Sermons and reflections

On Sunday 1st September we used this reflection on Luke 14, v 1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13 v 1-8, 15-16. The reflection was written by Tim Baker, for the Vine worship resources.

In the beginning was the invitation… and the invitation was with God, and the invitation was God. All things that have come about were through the invitation, and what has come into being through invitation is life, and the life was the light of all things…

It’s not the usual translation of the first few verses of John 1 – where the Greek word ‘logos’ is usually given as Word. We talk about the Word as a way that the Christian tradition tries to understand the figure of Jesus – present in the heart of God from the very beginning of time, then made flesh in a man in Palestine 2,000 years ago and yet somehow an ongoing part of creation today. And yet, when we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, it often feels like he was more interested in invitations than words. We could go so far as to describe Jesus is the
‘invitation’ at the heart of God: Jesus invites his disciples to follow him, he invites those he meets to learn from his teaching, he invites broken people to receive healing, he invites all humanity to be transformed by an encounter with the living God. Jesus sends us the invitation – how are going to RSVP?

I wonder how you feel when you receive an invitation? The obvious answer to that is ‘it depends what the invitation is to’. Mostly, no doubt, we are excited to be invited to a wedding, a party, a celebration of some sort – it is always good to be together with people we value and to be a part of a happy occasion. But sometimes, perhaps we feel intimidated by an invite: if it is to a place where we feel we might stand out or not know how to behave, if it is with people we don’t know or are not sure how to get on with or perhaps it is a solemn and difficult occasion.

Throughout the gospel stories, Jesus is extending an invitation – how does that invitation make us feel? Are we excited about being a part of the celebration of life, love and justice that is the community Jesus invites us into, or does the whole thing make us a bit nervous? Are we scared we might get asked to do something we don’t want to do? Maybe all of the above?

Our readings today look at this idea of an invitation and the very common biblical theme of hospitality. In Luke’s gospel we meet Jesus in full ‘invitation’ mode – he is riffing on the theme of hospitality and challenging some of the more judgmental and close-minded attitudes in the society around him (and so many of those attitudes are still alive and well today aren’t they!?).

The story takes place in the house of a Pharisee and Jesus notices the way the guests are vying over the positions of honour and power at the table. It’s safe to say he doesn’t approve, and tells a story about how you might respond to the ‘invitation’ to a wedding feast. Who amongst us would dare sit at the top table at a wedding unless we were sure that was where we were supposed to be? Rather, we should be willing to sit in the dingiest corner, as far away from the action as possible, in the most uncomfortable chair. Then, perhaps, we might receive the invitation to come higher up.

This passage resonates so powerfully with the climax of the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. In these stories, where Lewis regularly draws on his Christian faith and Christian tropes to tell the story of his fictional land of Narnia, the final book leads to Lewis’ imagination of what heaven might look like. In this story, The Last Battle, as the characters whose stories we have followed over the previous books make their way into heaven, they are invited to ‘come further up, come further in’. With each new stage of their journey, they discover a new revelation of God’s grace, a new fantastical world to explore and a greater depth to the beauty and joy of existence. The invitation is to new and wonderful things. So too for those wedding guests in Jesus story – by assuming the lowest of places, they encounter the invitation into something new and more wonderful.

The invitation to the kingdom is long-standing – the invitation at the heart of God is littered throughout the Old Testament too, including in our lectionary reading from Jeremiah today. Here, Jeremiah is bemoaning the way people have turned away from the glory of God ‘for something that does not profit’, and have replaced the fountain of living water with ‘cisterns that can hold no water’. Amongst all the vivid imagery, the message is clear: God is inviting the people of Israel into a new possibility. Can they heed and follow the invitation? The invitation has been extended. It is being extended again today. Can we capture something of the invitation at the heart of God? Can we say ‘yes’, I’ll be there, I’ll be hospitable, I’ll be present, I’ll follow you?

And, if we do, then perhaps we can also recognize the role we have to play in extending that invitation to others?

In the second half of the Luke passage, Jesus extends the invitation beyond the ‘normal guest list’. He sets up the famous parable of the wedding feast by reminding his listeners (and us) that we shouldn’t invite your rich neighbours to dinner, so that the favour be returned. Rather, we should be inviting all the people who may never be able to return the invitation: the poorest people in society, those who have been thrown out of the system, people who are lonely, isolated or unable to have ‘dinner’ as we might think of it. It’s time to extend the invitation. If we do so, if we are brave enough to get beyond our own cultural and societal norms, then Hebrews reminds us of the remarkable possibilities at play here: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

This evocative phrase ‘showing hospitality to angels’ or ‘entertaining angels unawares’ is a beautiful image of what the church might be like, if we were bold enough to capture the invitation at the heart of God. To respond to that invitation and then extend that invitation out to a world in need: a lonely, hungry world. We have received, and we go on receiving an invitation into something wonderful. How are we going to extend that invitation to others? Of course, part of that might mean an invitation to our friends, neighbours or family to be a part of this church community here, but it also has to mean more than that. Jesus is inviting you to live as an invitational people – always demonstrating something of the Spirit of God to the people we meet, always inviting them into the narrative of love we are building, always making people feel welcome, accepted, loved just as they are.

Who knows, we might even entertain angels unaware…