Sunday, June 21, 2009

Who Shall Eat Bread in the Kingdom of God?

Coming soon to a pulpit near you ... that is, if you live near St. Louis ... here is this morning's sermon based on Luke 14:15-24, and preached by yours truly.
Now when one of those who sat at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" Then He said to him, "A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, 'Come, for all things are now ready.' But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.' And the servant said, 'Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.' Then the master said to the servant, 'Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.'"
Jesus’ parable of the great supper, which we heard a few minutes ago, could well be interpreted as a summons to go to church and receive His gifts in Word and Sacrament. This, in itself, would be a good message, and I have preached it that way myself. But in discussing the excuses the invited guests gave for not attending the banquet, we tend to attack today’s excuses for skipping church. So you can easily end up with sermon that only applies to those who are not present to hear it! What could be more useless? How would such a sermon contribute to our spiritual growth? Should we be armed with reasons to sneer at absent ones? Should we feel good about ourselves because we made the effort to be here? If that is a message I have ever preached, I am sorry for it.

But now I recognize the reason the Holy Spirit put today’s Gospel lesson in our way. He arranged for us to hear this parable of the great supper, today and every year, and for good reason. The message the Spirit wants you to hear runs directly opposite to what you would learn from a sermon against making excuses to skip church. We are not to give ourselves credit for being here. No one owes us an “attaboy” or “attagirl.”

It is the Holy Spirit who has brought us here today. He has gathered us to share in Christ’s blessings. He has drawn us against our selfish inclinations. Many of us would rather have stayed in bed an hour or two longer. Right now you could be reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee and a plate of bacon and eggs. Weather permitting, you could be out riding a bicycle or mowing your lawn. You could be watching a pre-pre-pre-game show on TV, or cooking and cleaning to get ready for company, or going shopping, or visiting with friends. And yet here you are. The Holy Ghost has taken you captive at least this far: you have come together for this hour of fellowship, to be fed spiritual bread and to be cleansed in spiritual waters. You have come to receive forgiveness, and to be formed in your inner self by the Word of Christ. This is not something to congratulate yourself on. This is the Holy Spirit’s doing.

You see, the man in the parable is Christ. The great supper is our participation in the Kingdom of God, in which we are gathered here and now. And the servant who carried the invitation to us is the Spirit. As we learn in Luther’s Small Catechism, it is the Holy Ghost who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies” each and all of us in the holy church of Christ.

So we are greatly blessed. We are privileged beyond all that we deserve. For without the Spirit at work in us, we would be like the people who received those fancy, engraved invitations. It is supposed to be a shocking story. It is supposed to seem improbable. How could these people refuse such a lavish invitation? Well, they had all kinds of reasons. New land, new cattle, a new wife: basically, anything in the world that would naturally preoccupy us. Incredible as it must seem, this is simply human nature.

We would give any excuse, we would let anything come between us and kingdom of God. No matter how foolish, no matter how mundane, no matter how petty, our hearts are set on things that steer us away from our Lord’s wedding feast. By nature, we are focused on getting possessions, keeping them, showing them off, and looking at them. We want to feel good, no matter what it costs or who suffers thereby. We want to have things our own way. We want this, we want that, and without the perspective the Word of God brings us, we would never realize how ridiculous and small and ugly are the little worlds we build around ourselves. The Law of God calls us to look at ourselves from God’s perspective, and to be ashamed.

It is natural to respond to God’s Word as those who were first invited to the feast. We would rather stay away, because we don’t like the feelings of guilt or inferiority that it can bring. We may have been the first on the guest list, as lifelong church members and even heirs of many generations of devout Christians. Or we may have been like those who were called to the feast at the last minute, late-blooming Christians with no religious background to speak of. But in every case, we are here because the Holy Spirit went out into the streets and lanes of the city. We are here because God chose the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind. We are here because, out from along the highways and hedges, on the very fringes of hell, the living voice of Jesus reached out and dragged us, shoved us, compelled us to come in. This is the only way God knows to lay His table.

We are sinners. We are losers. We are poor, weak, silly, helpless things. We grope in darkness. We stumble feebly. We can scarcely take two steps without getting lost. I say this not just of who we were before the Lord shined His light on us. I say this of the way we are now, sinning daily, stumbling hourly, confessing our utter sinfulness in one breath and congratulating ourselves for it in the next. Our highest acts of worship are polluted with sin, from the impure thoughts that enter us between “hallowed be Thy name” and “Thy kingdom come,” to the sense of having done something to please God when we condescend to accept His Sacrament. We look with superiority on those who do not attend church, on those who attend churches that mix human teachings with God’s Word, and on those who worship false gods. Or we rely on the repetition of ritual, the accumulation of good-works brownie points, or the self-denial of abstaining from this and cutting back on that, in order to feel more secure in our spiritual life. God calls us ever, ever, and ever to receive freely what He gives without limit and without cost. And we keep trying to give Him change back.

Where the banquet parable hits us is in the twisted little place in each of our hearts, the part that never, but never, gives up trying to make a deal with God. But the deal is already sealed. And neither you nor I contributed one penny. Jesus bought the whole kit and caboodle with His priceless body and His precious blood. He paid the whole world’s debt to God, a debt that makes our national debt look like a delinquent phone bill. He suffered. He died. He was buried with sinners. And when the last drop of blood grew still in his veins, God screwed the cap on the red ink and broke open the black. In His books, your ticket is already fully paid. While we were yet sinners, in flight from the kingdom of God, Christ died for the ungodly and reconciled us to the Father. And so God brings in the blind, the powerless, the nobodies—in a word, us—and serves us the feast of all feasts.

Just before Jesus spoke this parable, one of the people dining with him blurted out these words: “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” This statement seems pompous and foolish, since the parable was Jesus’ reply. But it is true in a sense. Blessed indeed are we, when we receive the living bread of Christ through His Word and Sacrament, bread that shall fill us up to everlasting life. We are more blessed than we realize, for we are only here to share in this feast because God has brought us. And even now, perhaps, we could desire the bread of God’s kingdom more than we do. How many Sundays do we gather for only this light snack of the Word, as opposed to the full meal where Christ’s body and blood are the main course? We are more blessed than ever. We could be more blessed still. But whenever you hear, or eat and drink, of Christ the crucified, you are dining on heavenly food.

Anything else, no matter how tasty or filling, is junk food that will eventually go to your hips. But by God’s awesome grace, you are so blessed that—regardless of who you are and what you have done—He has brought you to His feast, and filled you with all that you need. He has forgiven you. He has given you a new heart. He has planted Christ within you, so the peace of God that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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