I was reading some great one-liners in a religious newspaper recently: give examples. I especially like this one, in view of our gospel today. “We’re all invited to a heavenly feast, but we must R.S.V.P.!” It reminds me of the story of Rev. Robert Runcie, when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the leading Primate of the Church of England. Soon after his appointment, he was invited to his first ever Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, to meet the Queen. He and his wife went along, met Her Majesty and other members of the royal family and had a wonderful time. Soon after, he received an invitation to another royal garden party and he said to his wife: “You know, we’ve already been to one, and will no doubt be invited to others. Let’s skip this one.” So he wrote to the Palace, declining the invitation on the grounds that he had a “previous engagement.”. Back came the immediate response from the Palace: “Cancel your previous engagement. Her Majesty EXPECTS you to come to the garden party!”
What the Rev. Runcie hadn’t realized was that, as spiritual head of the Anglican Church, of which the Queen was juridical head, he was expected, as part of his duties, to be present at all such official functions. In other words, this wasn’t any other invitation – this was a royal summons! And you and I, brothers and sisters, are not just “invited” to the royal feast of heaven, we are summoned. Our King, God our Father, is throwing a royal banquet in honor of his Son’s marriage, and we are EXPECTED to be there. Of course we are. After all, we are his Son’s BRIDE. What good is a marriage feast, without the bride?
The king in our gospel parable is furious with his invited guests, not just because they mistreat his servants who come to tell them the banquet is ready, but because they have already been invited to the feast. They already knew the event would be happening, if not the actual date, and that it was no small thing to be invited to a royal feast. So they should have been waiting expectantly for the summons and be ready to drop everything else and attend the banquet. Instead, we are told, that they “made light of it.” Made light of an invitation to sit down at table with the king! You and I would probably kill to get tickets to an event at Buckingham Palace, with all the bragging rights it would give us and our family. Imagine having a ticket and carelessly throwing it away. And yet, the chief priests and Pharisees, the leading figures of Israel, are doing exactly that, says Jesus in his parable- they are treating with contempt their summons to get ready for life in heaven.
I said earlier, that we, the Church, are not just invited guests to the wedding feast of heaven, we are also the bride, bride of Christ, the Son of the King, who is God the Father. The Scriptures speak often of life in heaven as a wedding banquet. In the Old Testament, God is called the bridegroom, and Israel his bride (“as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your Lord marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” so declares the prophet Isaiah over the people of Israel (62:5)). But in the New Testament, it is the Church who is the bride, and Jesus Christ, who is our bridegroom. St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. For this reason, it is written, ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (5: 25,31-32).
Let’s be honest here, brothers and sisters, how many of us realize, and keep constantly at the forefront of our minds, that at some point in time, Jesus is coming to collect his bride, the Church, you and me, and bring her with him to live with him forever in heaven? How many of us are actively living in expectation of that summons, and are not so bound up with ordinary, everyday activities here in the world, that we are not ready to drop everything and go with Christ when he comes for us? I have to say for myself, that I do not always keep this truth in mind, and so I am grateful for parables such as this one in our gospel and the season of Advent, coming up soon, which focus our minds on the return of Christ at the end of time. I am also grateful, truth to say, to be present at many funerals, because they also remind me, as I always tell the mourners, pointing at the coffin or the urn, and then at each one of them: “That will be me one day, and that will also be you. And do you know what will happen to you then? And if not, what are you going to do about it?” It is the only sacrament I perform that I can really say that most of the people attending are listening, really listening to me, because they are faced inescapably with the evidence of their own mortality at that moment.
And so I am even grateful for the Covid virus, brothers and sisters, firstly because it may strike me down at any time, despite all the precautions I might take, and that wonderfully concentrates one’s mind on what really matters. And secondly, because in being deprived of many of the worldly pleasures life here offers us and which we take for granted, we are being reminded that, at some point in time, all of this will be taken away from us forever, and if we have not been preparing all along for this moment, and for life in heaven, which offer treasures and pleasures beyond anything this world of ours can offer, we will be upset and forlorn at what we have lost , instead of rejoicing over what is to come. As one of the one-liners I read to you says: “You can’t get where you want to go by looking in the rear view mirror.” And, thirdly, I am thankful on this Thanksgiving weekend for the covid virus, because, as our first reading reminds us, at some point in time, Christ will appear again on earth “to destroy the shroud of death that is cast over all peoples … he will swallow up death forever.” So I don’t have to live in fear of anything, be it the virus or cancer or unemployment, or famine, or indeed, persecution. No, as St Paul says in Romans 8:37: “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Do you really, really believe this, brothers and sisters, do I? If we can say “Yes” with all our heart, as our faith teaches us to, then we can live our lives here on earth, every day, without fear of anything. If we cannot say “Yes” with all our heart, then why not?
But wait a moment. The parable in our gospel today has a sting in its tail, just so we don’t run away with the thought that we can do what we like here on earth, and heaven is just lying there, waiting for us to stroll in. And once again we should be grateful to the covid virus for the lesson it teaches us. For we are now used, these days, to being screened for the virus , whenever we go into stores or restaurants, or on planes , etc. And what the parable at the end, with its story of the man who turns up at the wedding reception without an garment, what it is telling us, is that there is a “screening process”, we all have to go through, before we can enter heaven. Are we wearing the right garment for the “wedding feast” of heaven? Without it, we can not presume that we are “in” for all eternity, merely because we have been baptized as children, any more than our Jewish predecessors are given eternal life merely for being Jewish. Different scholars have different ideas of what the wedding garment in the parable represents: it may be faith, or good works, or repentance. It may be a reference to Paul’s letter in Colossians, saying that we should put on as clothes: “heartfelt compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience, and over all these , put on love” (3:12-14).” Or it may be a reference to 1 Peter 5:5: “clothe yourselves with humility in your dealing with one another.”
Those who say that it was unfair for the king to insist his wedding guest have the proper wedding garment, when he had just been dragged in off the streets, should remember a wedding garment would have been provided for the occasion, (just as some fancy restaurants who demand their male clients have a tie, usually have ties available just in case). In other words, we are already provided with what we need to get into heaven. It was provided at our baptism. St Paul says, in Galatians 3:27: “All who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is the point of the white stole that is given to the newly baptized during the ceremony. So we already have all we need, given us at our baptism, to get into heaven. But to us is given the responsibility of holding onto that garment, and keeping it unstained throughout our lives, as the celebrant reminds us at our baptism. In other words, at our baptism, we have “put on the Lord Jesus Christ “ (Romans 13:14) and we must strive to always stay in close relationship with Jesus and grow in his likeness, through our faith, prayer, works of love and faithful attendance at church. Because of our failing to do this, it happens, as Jesus says at the end of our gospel today, that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
Let me finish with a quote from 2 Peter 1 : 10-11: “Brothers and sisters, you have been called and chosen. Work all the harder to justify it by your good deeds. In this way, your entry into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.”