Tuesday, October 11, 2011

the feast of discipleship



Bible reading: Matthew 22: 1-14

As Canon for Christian formation, my job is to think through that transformative process by which we become more like Jesus. That’s what Christian formation is about – moving from a self-centered focus to a God-centered focus; from autonomy to obedience; from independence to discipleship. And people will often ask, is that hard? Is being a disciple of Jesus hard or easy? Because on the one hand Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened,” but at the same time he also says “the gate is narrow and the road is hard.” “Anyone who is thirst may come!” “Count the cost before coming!” “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Our Lord says both. And so we have to ask – is Christ being formed in us hard or is it easy?

After all, in today’s parable everyone’s invited to the banquet. As Matthew puts it, they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.” But then there’s that poor guy with no wedding robe – he’s cast out. You see, in Jesus’ day a banquet like this would have taken months of preparation, and the first batch of guests have already RSVP’d yes. But when the date of the wedding actually comes, they blow it off. And historically speaking, Matthew is referring to Israel’s initial rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. But there’s also a second group – a group taken from the “main streets,” and this group is diverse. They’re diverse economically (rich and poor); racially (Jew and Gentile); and they’re diverse morally (both good and bad). And this second group is gathered into the feast, save that one man without a robe.

Now, I want to talk about this robe for a bit. The fact that all the other guests were wearing wedding robes tells us something significant – that the King provided wedding robes to his guests at the door. Remember, they’re coming off the streets. No one had time to run home and grab their wedding robe or to go to the store and buy one. And so the King in Jesus’ parable provides wedding robes to each of his guests at His own expense. And one man refused that gift thinking he could before the king dressed as he was.

You see, to ask if being a disciple of Jesus is hard or easy is at the same time to ask another –why is it hard to put on that wedding robe, which is a metaphor for a life of utter dependence on Christ. In other words, to wear that robe is to move from a self-centered focus to a God-centered focus; from autonomy to obedience; from independence to discipleship. And it’s a process that most of us, I suspect, find intimidating or impossible. And so our tendency is to settle less. We come to church. We say our prayers. We give some money. But then we go back to living on the streets. The feast will come later – perhaps when we die. But feasting now – well just that seems hard.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis claims that the thing keeping us from the feast is our tendency to talk about our self as the starting point, which it’s desires and interests, and then to talk about this thing we call morality, which usually conflicts with what “I” want. And so in an effort to be “good,” we sometimes sacrifice what we want to do the right thing – we wake up early to go to church or make our pledge instead of buying a nicer car. And then we hope that “being good” doesn’t cost us too much money or energy or pride to get on with the real work of living our life. And this is what Lewis says about that.

The Christian way is different; harder, and easier. Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there, I want the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’ (197)

God does not offer us tips for better life. But He does offer us His own life, which is experienced as abundant life. Now with that in mind, there are two things I’d like to say about putting on this wedding robe – about transitioning into a life of utter dependence on Jesus Christ.

First, the wedding robe isn’t something we merit or purchase. It’s a gift that God purchases for us. And looking to the cross we know just how much that gift cost. But here’s what we need to see. It’s a gift we already possess. As Paul says in Galatians, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” In Baptism, we were each given our robe. (And today Nicholas and Ansley will be given theirs!). Faithfulness is about growing into that wedding robe. 1 Peter says we are to “grow into” the salvation we’ve already been given. In other words, the wedding robe I’ve been given is a 44 Long and I’m a 36 short. But that’s what Christian formation is all about – it’s a slow, deliberate and lifelong process of dying to self so that Jesus can live in and through us. And for the record, every time we come forward to God’s table we recommit to this process. The Eucharist is our weekly RSVP to the banquet. As Eucharistic prayer D puts it, we don’t come to communion for solace only, but also for strength; for pardon only, but also for renewal. The wedding robe – a life of utter dependence on Christ – is a gift. Christian formation is about growing into that gift.

Second, because we don’t need to get sidetracked talking about how hard this can all be, let’s not forget that Jesus’ metaphor for discipleship is in fact a feast! “I came that they might have life,” he said, “and have it more abundantly.” And so there’s a question we all need to be asking – is there feasting on the inside, at least sometimes? Group number one “made light” of the invitation. But not group number two; “Yesterday I was begging for bread,” there said “but today I’m feasting with a King!” These are two very different ways of viewing our faith. And because we can all act like group one from time to time, I think it’s good to be reminded that the word gospel doesn’t mean “good advice” or “good morals;” it means “good news.” Christianity is news – the good news that says that even though His subjects rebelled, the King of the universe is still throwing them a banquet and that everyone’s invited – good/bad, rich/poor – and that clothes are being provided at the King’s own expense to make us fit for the celebration.

I officiated a wedding last week and was really moved when the bride processed down the aisle to the tune of “here comes the bride.” And in a very real sense, human history is nothing more than one big procession to that very tune! As the parable begins, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” And of course we know that son to be Jesus. But let us never forget that we – the Church – are Jesus’ bride, and that our job is to clothe ourselves appropriately.

Is becoming a disciple hard? Sometimes; but it is so much easier than what so many of us are trying to do – giving God so much of our time and so much of our money when all he really wants is us. And so yes, giving Jesus everything is hard – except for when we actually do it and are reminded yet again that it’s always experienced as a feast.