Two years ago in July I travelled to England for a conference at Oxford. But I went a few days early so I could spend the preceding weekend in London. As someone who finds heat and humidity uncomfortable, I was looking forward to the typically mild English summer, with daytime highs of 21 degrees. But on that particular weekend, there was a heatwave with temperatures over 30. I was too cheap to pay for a hotel, so I stayed at a traveller’s hostel without air conditioning. I enjoyed the sight-seeing, but felt sticky the whole time.
On Sunday my plan was to go to church in the morning and afterwards travel by bus to Oxford for the conference which began that evening.
What was I to wear?
I had packed formal dress clothes and my clerical attire, but I wanted to save them for the conference. I didn’t want my nice clothes to get all sweaty and wrinkly from a hot morning of walking in the city and an afternoon of travel. So I decided to dress rather casually: khaki shorts, flip-flop sandals and a shirt that I thought was dressy enough for church.
At the recommendation of a friend, I went to church at the Chapel Royal of St. Peter in Chains within in the walls of the Tower of London (and by the way, at the gate, when you tell the yeoman warder (the guard) that you’re going to church, you get in for free!)
The service was glorious. And the priest, who is one of the chaplains to the Queen – when he found out that I was an Anglican priest – invited me next door to his house for tea and crumpets immediately after the service.
I had a lovely time, their hospitality was wonderful, but there was a brief moment when the priest’s wife let it be known to me that I was dressed inappropriately for the Chapel Royal. I don’t even remember what she said - it was only a word or two with a disapproving glance.
In the words of today’s Gospel: Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment? … And he was speechless.
Now of course, unlike that poor fellow, she did not order the yeoman to bind me hand and foot cast me out, but my embarrassed, guilty soul felt as though it was in a place of outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Today’s Gospel ends with that severe warning about being unprepared and under-dressed in the presence of God the King. Friends, we have all been invited as honoured guests at His great banquet. God is preparing for each one of us a seat at His royal table at the end of this age; and we receive an appetizer of this feast right here this morning in this Holy Communion.
So what will you wear to this occasion?
Well friends, don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t quite worn your finest clothes here this morning, because the wedding garment referred to in this parable is not made of fabric like cotton or wool.
We know from the rest of the Bible that the wedding garment is an image for the righteous deeds of the saints, good works, holiness of life. As you may recall from last week’s Gospel, we have been donned with the Holy Spirit, clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).
Today’s parable follows that up with a warning: the gift of the Holy Spirit moves us to want to be holy. Where this desire is lacking in us, it is frankly, evidence of carelessness or presumption – a lack of joy and gratitude for this great honour. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness (Isa. 61:10).
This garment is a gift from God. We do not have to earn or buy it ourselves. But it we can neglect to wear it. Like me on that summer day in London, we can leave it in our suitcase and not wear it when we’re supposed to do so.
The garment is not necessary for the prior invitation. Our goodness is not the basis for our standing with God - only Christ can give us that - but the garment is evidence of wanting to please the King who was gracious enough to invite us. Our lives, our behaviour, our thoughts, words and deeds, must display joy and thanksgiving for the invitation we have received.
But this parable is not just about the garment. In the first place, it’s about the invitation to the wedding feast and how we respond to that invitation.
The first thing to note in this parable is that there is in fact a feast and you have received a personal invitation. It seems obvious to say, but we must not gloss over this fact. God is preparing a banquet for us to share and enjoy.
And again, you have been personally invited as an honoured guest. You are not a wedding crasher. You are not some undesirable who is unwanted at the party, but reluctantly allowed to attend; in fact, just the opposite. The master of the feast, the King of all creation, covets your presence, He wants nothing more than for you to attend. It wouldn’t be the same without you and so He takes anguished offence at our various excuses.
And what are these excuses? They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business.
Our jobs, our hobbies, our various worldly pursuits – these are usually not bad things, in fact, they’re good and necessary – even gifts from God. But you see, these occupations are problems when they become preoccupations.
Most often, our rejection is not made in pursuit of bad things, but of good things. But there are indeed evil ones too, summed up in those guests who shockingly seized the King’s servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. There are plenty of people who turn away from God’s to pursue crime and violence, but the more common response is lack of interest and mixed priorities.
So friends the question for us this morning is a sobering one: How do we reject God’s invitation everyday? What are the ways in which we forget to put on our wear our garment of salvation and robe of righteousness?
But the message here is ultimately not one of condemnation and judgment. For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to call us into His Kingdom. In His suffering and death on the cross, Jesus bore our human rejection of this invitation. But He rose again to forgive us and invite us again. He ascended into heaven as King and clothed us with His Holy Spirit to make us worthy guests at His table. And at His second coming in glory He will open the door this great banquet, where all our longings, hopes and desires will be fulfilled.
So the invitation is not to a funeral, or something boring or undesirable. No, the invitation is to a royal feast! What could be better than that? The invitation of the gospel is to a life of joy far better than we could ever ask for or imagine. Jesus said, I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10).
Once we realize this, how could we possibly reject it?
Something has dampened the wonder that the King is inviting us, that this is no ordinary party, and that earlier we said we’d be coming. For those of us who have been Christians for some time, we sent our RSVP to this banquet when we were baptized or confirmed, or when we believed the gospel for the first time. So it’s only fitting that we spend our lives preparing to attend, making the best use of the time.
Although this parable contains a warning, it should certainly not leave us in despair. In fact, it is very good news indeed. Notice how the King repeatedly invites those on His guest list. God persistently seeks us out - even and especially when we turn away from Him. No matter what you’ve done or failed to do this past week, or in your life, God invites you to His table again.
And so friends, as we come to the feast, we must accept its forms and customs, we must rejoice in the celebration, we must don the appropriate garment.
Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians shows us in detail what our wedding garment looks like when you take it out of the closet and out it on.
Singing, thanksgiving and submission out of reverence for Christ – that’s what our wedding garment looks like, that’s what means for us to dress properly in the presence of the King and to honour His gracious invitation.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless [in your garment of salvation and robe of righteousness] before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)