Who’s Invited to the Party? The Difference that Love Makes
Last week NLEC hosted an Appreciation Day for all of our Club 24 members. We sent out invitations and called all those who month after month faithfully send their financial support to this ministry. We set up the worship studio here with games and food and drink. There were booths with funny costumes and raffles, dart boards, and a DJ provided the jams. The live in staff helped set everything up, and then as our guests were arriving, we opened the front doors to let our daily lunchtime guests in from the street. These are people who come expecting a few sandwiches, but on this particular Saturday they found themselves somewhere unique. We said, “Come in and enjoy the food but you cannot just take it and leave. You need to stay at the party to enjoy it.”
And that was when I noticed something very special happening. I had been working with a young man who was in our thirty day program, but because of a mental disorder and a lack of medication, because of aggressive behavior and an inability to follow the rules, I had to refer him elsewhere.
I’ll call him “Duke.” Duke came in to the party and it was like he was right at home. His eyes got so big and his smile grew and he just wanted to do everything at once! He sat down to color a picture of Jesus and he drew rainbows on everything. He got himself a plate of food and ate it as he moved from place to place. He came to my dart booth and he won prize after consolation prize. He put matchbox toys and dolls and other toys in his bag to give out to others, people I wondered if he even knew. And I kept thinking to myself, “This is exactly what I needed to see, Lord.” I’d been asking the Lord how we could create spaces here at NLEC that would just allow those with mental disorders and disabilities to just be present and enjoy themselves. And here was a direct answer to my prayer. Here was Duke enjoying himself. Only a day before he chose not to stay at our shelter anymore because he didn’t like it, but today here he was at the party.
At the party there were young and old people, people of all colors, shapes and sizes. We all laughed and clapped and gawked as a woman in her 70s who regularly brings in prepared meals for the shelter danced like she was 25 with another young man. I gawked because I myself just don’t have the courage to do that.
The Bible tells us about a special banquet we’re all invited to. It’s called the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:9)
Parties allow us to just hang out and be ourselves in a carefree manner we’re not used to. They create a different sort of space all together for a while. Some people feel like church is a big party. Parties are places where people are accepted. But there are also rules at parties. You have to wear the right kind of clothes. You can’t mistreat the host of the party. You can’t crash the party for the food and then take off. Everyone knows these things. If you were going to throw an important banquet party, who would you invite? Why? Think carefully about this question because Jesus illustrated what the Kingdom of God is like with a story about a big party invitation.
“Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off — one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:1-14, NIV)
What was Jesus trying to say in this parable? When God sent his servants the prophets to call his people back to him they rebelled. And this is the story of salvation. God, our creator and provider, has sent out an invitation. John 1:10-11 says that the Word “came into the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which belonged to Him and they who were His own did not receive Him.” So this parable illustrates God’s invitation along with judgment.
If you’re like me you like invitations but not so much the judgment. We live in a country without kings, where individuals get to be their own little kings—so long as they get along and play fair. What Jesus tells us in this parable is that we belong to a higher authority. To want God’s provision and protection without obedience to God is to want to be left alone. Its to want something for myself different than what I was made for. I can tell you from personal experience, every time I’ve told God I have better things to do than His will it has always met with complete defeat.
God’s people (Israel) rejected their prophets and Jesus and his disciples. Jesus himself became the paschal Lamb on the cross and he fulfilled all that God required in His own death and resurrection. And Jesus spoke of enjoying a drink with us in His Father’s Kingdom.
“Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:27-29, NIV)
It is hard to enjoy a banquet meal when you have no place to call home. Banquets are for people with enough and more to spare. They are a celebration of contentment and plenty. The story of the Passover, the meal that Jesus transformed, is that God’s people were celebrating a liberation. They were a people no longer slaves, no longer homeless. But in Israel’s recorded history we find a people who continually rebelled against God and could never be at home with themselves. In Jesus’ day they were an Occupied people, under harsh Roman rule, constantly expecting violence and even total ruin. Jesus promise for his disciples, gathered just prior to his death, spoke directly to their state as an oppressed and broken people.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4, NIV)
Jesus has not left us divided, alone, broken and empty. He has given us his Holy Spirit. He has given us all we need for life and godliness. Christ is our Paschal Lamb and we celebrate him not on the run, but in expectation of his Lordship in the Kingdom of God. That kingdom came, is present, and is coming in the future. Our faith in Christ is a celebration of his real presence in us and an ongoing expectation of his reign as King.
