"I'm a kilo and a half over," said my friend. "I'm hoping they'll let us through."
Well, the airport scales said 5 kilos over, and the counter staff were not letting a gram extra onto the plane. So we went over to the repack area, with its scales, and began the hard task of working out what to leave behind.
The family were going home to a small village and taking gifts that were unobtainable for their family. It was heart rending to see what had to be left behind. And it was eye opening to see what they sacrificed of their own possessions so they could take home stuff we'd buy at the local supermarket without a second thought.
Travelling the Way of Life is like this. We have to carry our Faith with us, but it is never possible to fit everything of God into a suitcase. God is too big, too profound, and we are much too small.
This is the first point today. God cannot be fitted into our suitcase. We can never pack a neat theology. There are, and there always have been, bits of the bible that don't fit together neatly. There are always verses left over.
There was a man who reckoned he had it all worked out. He had harmonised and explained all the problems of theology and all the difficult questions the experience of Jesus and the words of the Bible raise for us. When he arrived at the airport the young woman on the ticket counter said, "I'm sorry Sir. You can't travel like that. We can't let you on."
"Why! It's all here. I've got it all in. It fits! It's under the weight limit."
She blushed. "Sir, you've forgotten to put on your trousers!"
Show me a man— or woman— who thinks they have the whole story of God worked out, and I will show you a faith that has some appalling blind spots.
When Matthew wrote his Gospel he was responding to all the issues that confronted his church. What were the problems? What had Jesus said? What is most important for us to hold onto?
What, above all, must we get into the suitcase of faith, so that we are prepared for the journey ahead?
For Matthew there was a desperate need to understand that it's not what you say that counts, it's what you do. God is not impressed by big talk and posturing. God wants the Kingdom. God wants love. God says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." It's a quote from the prophet Hosea 6:6. And Jesus says it Matthew 9:13.
I want people who are compassionate and loving, not people who say and do fine things in church.
As you know, in the last great parable of the Kingdom in Matthew, nothing depends on doctrine, or worship, or statements of faith, or correct belief. All that counts is that you feed the hungry and care for the sick and the stranger and those in prison. This is so important that if you walked around a person lying on the foot path you may as well have left Jesus himself lying on the footpath.
This is so important— so important- that if you don't do it, said Matthew, you "will go away into eternal punishment." (Matthew 25:46)
If you don't have mercy in your suitcase, if you are not carrying compassion, you won't make it home.
In today's parable of the Kingdom, it's the same. The bridegroom is late. Everyone is waiting with their lamps lit. We can see the significance of lamps from Matthew 5:15:
15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Our lamps— our good works— show people the way to God.
But some folk didn't bring enough oil to last the night at this wedding. In the Tanakh— what we call the Old Testament— oil is a "metaphor for righteousness or good deeds." (Ps 119.105; Prov 6.23; 13.9; Job 18.5; 2 Bar. 59.2; 4 Ezra 14.20–21 Levine et al The Jewish Annotated New Testament footnote to pp 47)
The great promise of Matthew is that the bridegroom will come. The bridegroom always comes to the wedding. But if we stop living well, if we think we have a right to the kingdom, if we assume we will get in, and if we assume others won't and don't show them mercy... we'll run out of oil. We'll have to "buy more." And while we're off not paying attention the bridegroom may come. If he does, the door will be shut in our face when we come back. We will be locked out of the Kingdom. "Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
I'm not telling you anything you have not already heard... but perhaps now I will.
I asked in the Bible study this week, "What does it mean if the door is shut in our face? What does it say about God?" And someone said, "It means the love of God is not unconditional."
It means the love of God is not unconditional.
It means there are some things and some places the love of God doesn't cover.
It means there are some things God does not forgive.
Matthew was so concerned about the people who are assuming they have a birthright to the kingdom, and that they don't need Jesus, that he left the unconditional part of the love of God at the airport. There were more important things to carry that day.
And we— the church— have seen the problem of leaving it behind. We have been trying ever since to stuff both the shut door and the unconditional love of God into our suit case. And why not!? They are both in the bible.
John Calvin did it by saying God's love is unconditional, but it's not that God shuts them out of the kingdom. They were simply predestined never to go to heaven anyway. I think that's an appalling blasphemy.
[The principle, in Calvin's words, is that "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death." ( Calvin 1989, Book III, Chapter 21, Par 5)]
The Methodist part of our heritage was appalled by that. But we still wanted God's unconditional love and the shut door of heaven in the suitcase of Faith. So we said, "It's not actually God's fault. God does love us unconditionally but in our freedom to choose, we choose not to enter the kingdom. We keep sinning. It's our fault."
(That's a view that comes from Jacobus Arminius. And we didn't own up to the fact that all means God still does not love us unconditionally because apparently the love of God doesn't cover the sin of making the wrong choices.)
So... I'm off travelling. And like Matthew, and Calvin, and Arminius and the Methodists, I can't fit everything into my suitcase; no one can. So I am going to make sure God's unconditional love is packed in there, even if that is all I can fit in!
Why? Because that is my experience of God.
I am also leaving the shut door of heaven behind, because I'd like to travel wearing my trousers! I cannot carry both unconditional love and the shut door, and be true to the best of the Faith.
What I mean is this... and this is my sense of myself... I'm not saying this about you if you disagree with me about the shut door....
... if I insist on both the shut door and the unconditional love of God, the inevitable conclusion is that some people are less than people. They are in some sense irredeemable. They were never destined to be saved. They were never really quite human. This is at the root of all racism and much murder.
Stuffing the shut door into my suit case opens a door to another path, and I am afraid I wouldn't be standing in the airport without my trousers on; I'd be standing with a severed head in one hand, just like ISIS, or just like the Christian man who tried to cut off the head of someone he knew last week.
That's an extreme statement! [Will I say it in the sermon on Sunday?] But I remember when I did insist on carrying both the shut door and the unconditional love of God. I remember the things I said, and the things I did in the name of holiness. They were only quantitatively different from the cutting off of heads. There was only a degree of difference.
Be free. Jesus came to set us free. (Romans 8:2) He came to give us the fullness of life. (John 10:10)
The unconditional love of God frees us to lift our lamps high. It means we work for the good, we can love people, and it will show them the glory of God and shine a light for them to be drawn into the same fuller light.
The unconditional love of God means that if we get our discipleship wrong, if we are less than perfect, or if we simply run out of energy and oil some days, the door will not be shut in our face. God will always know us.
The unconditional love of God means we can take risks. We can be extravagant. We can fail. We can enjoy the journey because God will always know us. And in a world full of alienation and discrimination and hate, people need to see evidence of the love of a god who is truly God; one who loves us no matter how much we fail.
But share your oil. Spread your light around. Don't put it under a bushel basket. Matthew was right. It's vitally important. It's our living, and our good deeds, which show God to people. As Paul said, we "are the body of Christ." It is through us that people can find the freedom of God and the unconditional love of God.
And if we hide the light, and live badly— you know— if we say, "What does it matter, I'm going to heaven anyway?" I tell you most seriously. we are burning our freedom. We are building not a door, but a wall, between us and the love of God. God will always know us, but we will risk the misery of wondering if we ever knew God. And our neighbours will find in us no light to find the way home.
But be at peace if you have gone down this path
and be at peace if the path of good works is hard
for God will always know you. Amen.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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