God is not your trump card: a parable of the king’s servants

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a banquet for his son. He sent his servants to call all those who had been invited. On reading the invitation list, his servants were appalled to see among the numbers people in prison, known-gamblers, drinkers and drug-addicts, and disgraced politicians. Surely, the chief servant said, there has been a mistake. Our master has forgotten to separate the invites from the barred list.
So the servants burned the invitations of those who would bring shame on their master were they to attend, and invited only those whose reputations would increase the fame of their king.
At the wedding banquet, the king was confused as to why so few people had come, and asked the most junior of his servants. On hearing what had happened, the King took aside his son, asked him to leave his own banquet, and go and find those whose invitations had been destroyed.
Having seen the son leave, the servants became nervous, disguised themselves, and followed the son, in order to prove the unworthiness of the other invitees. They loudly mocked the son and those he was inviting to the banquet, so that no-one would follow him.
The more the son met with these people, the more they began to celebrate that they, too, were invited to the King’s banquet. The party did not wait until they could get to the palace; it began in the streets, celebrating with the son.
Realising they could no longer stop this, the servants retreated and formed a second plan. Whilst the son was touring the far country, they built a new palace – identical in appearance to the King’s, but just a few miles closer to the son’s procession.
The son and his band of followers entered the castle of the servants, where they sat at the banquet tables waiting for the feast.
“The feast is ready,” shouted the chief servant, “for those who are worthy.” And the servants gave the son his food, and served themselves.
The son complained that he could not eat while others remained hungry. So the servants took away the son’s food also. Seeing what had happened, the son tried to leave to raise his father. But the servants were cunning, and locked the son in their own prison.
The people, who had heard the son’s invitation and celebrated with him, felt tricked, and began to leave, until only a few remained who wanted to learn from the servants how they might become worthy.

Let those who have ears, hear.

In this morning’s epistle reading from Philippians, St Paul powerfully reminded the first Church that their oneness with God was not something to be exploited –
being a Christian has never been there for one’s selfish, personal gain.
Yet, far too often, Churches are places where people use the language of faith to conceal their prejudices and fears – which underlies the phrases of ‘I am saved and you are not’, or, ‘in order to be saved, you must become like me.’
Too often, usually without fully thinking it through, Churches offer courses in which people can go through a social lobotomy, so that everyone thinks, and looks, and vacantly smiles in the same way.

These are power games that do not belong in the Church of Christ, the one for whom equality with God was not something to be exploited.
From within humanity, God raised up Jesus, to show us all who we might be, as well who God is. In Jesus Christ we are shown a God, not who demands sacrifice or submission; rather, the God shown to us in Jesus Christ raises humanity from the dust to join in more deeply with the wonder and joy of being fully alive.

We can see this whenever Jesus sat and shared a meal with people. It’s extraordinary that when he sat with those who were sure of their own salvation and the damnation of others, he argued and told them to watch out for hell. Yet he seemed to seek out and enjoy the company of tax collectors, prostitutes, drunks, and others who were considered the lost, and told them they were going to be first in the Kingdom of heaven.

For Jesus, the eternal banquet began in the here and now, and all were invited. Any mention of hell was reserved for those who would seek to alter God’s invitation list according to their own priorities. And too often, that is exactly what Churches do. I’ve sat in Churches where salvation is judged on debt, sexuality, incorrect reading of scripture, wrong king of baptism… The list goes on.

This doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t care about sin; quite the opposite. It does mean, though, that perhaps we focus on the wrong sins – and deciding on who’s in and who’s out appears to be one of the worst. That might seem odd at first, but on reflection, deciding on who is in and who is out might be such a terrible sin because it puts human judgment in place of God’s wonderful grace that was revealed in Jesus.

The church is not something that can happen behind closed doors, for a private and elite club; even if it often appears to function that way.
The church is a public belief that in Christ all are God’s children,
a public hope that through Christ all may unite as one family,
and a public search that with Christ all may find a deeper sense of peace and truth.

Next week we launch a four year vision for our Parish. ‘Creating space for life’ is an attempt to use our physical resources to form public places that function like the tables around which Jesus gathered with people. Places to which we all can invite our neighbours and colleagues. Places where, we pray, we would see a deepening of human flourishing, including our own.

One of the five projects is to turn one of our Churches into a professional-grade theatre. This not intended to become a home to second-rate Christian theatre that would never get a showing anywhere else. The hope is that it will, quite simply, be a really good theatre. Sometimes there will be plays that will chime with the Christian Gospel. Other times, the plays will be discordant with our vision of the world. Both, though, should deepen and inform the outlooks of all who come, and stimulate rich dialogues in the post-performance bar.

Thinking back to the parable at the beginning, the end of the story is up to us. It is so easy to imprison the grace of God and become like those servants who built a Church of their own preference. As flawed an partially-sighted as we all are, ‘creating space for life’ is not intended to be a vision to bring more people in to become like us, but for us all to grow more deeply in the love and grace of God, and to live more fully in Christ’s resurrection life.


About fancourt

I'm the Parish Priest of St Luke with St Bartholomew in Reading, U.K (http://www.lukeandbart.org.uk). This is mainly a blog of sermons, and I'd welcome your thoughts on what I write. I've taken a bit more time to write about my thoughts about the church in today's world in a little book called Brand New Church? (Review of it here: http://admiralcreedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/book-review-brand-new-church.html).
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