A reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew:
Glory to Christ our Saviour
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’
Give thanks to the Lord for his glorious gospel: praise to Christ our Lord.
Trust me to get the gospel passage about a wedding. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a wedding banquet – or – the reception. The kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God can be a confusing term because it has many meanings. At first, many people imagine arriving to St. Peter at the Golden Gates after they die, seeing if they’re on the list of those to be admitted to heavenly glory or finding out they’ll be rejected because they support the wrong football team or have bad taste in music.
Others will think of Jesus promise to return at the end of time to finally defeat injustice, cast out evildoers and restore the world to goodness once and for all after a series of dramatic world events. You could be forgiven for thinking that our world looks a bit more like the apocalypse than normal at the moment.
The truth is that both of these meanings of kingdom of heaven are right and when you think of both aspects: they have something in common. Heaven – the place we go after death – is heavenly because it is the place God’s will is done perfectly; love is freely offered; forgiveness is poured out; God and truth are known perfectly there. It’s not about sitting on clouds forever, listening to angels playing harps – after a while that would be a terrible bore. The idea one day Jesus will return is so dramatic because he’ll be making a lot of changes – turning the destructive ways of the world to the peaceful, just and good ways of God and there’s a lot of changes to be made. He’ll make earth a place where God’s will is done perfectly, as it is in heaven as we pray in the Lord’s prayer. And, there is a third meaning to the kingdom of heaven. Before we die and go to heaven; and before Jesus brings heavenly perfection to earth dramatically and fully; Jesus calls us to be a community of individuals who do the will of God here and now as perfectly and passionately as we can. The third meaning of the kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God is us doing what God wants in our hearts, homes and in our church.
For Jesus to say that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding reception shows that what God wants is not dull; lifeless or constraining – full of thou shalt not! Actually God’s will for you, for the church community and for the world has always been what you find at a wedding banquet. A liberating celebration of life, love and faithfulness. Good will towards the couple and the couple’s good will towards guests. Celebration and joy is the mark of all three senses of the kingdom: the place where we go when we die; the world God will bring about in the end when evil is fully conquered; but also the way that life right here and now can be full of joy, meaning and God. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet, only not everyone wants to join in.
The invites have gone out and people have rejected them, in spite of the relentless invitations, the promise of a great meal; wonderful ceilidh dancing; a few glasses of wine on the house and copious wedding cake. The Jewish audience Jesus was addressing had grown up being told that they’ll be invited to God’s banquet one day; that a child that would be born – a king would arrive to help them follow God’s plan for their lives and community. Time and time again they heard prophets who promised great change both here and in the life to come. Yet when the Son finally arrives, in spite of all of that promise and preparation, the listeners don’t want to join the party. As he said, “They made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business” and many violently rejected the invitation and hurt or killed the messengers – they didn’t want the truth.
But there are others who accepted the invite. Many who thought they had been left off the list, eccentric uncles or unimportant distant cousins forgotten about or bypassed are pleasantly surprised when that wedding invitation drops through their door unexpectedly and they are invited to God’s party. Although we think of Christianity as a western religion now, Jesus and all of his first followers were Jewish. Those who were non-Jewish were considered to be in spiritual ignorance. Yet it’s these spiritual and social outcasts who God goes to next, to see if they’ll accept the invitation. That includes us, by the way, and everybody you could ever think of.
If Jesus is saying anything to them and to us, it’s that God isn’t playing games when it comes to the kingdom and there is very little by way of middle ground – you either reject or accept the invitation. The life Jesus offers us is not a hobby, a community group or one option among many. It’s as serious as embracing the most joyful image of life – a wedding banquet – or risking the most destructive image of death – a city in ruins. Whether you think hell is a literal place or a figurative bit of imagination for how painful and empty life can become without God, neither is a desirable path.
We can’t keep our violent tendencies towards truth, love and God’s purposes for his creation and expect life and heaven to open out before us. You can’t live in complacency believing it will all work out automatically in the end regardless of what you choose.
Jesus consistently teaches that your response to the invitation matters. God is overwhelmingly gracious and forgiving, but you need to accept God’s grace like you’d receive a life saving treatment from a doctor. God provides the invitation freely, continuously, relentlessly to a life none of us can earn or deserve. He supplies everything needed for the good of the guests here and forever. Accept the invitation each day, dare to trust; commit to his good will and plan for you, pray often, simply and honestly and real life will open out before you. Enjoy your place at the wedding banquet because the grace that brought you here was costly, but Jesus thought your life here and eternally was absolutely worth it.
Let us pray.
In cities ruined by human conflict, where destruction seems to be winning, challenge the forces of injustice and wickedness that enslave human ambition, so that your invitation to peace may be embraced and change can begin.
In hearts cold, empty or wounded by life, bring the warmth of your love once more, Lord, and let healing be felt where it is most needed.
We hold before you those known to us who have asked for prayer, trusting in your good plan for them: Christine, Ian, Les, Margaret, Sam, Olive, Chris, Bill, Ann, John, Avril, Helga, Colin and Margaret.
In minds tormented by hidden mental health problems, loneliness or rejection, encourage hope beyond the pandemic and beyond the shallow ways of the world, towards the new life that we’re promised in Christ, and make Kevin, and all his Priests, deacons and lay readers, spirit filled witnesses of the good news that invites all people to your banquet.
In the reality beyond what we can see or touch, grant rest and fullness of life to those who have recently departed this life and those who’s year’s mind falls at this time. In trust and in hope, we pray in the name of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.