The theme that emerges from the set readings for October 11 is about God’s invitation to a life of fellowship with Him — us, ordinary, regular and far-from-perfect people having the friendship of Almighty God, perfectly holy, awesome in majesty, the source of light and love.
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The life of the kingdom —± promised
This is the life of the kingdom in which God’s peace keeps our hearts and thinking orientated towards Christ Jesus. This is not just trying to follow Him, this is belonging to Him and living by His values — which override our petty differences and desires.
We start (OT reading, Isaiah 25:1-9) with the picture of God’s coming which Isaiah saw and which spans several time frames, up to the last times when the Lord will return in majesty to establish His kingdom in all its fullness for those who are His. The picture is of a royal banquet set out, with the best wine and food, and remarkably the invitees will be drawn from all kinds of people. Those first hearers, who had a Jewish and exclusive mindset, must have found it difficult to imagine that Gentiles would be part of God’s invitation.
Following on in the unfolding revelation is Jesus’ story, Matthew 22:1-14, told in the courts of the temple in Jerusalem. As well as His disciples and genuine followers, there were the hostile faces of the temple officials, the lawyers and the elders of the people — who hated Him. Was this hatred without cause? Not from their point of view. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem surrounded by a wave of demonstrators. He was a threat to their sense of control and even their continuation. They needed a reason to call for His death, and this looked like a charge that could be made to stick.
The invitation of the kingdom — given widely
Jesus’ story is about a king who invited people to be his guests — in our language, to have fellowship with Him — a king reaching out to people of lower social rank to share in the wedding celebration of his son. And they gave a nod to the first invitation, but when the messengers came out to tell them it was time, the preparations now ready, they were violent towards them and refused to come. It was a deliberate insult to the king, a treasonable challenge to His authority, and a slight on his son and heir. In anger, he had their city destroyed while he looked out for other to invite to the banquet. These were less noble and considerably more mixed, not the kind of people you would expect at a royal banquet. But come they did, with wedding clothes provided for them if they were too poor to have their own finery. They were invited, and they responded, and so t hey would be part of t he celebration — friends of the king. But one man wanted to share in the banquet but didn’t want to honour the king’s son and heir by wearing a wedding suit. He was like the first group — he didn’t deserve to come — and he was put out into the darkness.
God’s kingdom is about responding to His call, His invitation. But not everyone will respond. And some will try to come only grudgingly, and on their own terms — and that is not the way it works. It is about fellowship and friendship, and where there is no friendship, by definition there can be no fellowship. An observant, religious way of meeting God is not fellowship. It is not responding in friendship to his offer of friendship. And if we think we’re entitled to be there and well-enough dressed already, without needing to put on the garment of ‘rightness’, we may be in for a shock.
The relationships of the kingdom — made possible
We come to the letter, Philippians 4:1-9, last because this is written to people who are already part of the kingdom of God and learning to live by its values. The gospel is about the life and teaching of Jesus before (or at) the resurrection. Now the expectations are different and the experience is different. The hearers or readers or Paul’s words are Spirit-filled believers, and so living the kingdom life — rejoicing in the face of difficulties, prioritising praise together with petition, and holding on to what is true, admirable and praiseworthy (and therefore not engaging in or entertaining gossip) is no-out-of reach ideal, but what the Holy Spirit in their lives is coaching them and enabling them to do. Although they are facing a divisive conflict of loyalties, he gives little specific advice apart from the more mature ones in the fellowship helping those who need to be reconciled, and the two who are in disagreement, to get into the same mind with each other and the Lord they both serve. It will come right, he seems to say, if you simply follow these kingdom principles, being like Jesus, as you know to do.
The kingdom of God for us — changes everything
What difference does this make for us? We are good at talking about church (although Jesus only touched on it on a couple of occasions) and not very good at talking about and teaching the values of the kingdom. For three years, Jesus taught about little else. He made it clear how we come to perceive the kingdom — by a new spiritual start in acknowledging as a heart decision who Jesus is and receiving what He has done. And he taught that we would have a Helper and Teacher and Encourager in the Holy Spirit who would be like His continuing presence but in an unseen way, following the resurrection. We are invited to enter into different lives, where we enjoy the love and acceptance and fellowship of the Father. Reticent about approaching, where our lives are grubby and ordinary, we are given His garment of righteousness to make us completely presentable.
Who can refuse such an invitation? The story line tells us what we already know — many refuse, because they don’t feel they need an invitation or a new garment. Many others, who had far less expectation in themselves of ever being noticed, less alone by a king, are responding in places where the church is growing, planting out and bringing both joy and justice. Muslims are receiving visions of the one they know (from the Koran) as Isa — and responding. While one face of China is harsh and authoritarian, the face we don’t see publicly is of a huge underground network of Christians and house churches. India, which makes no claim to be ‘Christian country’, quite the opposite, probably has. higher proportion of born-again believers than the UK. African countries who received the gospel in generations past from sun and heat-challenged British missionaries, are now sending their own missionaries back to stir up awareness of the Good News of Jesus and His kingdom.
To us, this is the gathering of “all the people they could find”, the others, the many who are invited. We can learn from them, and respond to the Jesus they know and love, and join in a wonderfully diverse fellowship.
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