October 15, 2023

St. Francis Propers – George Yandell

Often called the Parable of the Great Supper (Matthew 22:1-14), this gospel passage is difficult- all the invited guests refuse to come at the last minute. The King/host in turn rounds up a bunch of street people who never imagined themselves at the kind of party the host is throwing. As a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, it suggests that the fellowship of Jesus is open to all sorts of folk, and the original guests invited to the wedding banquet who decided at the last minute not to attend (with puny excuses) are held accountable for killing the hosts’ slaves who carried the invitation. Matthew is using the parable as an allegory about the fellowship growing beyond the Galilean peasants who were the original 12 disciples to include all sorts and conditions of folks, many Gentiles as well as Jews. The growing fellowship of Jesus began to get push-back from the Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Roman occupation, and like Jesus, they put many to death in the decades that followed Jesus’ resurrection. It’s a very troubling message.  

Read as an allegory about the history of salvation, God is the king who prepares a feast for God’s son. The king invites his subjects, Israel, to the banquet. They treat the invitations lightly or kill the king’s servants, the prophets. The king destroys their city, Jerusalem, and invites others (foreigners) to the feast. This story is alien to Jesus. It has been completely “Christianized” and looks back to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Those in the allegorical interpretation are those who join the community of Jesus but turn out not to be fit and so are expelled, like the one who got into the feast poorly dressed and without an invitation- he is bound and thrown into the place of utter darkness where he and others weep and grind their teeth. [This paragraph adapted from The Five Gospels, p. 235, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1993.]  

In the Book of Common prayer in use in the Church of England at the time of the Reformation, there was an exhortation to be read before Holy Communion. It alludes to the parable in these words: “The Holy Sacrament being so divine and comfortable a thing to them who receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily; my duty is to exhort you in the mean season to consider the dignity of that Holy Mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receipt thereof; and so search your own consciences that ye may come holy and clean to such a heavenly Feast, in the marriage garment required by God in Holy Scripture, and be received as worthy partakers of that Holy Table.”  [From Preaching the New Lectionary, p. 260, Reginald Fuller, 1971, the Order of St. Bendict.]  

Matthew’s gospel was probably in its final form by 85 CE, 55 years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection. By that time the followers of Jesus had dispersed across the whole Mediterranean basin, into Europe and even India. If we read the passage from Philippians beside the gospel, we hear Paul’s voice from just 20 years after Jesus’s resurrection.  

Philippians was written from Paul in prison, or as the Greek literally says, ‘in chains.’ He was in military custody in Ephesus, chained to a soldier.  His position was precarious. Everything depended on what his friends could do, what his jailers would allow, how humanity might prevail over cruelty. In his letter to the Philippians he tells them, “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Paul is imprisoned by the official provincial representative of the Senate and People of Rome at Ephesus, in Asia. Throughout the letter Paul vacillates between life and death, deliverance and execution, but hope always triumphs over despair. “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or death. For to me living is Christ and dying is gain.” [These two paragraphs adapted from In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, pp. 272-273, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Harper San Francisco, 2004.]  

He speaks with love for his companions in spreading the news of Jesus. And the word he speaks to those in Philippi is ‘Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near, don’t worry about anything. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Keep on doing the things you have learned and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.’  

Paul is talking about a Spirit-transplant. The Spirit of Jesus has been infused into him and all those in the fellowship. The byword for him is IN CHRIST JESUS. Paul as a mystic means he’s IN JESUS, BODY AND SPIRIT. When the Spirit of Jesus gets into Paul’s body, Paul’s ego will end up dead. It is an organic mystical identity- he has taken on the character of Jesus.   

“In Christ” was the characteristic expression of his faith. The Spirit had transplanted the character of God’s heart into Paul. It is simple, appalling and scary—that’s why there’s fear and trembling in Paul- Paul as a mystic had his life replaced by the life of Christ. [These two paragraphs from Dom Crossan’s lecture, 6/15/05, Portland OR] He wished, prayed and worked that everyone would be IN CHRIST.  

If you consider all we do in our worship, fellowship, learning and serving the wider community, this is the goal of our faith journey- to be In Christ. For some of us this mystical experience comes in a flash, and we change course immediately, like Paul did. For others of us, being In Christ is a journey, a series of life experiences that open us to the life-giving Spirit of Jesus. That’s why we come week in and week out to worship, to receive the body and blood of Christ, to live in fellowship with our companions. It’s the mystical presence Jesus had promised when he said after his resurrection, “I am with you always.” Period. Amen.