October 13, 2013 Twentieth Sunday After Trinity
Are All Welcome Here?
Psalm 11, Ecclesiastes 9:4-10, Ephesians 5:15-21, St. Matthew 22:1-14
I make no apology for my callow youth – by the ecclesiastical if not the chronological calendar. You knew
before I arrived that the snow on my summit disguised a mountain of inexperience.
And so I offer no excuse for what I have done: I have gone to the bishop for counsel. I make this confession today because the advice I received bears directly on both our gospel lesson for today and a localized situation that has been much on my mind of late.
That issue is this: Are all welcome here? Other churches proclaim it so. They want it known that they exclude no one from their fellowship. “All are welcome here”: It seems a warm and homely invitation, a declaration of inclusion in line with the gospel of the crucified Lord who opens His arms to all.
We publish no such invitation, at least not overtly. Are all not welcome here? It’s a matter we surely must consider. Not because I do not know the answer or you do not know the answer but because when the question is put to us we must have that answer on the tip of the tongue.
It matters a great deal that we speak it clearly and convincingly into a world desperate to know who God is and how we may approach Him.
The question I put to Bishop Grote involves admission to the Lord’s Table. Should I ban from it any who has revealed to me an intent to sin or even a lack of resolution to avoid sin? What policy should I institute to guard the table from the uncommitted and irresolute, and they from themselves? Here is what he told me:
If a member is living openly and unrepentantly in sin which is broadly known among the body, if he is flaunting his contempt for God’s good gifts, he must be denied Holy Communion for the sake of order in the church. Absent those circumstances, though, our approach differs from some others.
In some Christian traditions, the minister is posted at the table with a sword. He is Christ’s knight on the spot, tasked with guarding it against those who would partake unworthily. In our Anglican view, by contrast, the bishop said, Christ is capable of protecting His table Himself.
And so the minister does represent the Lord but his role is interpreted differently. He is to counsel privately with the individual in question, first reminding him of his confirmation vow to lead a new life as a new creature in Christ; to renounce the devil and his works, the covetous desires of the world and the sinful desires of the flesh.
The minister is to instruct the person as well in the gospel truth that to receive the bread and wine unworthily – that is, with no sorrow for sin in his heart and no intent to walk in a way worthy of his Lord – is to bring judgment on himself. Not man’s judgment but God’s.
Before you approach the table, go and search your soul and pose the question to yourself: Are you welcome here?
And here is the reason the bishop gave me for this approach: We must avoid whenever possible withholding the means of grace from those most in need of them. Along with the other means, Holy Communion is our way of renewing our commitment to our Lord and drawing near to Him on His throne.
To the extent we are able, we in the clergy must treat communion not as a bludgeon but as a blessing. Unless an unrepentant sinner will not allow it, the priest is to dispense grace, not withhold it. This is the counsel I received. I hung up the phone and thanked God for a wise and experienced bishop.
Are all welcome here? In his 22nd chapter, St. Matthew reports 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, of course, 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 God 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 God 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 wrote 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 heaven. Only the poor in spirit will enter the abode of eternal glory.
A bishop senior even to our own Bishop Grote preached a sermon on this passage so insightful I shall quote from it at some length. More than 1,500 years ago, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, told his flock in North Africa:
“So then the feast . . . has both good and evil guests. All who excused themselves from this feast are evil, but not all those who entered in are good. I now address you, therefore, who are the good ones at this feast. You are taking careful note of the words, ‘For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on
himself.’ It is to you I speak. I plead with you not to look vainly for the good apart from the church but to bear with the evil within it.”
This challenge echoes through the centuries and erupts in our ears today. We, the King’s servants, are to invite both bad and good to His feast. We are to put the means of His grace out on His table where all can lay hold of them, not to send the sleek and lovely through one chute and those bearing spot or blemish through another.
To the extent they will allow us, we are to anoint all with the healing balm of God’s goodness in sacrament and prayer and preaching. If we would be fruit inspectors, we should grow our beards and lengthen our tassels and stand with the Pharisees. Judgment belongs to the Lord.
St. Augustine identifies the wedding garment as righteousness, and adds that the essence of righteousness is love:
“Not love of any kind whatever,” he says, “for very often they who are partakers together of an evil conscience seem to love one another. Those who commit robberies together, who love the destructive arts of witchcraft, and who go to the coliseum together and join together in the shout of the chariot race or the wild beast fight – these too in some sense very often may be said to love one another.
“But in these is no love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a faith unfeigned. The wedding garment is love such as this” – he quotes 1 Corinthians 13 – “‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I have become like a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. Suppose someone who speaks in tongues comes in and is asked, ‘How did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ Suppose he answers, ‘But I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains. But if he has no love, he has nothing. Such may be the clothing of those who in fact lack the wedding garment.
“’Though,’ he says, ‘I have all these and have not Christ, I am nothing.’ Is then the gift of prophecy nothing? Is then ‘the
knowledge of mysteries’ nothing? It is not that these are nothing. But ‘I, if I have them, and have not love, I am nothing.’”
So says St. Augustine.
Beloved, we must look first to ourselves and ask, is the righteousness in which we dress ourselves that of the scribes and Pharisees or is it the garment woven with the thread of love? Those whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees will not enter the kingdom of heaven (St. Matthew 5:20).
We must make the bad and the good welcome here, for that is the commandment of our King. And then we can enforce the King’s law. It is this: love God, love your neighbor.
We may not discard either commandment. St. John instructs us in his first epistle that one who does not love his neighbor does not truly love God (1 St. John 4:20). And he who does not love God does not truly love his neighbor, for all love proceeds from an abandonment of self to God.
A warm welcome of the feelgood sort may make a good counterfeit of love for neighbor but it is no more than that if it does not issue from love for God. And God says it is the one who keeps His commandments who loves Him (St. John
And so, I ask again, are all welcome here?
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 Christ 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
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. He, not I, guards His gate as He, not I, guards His table. 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?” For these have passed sentence on themselves.
These will be speechless, and it is then that they will enter the chute that funnels those with spot or blemish down and down and down . . . They have eaten and drunk judgment on themselves, and earned the devil’s hearty welcome.