Growing in Grace

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
September 11, 2016

Matthew 22: 1-14 (CEB)
Jesus responded by speaking again in parables: 2“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding party for his son. 3He sent his servants to call those invited to the wedding party. But they didn’t want to come. 4Again he sent other servants and said to them, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Look, the meal is all prepared. I’ve butchered the oxen and the fattened cattle. Now everything’s ready. Come to the wedding party!” ’ 5But they paid no attention and went away—some to their fields, others to their businesses. 6The rest of them grabbed his servants, abused them, and killed them.

7“The king was angry. He sent his soldiers to destroy those murderers and set their city on fire. 8Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding party is prepared, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. 9Therefore, go to the roads on the edge of town and invite everyone you find to the wedding party.’

10“Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. 11Now when the king came in and saw the guests, he spotted a man who wasn’t wearing wedding clothes. 12He said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ But he was speechless. 13Then the king said to his servants, ‘Tie his hands and feet and throw him out into the farthest darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.’

14“Many people are invited, but few people are chosen.”

We pick back up this morning with our HOPE Point sermon series, looking at those four statements that define the kind of church we will be: Rooted in Christ. Grounded in Hope. Growing in Grace. Giving in Love. Today, our focus will be “growing in grace,” and we will think about what God’s grace is, and what it means to grow in God’s grace. As we delve into this parable, we are going to broaden our understanding of grace by looking at John Wesley’s teaching about God’s grace. And I will go ahead and tell you now that this sermon will not really see its completion until next week, because when we grow in God’s grace, the natural outcome is that we give more and more in love.

So this parable of the wedding guests: Let me begin by acknowledging what we are all thinking…we don’t like this parable. This is one teaching from Jesus that we would rather just skip right over; and we often do! We like to hear about how much God loves us, and about how Jesus died for our sins. We like to be affirmed that by our belief in Jesus Christ, we are saved. And indeed, these things are all an important part of the “good news” of the gospel story. But one of the things we often forget (or chose to ignore) is the fact that the gospel story is also a challenging message, calling us out of our present existence and into a greater life. For example, Jesus talked more about money and riches, and how we should give them away, than any other subject besides the Kingdom of God. Yet how many of us take those teachings seriously? Most of us give “just enough,” but don’t ever take that life-altering step of giving sacrificially. In the same way, we like to picture ourselves living for eternity in God’s favor, but chose to ignore the fact that we must actually live different lives as Christ-followers.

So as we look at this parable this morning and what it means to grow in God’s grace, let’s begin by simply making sure we are all on the same page about what is happening here. Prior to telling this parable, Jesus has been challenged by the religious leaders as to the source of his authority. This parable is a part of Jesus’ response to their challenge, and in essence, Jesus’ message is that those who you think have authority may not, while those who seemingly have no authority actually do.

As Jesus tells this parable, we quickly understand that the King throwing the wedding banquet represents God, and we see two lists of invitees to the banquet. The guests invited first are often understood to represent the Israelites, God’s chosen people. But these guests reject the invitation saying, essentially, “We are too busy.” Whether or not the first invitees refer specifically to the Israelites is irrelevant. I think we would do better to understand that the first guests invited to the wedding banquet can be likened to any who somehow view themselves as favorable to God for any reason. But in their rejection, and subsequent violent behavior, the first invitees lose their place at the banquet.

So the King sends out his servants again, this time with a different guest list. Tradition would have you believe that these guests represent the Gentiles, but again, I think a broader view is more appropriate. I would liken these secondary guests, essentially, to those people who have no prior relationship with God. These guests graciously accept the invitation, and so the wedding banquet proceeds. But then the King appears to see how things are going and he discovers that there is one guest who is not dressed appropriately. We might speculate that the mis-dressed guest did not own the appropriate clothes or could not afford them, but that is of little consequence because when the King asks why the man is not dressed appropriately, he gives absolutely no explanation. It’s almost as if he just doesn’t really care. And then we get to that part of the parable that we really don’t like. The King throws the underdressed guest into the “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And all we can think to ourselves is, “Where’s the grace? At least he showed up! At least he didn’t murder the King’s servants! All he did was dress the wrong way and he gets thrown out!”

