fruits of the Spirit

Fully Clothed

"Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet" by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) - Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Brunswick Monogrammist Great Banquet” by Brunswick Monogrammist (fl. between 1525 and 1545) – Own work (BurgererSF). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 22:1-14

The king in this parable takes his son’s wedding celebration very seriously. No surprise there; what’s astonishing is how no one close to the royal family seems to care.

Maybe the king’s son is like the prince in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all pasty-faced and whiny and trying to sing his way through life, and no one wants to put up with him for the next seven days or so. (Wedding banquets could go on for quite awhile.) Such speculation will cause us to miss the point of the parable, however.

Jesus told this parable near the end of his ministry, while delivering a withering critique of the Pharisees and other leaders of the Jews. The kingdom of heaven is like a glorious banquet. To refuse to go to such a feast makes no sense. Jesus was implying that the Jewish leaders were worse than the wedding guests, refusing to acknowledge the arrival of the messiah and the beginning of the kingdom of heaven. Not only that, they and their ancestors for centuries had participated in the persecution and slaughter of prophets who had declared the coming kingdom.

Therefore, Jesus was saying, the king—God—would invite others, people who had never expected to go to the banquet. For non-Jews, this is the important part of the parable. We Gentiles are the ones gathered from the streets, “both good and bad.”

What an opportunity! All we unwashed heathens have to do is say “yes” to the invitation. But one thing remains in the story: what to wear?

"The Marriage Feast" by John Everett Millais

“The Marriage Feast” by John Everett Millais

This is where we run into the really difficult part of the parable, the four verses that serve almost as a parable unto themselves. The king enters the banquet hall full of commoners but sees a guest not dressed properly. The king’s men bind this slob hand and foot and cast him out into a place darker-than-dark, a location full of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and sounding suspiciously like hell. Here we see it is possible to say yes to the invitation, get into the party, and still not please the king.

“For many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus concluded his parable.

Three weeks ago, while preaching about God’s enormous grace, I mentioned that Jesus and the early church fathers at times seemed to indicate salvation will be widespread, possibly even universal, while at other times they spoke in a very sober way about the demands inherent in following Christ. This parable seems to be on the more restrictive end of the spectrum.

If we’re not careful, we can be left feeling as if we’re once again striving for our salvation, trying to earn it under some sort of new code or law that has replaced the Jewish system that proved to be such an impossible burden. What must we do, and how well must we do it? What might the king’s fashion rules be? Go to church? Read your Bible? Say your prayers?

The parable, however, really isn’t taking us in such a direction. To fully understand what Jesus was saying, we need one important piece of background information. In Jesus’ day, guests at an elaborate wedding banquet like this one didn’t have to dress for the occasion. The host provided everyone with robes to wear. You simply had to wrap yourself in what was his.

When we accept that invitation to joyous life with Christ, we receive more than an eternity scheduled to begin at a later date. God’s Holy Spirit clothes us with his righteousness and attributes now, if we let God work in us.

This was what Paul was talking about when he said in Galatians that the Holy Spirit gives us characteristics we cannot achieve on our own: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the garments we put on, a kind of clothing we could never stitch together on our own.

Activities like worship, Bible study and prayer aren’t rules, they’re garment boxes, wrapped and ready with our holy, eternal clothing inside. The more we open these boxes, the more of God’s robes we put on.

With such gifts awaiting us, why would anyone want to wear the stinky old clothes from days gone by?

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Red Meat

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1 Corinthians 3:1-9

What does advanced, mature Christianity look like? Well, sort of like advanced eating.

That is Paul’s metaphor, not mine. In his first known letter to the church at Corinth, Paul drew a clear distinction between those who have advanced in their relationship with God via the Holy Spirit and those who have not. His critique of the church was harsh; despite having had plenty of time to grow in their Christian faith, they remained mewling babies, unable to handle anything except the most basic spiritual food.

The evidence underlying Paul’s accusation was straightforward. The church in Corinth suffered from disunity, breaking into factions and rallying around human leaders rather than Christ and the world-changing message of the cross.

It’s a brilliant metaphor, one that can be stretched far without breaking. Most of us have seen how children grow from milk to mashed food to an eventual desire for nourishment as complicated as red meat. (I’ll just go ahead and apologize to the vegetarians now; feel free to visualize raw kale and radicchio instead.) Many children even exhibit a strong desire to move from one type of food to the next, demanding what they’ve never had when they first see it.

We’re called to hunger in the same way spiritually, moving from the basic, comforting message of the cross to more challenging concepts. Just as it would be sad to see an adult unable to stomach anything except milk, it should sadden us to see people 10 or 20 years into their Christian lives who have not moved beyond a beginning Christian’s understanding of the cross.

C’mon, Try a Bite

With all that in mind, I want to put a spiritual sampler platter before you. If you haven’t tried some of this, you should.

Advanced Bible Study. I’m not just talking about being able to distinguish Noah from Moses. Can you dive into God’s word and tease out the big, overarching messages of Scripture? For example, there are recurring themes like creation and holiness, the brokenness sin brings, God’s overwhelming love for us, and the tremendous gifts of grace granted us. Can you then use those concepts to keep the more complicated or troubling points of Scripture in context?

Do you know what it means to study the Bible inductively, to let the Holy Spirit work through Scripture to shape you and change you? It’s a much better approach than letting your human thoughts and emotions blind you to God’s revealed truths.

You do not have to go to seminary to learn all of this. Every good church offers you the opportunity to learn such things. This church offers you such opportunities.

Advanced Prayer. It’s good to pray the Lord’s Prayer and to take time to pray for your family and others around you. But we can go so much further in prayer.

Ever heard of contemplative prayer? Everyone talks about meditation these days, usually from the perspective of yoga practice or Buddhist teachings. Christianity has its own form of meditative prayer, designed to help us better understand God’s will in our lives.

Ever tried praying Scripture? Using the Psalms as a basis for prayer is particularly helpful and enlightening. We’re going to make it possible for you to learn more about praying the Psalms during Lent this year.

Our goal should be to turn our lives into a walking prayer, to “pray without ceasing,” living in constant union with God. Are we there yet? I’m not, but I know I want more!

Living through your spiritual gifts. Remember last week how I mentioned that God continues to pour out grace on us, in part by granting us new spiritual gifts? Do you know what your gifts are? I continue to be astonished by Christians who don’t know how they are gifted.

The gifts we are given tell us specifically how God is wanting to use us in this world now. Knowing these gifts lets us be more effective as we help God build his kingdom. There also is great satisfaction in developing these gifts.

Portrait of a Healthy Eater

If you’re not trying all the possibilities God has placed before you, maybe it will help if I give you a picture of what a mature spiritual eater looks like. We become spiritually svelte, holy and attractive to God.

In particular, I look to another of Paul’s writings, the letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul listed what he called the “fruits of the Spirit,” the result of deep engagement with God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Paul said. Who would not want to be described by others as such a person? And as Paul knew, such people have little trouble understanding God’s will and how to live in unity.

As I say sometimes during communion, the table is set. Come, partake.