Ephesians 4:1-6 St Luke 14:1-11
When you invited by someone to a marriage feast…
Go and sit in the lowest place;
so that when your host comes he may say to you,
“Friend, move up higher!”
Last week, I mentioned that we were coming the end of the second of three cycles in our Trinity Season readings. The first cycle was about the purging of our passions – not their elimination, but the right ordering of our passions that we might be more fully human, more fully loving. In the second cycle, there has been a focus on the illumination of our souls with grace, with light, with the Holy Spirit. There is a promise here that as we grow in our faith, in maturity, we can expect the painful purgation phase to be replaced by a growing joy and freedom in the Spirit, the unleashing of our talents to the love of God and neighbour and to the experience of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control. This phase culminates in a kind of resurrection – which the miracle story last Sunday is itself a kind of parable of our life in Christ – the opening of our mind to the vision of Christ, to see him face to face. St Paul prayed for us that we might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge – to know is to see. He’s referring to the beatific vision, and to be filled with all the fullness of God – that is for the soul to be joined with God in a union with him.
Do you want this vision? Do you long for this union of heart and mind with Him?
This morning we have some beautiful readings to further reflect on this. They are about that mystical vision of God, about the union of our souls with God, that we are being invited to.
In our Gospel, Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. Now Jesus would not just have gone on his own, it would have been an invitation to him from a ruler of the Pharisees. This ruler would have been well skilled in the Law of Moses. He would have had many followers wanting to learn from him, and wanting to be admired by him.
Jesus challenges them about their understanding of the Sabbath law, since the Pharisees had proclaimed that healing was work and so should not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus heals a man in front of them – it is loving to the man but deliberately provocative to the Pharisees.
Using common sense, Jesus reminds them of what they would do for a beast that was in trouble, if a donkey or an ox had fallen in a pit on the Sabbath day, would they not immediately pull him out? Jesus says that sick man is more important in God’s eyes than a donkey or an ox.
Jesus is not overturning the Law of the Sabbath by healing the man, he is actually fulfilling the Sabbath Law. God gave us the Sabbath rest, to remind us to look up, and return thanks to our Creator. And to look upon God is in fact the way our souls are healed! In the light of God we see what is amiss, we confess our failing, we ask for mercy, and we are assured that we will receive it. Our inclination to sin again is lessened, there is a healing in our souls as the image of God is uncovered.
So, Jesus is recalling the Pharisees, and us, to the true meaning of Sabbath: healing.
We can imagine, given that the Pharisees could not reply to these things, which Jesus spoke, that they saw the limitations of their own logic. The man with dropsy, a disease that caused swelling with water in the body’s tissues and cavities, was healed of his disease, outwardly. Even so, at the same time, the Pharisees were healed inwardly of their swollen pride, humbled by Jesus’ wisdom, on the Sabbath, and they were healed by beholding their Maker who was sitting at table with them.
But the Gospel takes an interesting turn – Jesus then tells a parable to these Pharisees, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour.
These Pharisees, were spiritual seekers, which is a good thing. But their outward actions also revealed their pride. They were trying to put themselves ahead of one another when they came to assert their place in the spiritual hierarchy. Jesus counters this by telling them to humble themselves if they want to be honoured in the sight of others.
But Jesus does not say it is wrong to want to be honoured in the presence of others – actually, he tells them how to be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. He says, go and sit in the lowest place, humble yourself and take the lowest seat – it is about not asserting yourself, but waiting for your host to invite you to come higher.
But there are some details in the parable that must be looked at so we have the fuller meaning of the parable.
Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast…” Why does he use this kind of feast as the example?
The Pharisees had heard a lot about what Jesus is doing – the miracles and his teaching, they were no doubt wondering if Jesus is the Messiah. They knew from their own teaching that the Messianic Age was understood to be a time when God would marry his people – something promised through Isaiah :
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
And…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
Because the marriage union of God and his people is what Jesus has come to bring about – the language of marriage and the language of Sabbath rest are two ways of describing the same thing – it is what our souls long for. As we become more like God, we are united with Him. It is the marriage of our souls with Christ, we have true rest, we have peace, the shalom that God promises. We are made able to enjoy lovingly beholding God and all things in God. This is the mystics definition of contemplation. [The definition of kinds of contemplative prayer, of techniques to help prepare to enter such prayer is the subject of a future retreat.]
It is what the Pharisees desired in their souls, it is, I hope, what all of us desire in our souls.
But it is not something that they or we can attain by self-assertion, it is something that we can only have by grace—that is what it means to wait until we are told, “Friend, move up higher.”
Contemplative prayer, is entering into God’s rest, it is about sitting in the presence of God and enjoying Him, it is to begin to taste in this life, the life of heaven. But as the mystics tell us, it is a most difficult thing. We want to act, to do something, but we must be passive. Our souls want a response, but we must wait, we cannot force God to show Himself. But if we wait, we will be made ready by God to hear those words from God, that invitation, “Friend, move up higher.” St Paul heard those words, when he was lifted up into the third heaven [2 Cor 12:2f]; St John heard those words, when on the Lord’s day, he was lifted up “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” and shown marvellous things by our Lord [Rev 1:9f].
In the parable, Jesus is describing the very Marriage feast that the Pharisees and each of us, even if we’re not aware of it, desire. He is the Son of God, come in the flesh to bring about that marriage union of the soul with God, to bring about that true Sabbath rest. And if those Pharisees would humble themselves, if we would humble ourselves, they and we, would learn from Jesus, see as he sees, be invited and lifted from our current state, Friend, move up higher.
But true humility before God is not something easy to see in ourselves – we might know the concept, and speak all the right words that sound humble, but to be truly humble is a gift of God. It reveals itself in our interactions with others. […as Donna pointed out at our Study night.]
In the Epistle, St Paul say,
I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Just as we are called to humble ourselves before God to be united with Him, so are we called to humble ourselves before one another to be united them. And that union is to be profound.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
We have opportunities every day to practice this – how do we relate to those in our own congregation? How do we relate to those in our denomination as it battles with heresies? How do we relate to our Adventist hosts whom Jesus tells us we must bear with one another in love? How do we relate to brothers and sisters from other churches – are we fostering unity or are we creating greater division in our interactions?
Humility before God and humility before our neighbour. Strangely, they are in a way the same thing – because we believe those who are baptised in Christ, are bearers the same Holy Spirit, dwelling in their hearts, and the same image and likeness of God is being restored in them.
But in this patient waiting, and forbearing with one another, in humility and patience, we are being changed, healed, made ready for a showing, a revealing, of beauty beyond our imagining – in God and in one another.
This morning we do not need to wait to be healed of the guilt of sin, or to be healed in our souls of the effects of sin (what the Collect refers to as “the bands of those sins”) – Jesus has offered himself once for all to heal us of these things – and we can receive the benefits of that healing today, on our Sabbath, as we partake of his Body and Blood.
But as we return from the altar today, there is a waiting that we are called to, a waiting for Jesus’ return, and a waiting for our full healing, in expectation of glory. And it requires a humility before God and before our neighbour to experience it, a humble waiting for a word from our Lord or from our neighbour, “Friend, move up higher.” Let us be ready to hear it, and when we hear it, to joyfully act upon it.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2