I often ask people, “What gives you the courage to keep going when you’re facing things like having the gas and lights shut off, getting behind on rent, ending up homeless?” I really want to know first because I’ve never had to go through that. But I believe also that anyone going through it has a story to tell me. Very often the person will talk about their faith in God. Now that faith is a faith under trial, but they have a testimony.
We celebrate the Christ who has died and risen and won the ultimate victory of faith through trial. He suffered humiliation and loss like none of us will ever experience. God himself, all powerful, all knowing, humbled himself, lived thirty three years of trial and rejection, shared himself with men and women who could only barely understand him, and then paid the sacrifice only he could pay. That is a lot to celebrate!
But the invitation to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb is for the Bride of Christ, the Church that has endured great persecution. We must not imagine that persecution was only for the early Christians, or that our country’s freedom of religion somehow secures for us protection from the devil, the world and our flesh. The Church in Revelation 19 is a pure and holy Church because it obeyed Jesus regardless of how much the nations tried to deceive and lead it astray. And this is a word for us today. In Jesus parable the first subjects the invitations were sent to were distracted. They’d forgotten their true King. They enjoyed their privilege but figured they owed no one honor.
It is time to repent, brothers and sisters, and make ourselves ready for the King who is returning. We cannot afford to lose this invitation. I think of a friend who we recently placed in an apartment. He had left an abusive family that took his monthly disability money and used it for alcohol and drugs. He fled that situation and was brought here by the police after being found homeless on the street. Since arriving in his new apartment he became lonely. Within a few hours he sought out old friends and used up what was left of his money with the only kind of people he knew.
This is what a sense of home is like without a real willingness to settle down and trust Jesus Christ. You can have a place of your own that is quiet and safe, but without real peace in your heart you will go anywhere to seek out the chaos and distractions you are used to. Some people use food, television, and movies just to cut the loneliness they feel inside. These things can’t take the place of people, and they can’t take the place of Jesus.
Without the Holy Spirit and Christian brothers and sisters there is no way we can truly be settled. In this world Jesus promises us two things: provision and persecution. We can’t have one without the other. In Mark 10:28-31 Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV)
In the Church we leave everything to follow Jesus and then receive a hundredfold back with persecutions and eternal life. I know so many people who welcome the idea of a banquet but shun the thought of persecution. The love that we know in Jesus Christ leads us into suffering in this world and on behalf of all who suffer. Jesus asks nothing of us that He himself is not doing. I shudder to myself when I encourage Churches to welcome the homeless, the addicted, the impoverished. I shudder because I know that it is not easy. This is true not just for Churches but also for new members of this ministry. New believers who have committed to serving here with very little themselves are placed in harm’s way. They’re learning to love and that makes them vulnerable. The call to follow Jesus makes you vulnerable to a lot of pain. That makes this place a revolving door.
Now many churches are revolving doors for the wrong reasons. They’re places where you can sing praises, be encouraged, and there is no threat of persecution. No one calls you to account and everyone is wearing a face. Even so people come and go and don’t really get the point of why they came in the first place. Everyone wants acceptance, no one wants obedience.
What is happening in America is that churches have become so affirming, so nonconfrontational, and so turned inward, that they promise a life without suffering and persecution. They think they’re being persecuted when what they are voting for is opposed. That’s just silly. Real suffering is siding with people whom society has thrown away. Real persecution comes from obeying Jesus’ call to really get to know people and attempt to teach them obedience. That sort of obedience makes us a threat. We’re teaching people their value apart from consumerism. We’re far more concerned with whether they can learn to live in community than whether they can become tax payers. As a nonprofit you’ll never get government money for doing that!
Even so the love of Jesus Christ is good news to those who are perishing. We are becoming people who love and know we are loved. We become people who can share ourselves with others. We look forward to that day when we will be at home with all the righteous, enjoying victory over sin, death, and the devil. We’ll share heaven with scores of saints across time and we will know Jesus face to face the way he knows us. I want to be ready for that party, don’t you?
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice