “pimp” and a “whore.” The author responded, “I wish he’d make up his mind so I’d know how to dress.”
This analogy is perhaps not far off the mark because the wedge issue, as you know all too well, is human sexuality. It carries us back 500 years to the question the German monk Luther raised: Will the Bible be our guide?
Because if it is, we must follow God’s instruction on what is and what is not an acceptable expression of the sexual nature He gave us. We might reply to those primates who assembled in Canterbury: We know it is not necessary to be an Anglican to be a Christian, but is it necessary to be a Christian to be an Anglican?
Some of us remain stuck in the stodgy old notion that it is, and that to be a Christian is to follow God’s will revealed in His word.
One such is Nicholas Okoh. He is archbishop and primate of Nigeria, and one of those who declined the invitation to the meeting in Canterbury. Others may trifle with Nigeria but if you’re in the oil business or the Anglican business you take it very seriously.
Of 80 million Anglicans in the world, 60 million live in Africa and 24 million of those in Nigeria. Archbishop Okoh speaks for well over a quarter of the Anglicans on this planet – and for even more.
He also serves as chairman of GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference, which was established a decade ago to represent those of us committed to an orthodox expression of the faith once delivered to the saints. Our Anglican Church in North America is a member of GAFCON.
He and other primates refused to participate in the conference this month because Canterbury previously issued sanctions against The Episcopal Church, which it recognizes as the Anglican province in the United States, for blessing same-sex unions and then reneged on its sanctions.
Canterbury’s trajectory could not be clearer. The primates’ statement said: “We welcomed the news that the Church of England has embarked on a major study of human sexuality in its cultural, scientific, scriptural and theological aspects and anticipated considering the results of this work at a future meeting.”
Rest assured that the “cultural and scientific” aspects will trump the “scriptural and theological” ones, which will be mangled beyond recognition, anyway, and that at the next Lambeth Conference in 2020 the official Anglican Communion will embrace same-sex marriage as the doctrine of the church.
Answering for those of us Canterbury has declared non-Anglicans, Archbishop Okoh wrote:
“My dear people of God,
“On the 31st October, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses triggered the Reformation. He was fired by holy indignation because of the way ordinary Christians were being abused by a church which was turning the need for divine forgiveness into a money making machine through the sale of indulgences, but that led him on to see the root of the problem.
“The message of God’s free grace in the gospel had been buried under layers of superstition and human tradition, which Luther and the Reformers then exposed to the light of God’s Word. The recovery of the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the Church was the basic principle of the Reformation. Everything else depended on this and still does.”
And still does. So here we are, these 500 years later, alienated from Rome and apart from one another. Yet we are not adrift. As long as we hold fast to that basic principle of the Reformation, as long as we embrace the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church, we are not adrift.
This very issue that divides us, the matter of how we in Christ’s church are to relate to those who engage in deviant sexual practices, is often framed as one of inclusion. It’s a red herring. For the bottom-line issue is not who is welcome in this congregation but who is welcome in God’s kingdom.
And we find it addressed, of all places, in the Bible, and nowhere in sharper relief than in our gospel lesson for today, our Lord’s parable of the wedding feast of the king’s son. This, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like. The son is about to wed and his father has planned a huge banquet in celebration.
The Lord’s first-century audience would have pictured with no difficulty the scene He was sketching. In the Old Testament, God is married to His people; thus sin, and especially idolatry, is spiritual adultery. We find the same analogy applied to the Son and His covenant people, the church, in the New Testament.
The kingdom of heaven has arrived on the earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, God the Son. He has come to claim His bride, His church, and His Father wants to mark the glorious event with a feast. He invites those with whom He made covenant centuries before, the Jews.
This would not be the initial invitation. The invited guests would have accepted some time earlier, or made a pretense of it. The king’s servants deliver the word that the feast is prepared. The invitation is a summons as well. This is their king who bids them appear, not the president of the local Kiwanis Club.
But they will not come. The king sends out other servants and even sweetens the invitation by delivering the menu for the savory meal He has prepared.
Still, they will not come. Some cite the press of business; these have chosen mammon over God. Others let their hostility for their Lord gush out, seizing and killing the king’s messengers. The king destroys them. They were welcome here, in the kingdom. They chose estrangement from the king, which is death.
Again, the king dispatches servants, this time to invite others. These are the ones who have not known the Lord because they have been outside the community of His covenant people. Now the servants bring them in to the marriage supper. They throng the wedding hall.
Let us not glide over the description of the mixed crowd. These guests are “both bad and good,” our text tells us. This Lord who had suffered so patiently with rebellious Israel for centuries now invites not only virtuous gentiles but the vile as well – both bad and good. And one of them, a representative of all who will not turn away from wickedness, attracts the King’s notice.
He has not put on a wedding garment, which represents that attitude of the heart that conforms the subject to the will and the way of his King. And this King who would not tolerate in His realm the unrepentant and insubordinate among Israel will no more accept a gentile who refuses to mend his ways and respond in love to the law of a loving King.
But the King is just. He does not dispatch the man without a chance to explain himself. “Friend,” he says, “how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” Allow me a paraphrase: “Are you welcome here?”
“And he was speechless.”
The King would have undressed a lie, so the undressed man spoke not at all. Who was it, then, who consigned him to the outer darkness, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth? He made himself unwelcome here, in the kingdom of heaven. The passage concludes:
“For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The many, both bad and good, receive the invitation to the feast, but the few who are chosen – the new chosen people of God – are not unlike the old chosen people in the most vital way.
“For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,” St. Paul declares in Romans 9. The bad and the good were gathered together in the camp of Israel, but not every Jew was among the chosen. For us today as for the Jews of old, it is the response of faith that marks one as among the chosen.
He who does not come in faith will not put on the garment of righteousness – the righteousness that is ours in Christ — and will find no place in the kingdom of God. Only the poor in spirit will enter the abode of eternal glory.
And so, I ask again, are all welcome here? And I say again, the question is a red herring. In the end, it is not this congregation or any other, this priest or any other, but the Lord who extends the invitation.
He is the Head of His body the church and He knows how each heart comes dressed. He will divide bad from good, tares from wheat, goats from sheep.
All may tarry at this church or at another and we must make those who come to us feel welcome among us, as we do. Still, hugs are nice, but we cannot hug even our husbands and wives, sons and daughters, into the kingdom of heaven.
At the last, each one will arrive at a narrow gate and there the Son to whom the Father has given all power in heaven and on earth will stand as Judge. Beyond that gate, His Father has laid a feast that will never end. In his vision of heaven, St. John hears the voice of a multitude crying out:
“Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”
The evangelist goes on, “Then (the angel) said to me, ‘Write: “Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!'” And he said to me, ‘These are the true sayings of God.’” (Revelation 19:6b-9).
At the gate, the Judge will inspect the dress of each, and to those who wear no wedding garment, I suspect He will say, “Are you welcome here?” And these will be speechless, for they have passed sentence on themselves.
Those who wear the fine linen that is the righteous acts of the saints have made themselves welcome in that place where the Lord God Omnipotent reigns. And at His table here.
Beloved, we are indeed divided but we are not adrift . . . not as long as we remain faithful to that basic principle of the Reformation, the Bible as the first and foremost source of authority in the church.
As always, that’s the crux of the matter. Pick any of the dust-ups within Christendom that pollute our worship and dilute our evangelism and it will reduce to this: Will we accept God’s word as definitive or will we substitute an understanding of our own devising?
From time to time, I see some long faces around here. My own might even droop a bit once in a while. Let us remind ourselves occasionally that God’s realm takes in a bit more than Tulsa. If we will lift our gaze to the horizon we will see there are many more arrayed there who are for us than those who are against us.
Archbishop Okoh did not go to Canterbury. He wrote:
“Anglicanism claims to be an expression of Reformed Catholic Christianity, but the Canterbury Primates Meeting held earlier this month shows once again that the Anglican Communion is in urgent need of a new reformation. I and a number of brother Primates (representing between us over half of practising Anglicans worldwide) did not attend as a matter of conscience.
“We cannot ‘walk together’ with those who have abandoned the teaching of the Bible, but that is what the Communiqué issued from the meeting encourages us to do. The painful truth is that the authority of Scripture is being replaced by the authority of Canterbury . . .
“So how should we move forward? The process of reformation is never smooth sailing, but we can be sure that as we remain faithful to our vision of restoring the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion, we shall have success in God’s good time. Already, Gafcon is enabling training, building global mission relationships, gathering the marginalised and resourcing Anglicans worldwide.
“Our next conference in Jerusalem in June 2018 will mark a further step in the great project of reformation begun ten years previously and by the grace of God will enable Anglicans around the world to walk together in the true communion of gospel partnership.”
The Most Rev’d Nicholas D. Okoh
Archbishop, Metropolitan and Primate of All Nigeria and Chairman, the GAFCON Primates Council
We are not adrift. Luther’s spirit may be sputtering in Germany and flickering in the United States but it burns brightly in Nigeria and elsewhere. God’s reformation of His church on earth will proceed until His work is done. Amen.