Ordinary XXI: From East and West
Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’
Depending upon where we stand among the characters depicted in Luke 13:22-30, we may feel the saying is unfair on one hand or greatly liberating on the other. If we stand with those who thought they knew the Lord but were mistaken we will feel confused and disappointed. If however we find ourselves among those forgotten ones at the far points of the compass we will be thankful for the overwhelming Grace of God.
This is a predicament illustrated by the story of the man who one day found himself at the Pearly Gates. As he lined up waiting to be interviewed by St Peter he noticed a sign – “In order to enter heaven you must present a hundred points.” He hadn’t heard of this before but he noticed all sorts of people ahead of him just slipping through – ordinary people, even people who appeared disaffected, marginalised, disadvantaged. He was confident he could make the grade. After all, he had attended Mass all his life. He volunteered to help feed the hungry every week and he always gave generously to charity. His confidence grew as the line shortened and more of those ordinary people were admitted though those Pearly Gates into the glorious eternity of Heaven. Then his turn came. “We have a new system,” said St Peter, “You have to show a hundred points to enter heaven so tell us about your life and we’ll give you a score.” The man began with confidence, “I went to High Mass every week.” “Very good,” said St Peter, “That’s one point.” “What!” the man was shocked, but undeterred, “Well, I also helped to feed the homeless every week too.” “Excellent,” replied St Peter, “That’s another point.”
The man, now perplexed tried once more, “I have always given generously to charity.” “Great,” said St Peter, “That’s another point,” “Oh no!” the man exclaimed, totally exasperated – “it’s only by the grace of God I’ll get in here!” “That’s 100 points,” said St Peter, “Come right in.”
God so often contests our expectations, beliefs and practices and when necessary turns them upside-down. It is when we think we have our belief systems all tidied up and our religious practices perfected that our version of Christian faith needs to be challenged and possibly upturned.
Religion binds people together. One suggested derivation of the word “religion” is that it stems from the Latin to bind or to tie. At its best religion gives a sense of belonging and identify. For Christians, when that sense of belonging becomes legalistic, and the sense of identification stultifying, Jesus confronts us with his prophetic word.
One of the things we hear often these days is that people are spiritual rather than religious. This distinction enables people to reject organised religion while still developing their own systems of meaning and purpose. Religion is “out-of-fashion” in our modern western culture. At its best however, religion is a positive force in humanity. The communal, binding activities of spirituality: worship, fellowship and pastoral care, for example, when under girded by grace, enrich our wellbeing. While so often we hear about the failures of the established church there have been many positive contributions in education, medical care and the sciences.
Worship is not a term that enters into conversation much these days. Worship for many moderns is something other cultures, usually those considered “more traditional”, do to ensure the crops grow, the weather is favourable and loved ones stay healthy. Human beings, even modern western ones, will worship something or someone. We will kneel at the altar of self to ensure our rights and desires are met; we might adore a hero who will show us the secrets of life, or we might attend the cathedral of scientific method to receive answers to the mysteries of life. These aspects of life are important but as gods they are flawed. I contend we will worship something or someone.
So our worship expresses our right relationship with God. In his sermon last week Dr Mulherin’s told the story of Richard Dawkins’ exhortation to a group of atheists that creation is awe inspiring and they should all give thanks – even if there was no one to give thanks to. We have a creator to thank but if our attitude to worship focuses only on the routine and the ritual, without a sense of the presence of the Spirit of God we should hope indeed that those attitudes should be over-turned and our hearts renewed as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews offers his own exhortation:
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Fellowship is another corporate aspect of the Christian community. In fellowship we share our common faith and our common humanity. In their book on Spiritual Direction the Jesuit authors Barry and Connolly suggest the relationship between director and directee begins simply as two people talking together. This image could well be expanded to describe Christian fellowship having its beginning with people talking together. What might appear at first to be two or more Christians just talking is in fact a crucial aspect of our faith. Through talking about the things of life that interest and concern us the bonds of our faith are strengthened.
There was once a time when our churches were primarily places of corporate silence - a silence only broken by the words and music of the liturgy. There is a place for silence in our fellowship. We might remember the time before the inclusion of the greeting of peace or a cup of tea after worship – a time when people made their communion with God but not each other. Some might still prefer those times, others may experience fellowship as the Spirit of God breathing new life among us, not as the chosen few but as part of those who come from the East and the West the North and the South, and are welcomed into the kingdom of God.
If worship expresses our proper relationship with God, and if fellowship expresses our relationship with each other, the quality of care we have for each other and of the marginalised in society marks us out to the world. “See how these Christians love,” was an observation of the Church made early enough to be recorded in the second century by Tertullian. St Augustine was bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 5th century when the Vandels were about to invade the city. Many of the citizens of the city thought the troubles had been brought upon them because they had abandoned the old gods for the God of the Christians. They wanted to return to the old ways. Augustine reminded them of a time the city of Rome was sacked. Christians and pagans alike found refuge in the churches and the invaders would not harm them. For Augustine this act of salvation could only be attributed to the power of the name of Christ and so Augustine says, “Who ever does not see this… is blind; whoever sees this, and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it is mad.” [City of God, p. 19]
Through the centuries Christians have cared for each other and reached out to the communities around them. We are called to be on guard that our care does not become inward-looking, self-serving or impersonal.
Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!”
Our gospel this morning challenges us to search our hearts and allow God to upturn our expectations. I have used the central Christian practices of worship, fellowship and care as important examples of what is good in religion but these very good things can become starved of grace. In our worship it is important to get beyond the rituals and practices and continually cultivate our relationship with God. Our fellowship reminds us that in our worship we are not only making our communion with God but also with each other and so it is important that we make time to be Christians talking together. And in our care of each other and the needy of our community we witness to the world that embodies that observation from as far back as Tertullian’s time, “See how those Christians love.” Then we take our place among those who come, “from the East and from the West from the North and from the South, to eat in the kingdom of God.”