Where’s the grace? That’s the question I want us to focus in on today. Because, you see, the way I read this parable, it’s all about God’s grace and the appropriate response on our part. In order to frame our thinking about the movement of God’s grace in this parable, I want to begin by sharing with you John Wesley’s teaching about grace. Wesley taught a lot about God’s grace, it was a hallmark of the early Methodist movement, and one of the distinguishing features of Wesley’s teaching about grace is that it can be divided into three distinct parts; prevenient (or preventing) grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. If you think of it like a house, prevenient grace is the porch on the outside. Anyone can walk up onto a front porch, right? In the same way, God’s prevenient grace is available for all people no matter what; it is God’s grace at work in our lives before we are even aware of who God is. To continue the house analogy, justifying grace is like the door that leads from the porch to the inside of the house. Though all people can walk up onto a front porch, not all people will enter a house, will they? So justifying grace is the grace that changes us when we make a decision to commit our lives to God in Christ Jesus. You can liken this to the “born again” experience or the “change” that we signify in baptism. Finally, there is sanctifying grace, which is the grace constantly at work in our lives, helping us to grow in our relationship with God and in our Christ-likeness. To use the house analogy, sanctifying grace is like the stairway leading up; in this case, upward to a closer relationship with God in Christ Jesus.

So, prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, available to all people. Justifying grace is the grace that moves us from our old selves into a new covenant life with God, and sanctifying grace is the grace by which we grow in our Christ-likeness. It is important to note here that Wesley taught that we can “backslide.” We could be justified and on our way toward sanctification when we sin and take a few steps downward. Or some people may even renounce the faith and find themselves standing once again on the front porch, no longer in a covenant relationship with God. But the thing of it is, though we may backslide, we will never “fall from grace” as some say because at worst, God’s prevenient grace is still moving and working in our lives. However, if we make the decision to never enter that door, or we backslide to such a degree that we set ourselves back on the front porch, what we are missing out on is the abundant life possible through a covenant relationship with God.

Okay, now, with that in mind, let’s go back to the parable and fit the pieces together. The invitations that the King sends out are like God’s prevenient grace. Not once, but twice the King sent his servants out to summon the wedding guests; he was persistent just as God persists in grace. But both times, the guests ignored the summons, and the second time, they actually abused and killed the servants who had come bearing the invitation. These guests made a conscience decision not to be justified, not to walk through the door into the house of the King’s presence. And what happened? Death. They lost their chance for a life-changing, life-giving relationship with the King.

But God’s grace is not limited to a few. So when the first guests refuse to appear, the King sends his servants out again; this time, to the edges of the town, to invite anyone and everyone they come across. This broad invitation is a clear example of God’s prevenient grace available to all people. The King made no distinction in his invitation; it was for everyone—evil and good, rich and poor, friend and foe, widow, orphan, and outcast. And the people came. Jesus tells us the wedding banquet was full of guests. These people had welcomed the movement of God’s grace in their lives, and they stepped off the front porch and into the presence of the King. They were growing in grace. But when the King appeared, he noticed one of the guests was not dressed appropriately, and that’s where this parable gets nasty again. In other words, the guest had walked into the King’s presence, but his life had not been changed. This is a common metaphor in the New Testament, where the donning of wedding garments represents a life changed in relationship to God. This one particular guest had chosen not to change, and to the King that means his life had not changed—he does not really desire to be there, so he is thrown back out onto the porch, into the “outer darkness,” apart from any meaningful, much less life-giving relationship with God.

Now, with that in mind, there are a couple of thoughts I want you to take home with you today. First, no matter what we have ever done, are doing, or will do, we are never apart from God’s grace. Even when we are in the “outer darkness,” even when we are stubborn, broken sinners, God in God’s infinite, prevenient grace will continue to reach out to us, calling us into God’s presence. How we chose to respond to God’s gracious gift is up to us, but you can discern from this parable the consequences of not responding to God’s grace.

And therein lies the second point – not only are we to respond to God’s grace, we need to always be growing in God’s grace. Growing in grace means that we never think of ourselves more highly than we ought, we humbly receive the gift of God’s gracious salvation and allow it to change us, and we seek always to grow in Christ-likeness—making that the goal of our lives. The invitation has gone out. The question is not whether you can manage to fit this party into your schedule—and your life, because this IS life. This is about living in God’s grace. This is about a new life through God in Christ Jesus, and how we respond makes all the difference!

I want to leave you with this: John Wesley went on his teaching about grace to say that through God’s sanctifying grace, we can grow in Christ-likeness to perfection even in this life. Wesley’s definition of perfection comes from the greatest commandment—perfect love of God and perfect love of neighbor. That’s where we will go next week: Giving in Love. Because it’s only by growing in grace that we are able to give in perfect love.
May it be so. Amen.

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