Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
‘Go and sit down in the lowest place,’ says Jesus, in the picture language of our Gospel parable. You know what that means, don’t you? The seat to choose is the one farthest from that top table with a lovely view of the garden, away from the windows, the table close to a door that swings open, causing a force ten draught, several times a minute, to reveal the noise and smell of the adjoining kitchen. Let’s face it, the worst seat in the room is not the one we would naturally aspire to.
According to St. Paul, the ground and motive of this rather bizarre ethic is the incarnation and passion of Jesus. God ‘emptied Himself’ both by taking on our human nature, and by suffering the worst of what it could throw at Him on the cross. That extreme selflessness determines the character and direction of Christian discipleship. ‘Let His mind be yours,’ says Paul (Philippians 2.5-11). So, selflessness and humility are virtues that every Christian needs to embrace. We need to learn how to serve.
Hospitality was a very important issue in first century Palestine. ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,’ says the writer to the Hebrews,’ ‘for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ What a marvellous disguise! God comes to us through other people – God sends us angels through the people who share our hospitality. Just think, if as a world we took that text really seriously, there would be no refugee crisis.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He is dependent on the hospitality of others, but He also shares meals Himself, and at least two of His miracles centre on hospitality. On the particular occasion of our Gospel reading, Jesus is in the house of a leading Pharisee, and He notices how the guests are trying to find the best seats for themselves. These people are full of their own self-importance. They want to see and be seen. They invite each other to parties in the knowledge that they’ll be invited in return. It’s all a bit competitive and there is little room for the stranger, and certainly no room for the poor or the outcast. Yet if God comes to us in the other person, then they will miss out on an encounter with God by restricting their guest list.
I used to really enjoy ‘foodie’ events – can’t enjoy them quite so much since the cancer experience, but when we were at Scole in South Norfolk, we took full advantage of the huge garden at the Rectory where we lived, to hold barbecues and tea parties. At our Bible Study and Lent Groups here in this Benefice, too, hospitality is an integral part, as it is in events like ‘Harvest in the Barn’. One of the central features of Messy Church is the shared meal at the end. I’m not sure how many angels have been entertained, but there is something very special about the Church community offering and sharing hospitality, especially with children.
Perhaps that has something to do with children epitomising the nature of God’s Kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last, first, and where we all need to learn the simplicity and littleness of children in order to enter. The Book of Revelation tells us, amongst other things, about the nature of power in that Kingdom. The authority-figure in human form in the powerful, dream-like word picture, came to love us, to serve us and to die for us. His dying, the Book of Revelation says, has made us free people, who can exercise that freedom as He did, in loving service.
If then, the reality of the world, from its creation to its ending, is like Jesus says, then this strange human obsession with power is an aberration. Power has no ability to create, to redeem, to love or to sanctify. Jesus’ challenge to worldly power, to the Pharisees’, Herod’s and Pilate’s kind of power is too slow and subtle and often too painful for many of us, who still long to use the weapons of worldly power to force victory for God. But if Jesus really stands for truth, then any other way than His is falsehood. The reality of what is and was and is to come is shaped by a different model of kingship.
You may have noticed that when clergy process in church, it’s always in reverse order. So the laity always go first, then the deacon or lay reader if there is one, then the priest, and if there’s a Bishop present he will always go at the end of the procession. This is supposed to be representative of the servant concept of Christian leadership in which the first are last and those who would be greatest become the servant of all. Sometimes, though, sadly, as a Church, we struggle to get beyond the symbolism to the reality. There have been some notable exceptions, though. As a child, I remember being particularly inspired by Bishop Trevor Huddleston, who ministered and lived in Sophiatown, a squalid black township in apartheid South Africa, from where he championed the rights, the dignity and the potential of the oppressed black community. But there’s another example, more recent and more personal. When I was very ill a few months ago, Bishop Alan came to see me. In secular terms, he is the equivalent of my line manager. I was extremely frail and half sitting/half lying on the sofa. He knelt on the floor in front of me to anoint me with holy oil, the oil of healing. Not only did it work, but his whole demeanour and body language spoke so powerfully of service, that the poignancy of it made me cry. Servanthood can be very beautiful indeed when it speaks to the fragile, the broken and the powerless.
But sometimes, as Christians, we use the notion of God’s rule to actually impose our own, demanding, in God’s name, the authority and respect that we long for ourselves. If we truly acknowledge Jesus’ model of Kingship, then we will never, ever, throw our weight around in the cause of Christianity. We will never, ever manipulate or coerce others into doing the right thing or judge them when we think they don’t. We will never, under any circumstances, use violence in order to promote truth. We will never put our own interests before those of others. We will never be intolerant of children or try to exclude them from worship on the grounds of their lack of understanding.
Jesus has changed the whole concept of kingship by becoming the Servant King. So if we are really are to allow Christ to be our King, we need to learn the true nature of Christ’s Kingdom, where Kingship and servanthood are so intertwined that as we fall on our knees before His majesty, He offers us His hand and a seat at His table.