What Is Salvation? – The Rev. Michelle Meech
October 15, 2023
Today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew is definitely a challenging one. It is a parable that is meant to teach about how God’s love saves us.
This parable says that a king is giving a wedding banquet and those who are invited have refused the invitation and went out of their way to insult the king. So the king seeks vengeance on the city. But he still needs guests so he invites anyone and everyone who will come. However, when one of the guests shows up without the proper attire, he is sent to the outer darkness.
As I said, it’s a challenging lesson. We would like it to be a story about how God’s love is unbounded, without limits. We would like it to tell us that all are welcome at the banquet table. But Matthew tells a slanted story, in which we walk away with the understanding that not everyone is worthy of God’s love – either because they reject it, as in those who were originally invited, or they are not ready for it, as in those who did not wear the proper attire.
Matthew tells it this way because, as we have come to learn from studying the context of this gospel, Matthew and his friends were thrown out of the local Jewish community in Antioch Syria because they came to believe in Jesus. So Matthew has written this slanted parable because he’s making a point that those who were originally invited (the Jews), were those who rejected God’s Love, which Matthew has found in Jesus the Christ.
In our culture, we hear this slogan, often spoken by fundamentalist and evangelical Christians: “Jesus saves.” And in those churches, I suspect they talk a lot about what that means. In the Episcopal Church, we don’t say that because, I think, we humans are infinitely complex in our psychology and spirituality so we understand salvation as a much more nuanced concept.
Are we saved because we say we believe in Jesus? If so, what does that say about people who are not Christian? Are they doomed? What if we are Christian but we do not believe Jesus was the Son of God? And what does “Jesus is the Son of God” even mean? Or is salvation something else? Are we saved by our works, by good deeds in our lifetime? If so, exactly how high is the bar on that? How many and how significant must the deeds be? What do we mean by being saved? And what does that mean about what choices we make? If we say we believe but we treat other people with disdain, what does that mean? Are we still saved?
There is a lot to unpack when we talk about salvation.
And it’s very worth noting that this parable is offered, in today’s set of readings, alongside the iconic story of the ancient Israelites worshipping the golden calf from the book of Exodus. This story has become so imbedded in our consciousness that we use the phrase “golden calf” quite easily, to mean any kind of easy or attractive answer to our problem. The phrase “golden calf” is just as pervasive in our American vernacular. It’s something we think will save us, usually because we have lost our way somehow.
But the parable itself seems like a mixed message: God invites everyone to the table to feast at the Banquet of Love. We know that some will reject the invitation. But why does it matter to God if we wear the right robe to the banquet?
Let’s look no further than our own weekly practice. In the Episcopal Church, we have a literal banquet every week. We celebrate Eucharist – a word that means thanksgiving – here at our Table. It’s a sacrament for us, sacrament meaning that it’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, it’s a ritual act we perform to acknowledge and make known what we recognize to be true in ourselves – God’s Love is present and real. And by receiving the bread and/or the wine, we are reconciled to that truth. We are claiming it for ourselves.
And, while I truly believe that all are welcome at this table and that I have no business determining if anyone is fit to receive, I also know that if we want to receive what the Table has to offer, it does matter that we intentionally prepare ourselves to receive this gift we call the Banquet of Love.
Henri Nouwen was a professor, priest, and writer who died in 1996. He wrote a book called Life of the Beloved which we read here at St. John’s a few years ago. The book begins by defining the spiritual journey as learning to avoid the temptation of self-rejection. Nouwen says that we are constantly looking for ways to legitimize or prove that we are loved or esteemed. And when we fail or when something happens, we usually don’t examine the circumstances and consider whether it was even possible for us to do the thing we thought we should be able to do or be the person we thought we should be able to be.
Instead, we listen to the darker parts of our inner dialogue, the daemons, the parts that tell us we deserve to be abandoned and forgotten, punished and rejected. These become golden calves in a way – the skeptic’s path. It’s easier to think that salvation lies in not being the fool who ever thought we were worthy of being loved in the first place. And lest we think that some people are immune from this because they are so incredibly arrogant, Nouwen reminds us that arrogance is nothing but the need to put ourselves on a pedestal because we are so afraid of being seen for what we fear that we are – for being seen as worthless. Arrogance, you see, is just another form of self-rejection.
The deepest spiritual problem, Nouwen says, is that “we succumb to the belief that we are not truly welcome in human existence.”
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” And being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence… Aren’t you like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along and give you that final feeling of inner well-being that you desire?… But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. (pg 35-36)
But, he says… it doesn’t have to be this way. The truth of our existence is that we are the Beloved. That when the dove descends upon Jesus and God speaks, “This is my child the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”… God is speaking about all of us as creatures of God. We are all the Beloved of God, known by God before we are even knit together as finite creatures in our mother’s womb. And we belong to one another because we all belong to God. From this place, we have the strength and wisdom for our ministry. From this Belovedness, we are able to love our neighbor as ourselves.
You see, we’re always looking for something outside of ourselves that will save us, some experience that will make us feel better. We are always looking for a golden calf. But it’s this spiritual work of accepting the banquet’s grace and really allowing it to change us, that will actually save us. How? Because we come to the Table with all of who we are. I’m talking about confession.
Before we come to the Table, we confess the ways we have missed the mark. And, if Nouwen is correct… if it is our own worst nightmare to acknowledge the ways we have failed… confession is something that is likely to make us feel exactly the opposite of beloved. But, you see, it’s only when we acknowledge these mistakes that we are able to experience grace.
And by bringing them to God, we are freed from their hold on us. We are absolved. And this is what prepares us to receive what God offers in the Banquet of Love. This is the wedding coat. We come to the Table with all of who we are… all of our humanity, all of our human-ness… to reconcile ourselves – our true selves – to God. Because it’s from a place of Belovedness that we can begin to change damaging patterns of behavior.
Hopefully, this opens today’s parable up for us because we come to realize that Matthew was trying to articulate, even in this slanted story, just how widespread the invitation to the banquet actually is – that all are invited. Even those who laughed it off, they were invited. Even the one who got it wrong, they were invited. Because the invitation is always there. God’s love is that abundant.
The question is always, are we ready for the banquet to change us so that we learn to rest in our true identity of belonging, as the Beloved. And sometimes, we just come anyway. Even when we believe we’re not ready. Because sometimes it’s just the act of showing up that prepares us. All are invited to the Banquet of Love. All. No exceptions.
And specifically as Christians, we find our sustenance at this Table, the Table of Reconciliation. Because salvation lies in this: Rather than falling for the temptation of self-rejection, the Banquet teaches us to live into our belovedness. To take our place at the Table. To taste and see that God is good. To know that we are good. That we are beloved. That we belong… and so does everyone else.
And that we are so changed by this truth, that it becomes the clothing that we wear whenever we come to the banquet of Love. That we come to know we are Beloved so deeply that we wear this clothing all the time, as we carry this banquet, this Love, with us out into the world as the Beloved of God. To be Christ’s hands and feet in and for the world.
This is salvation. This is Truth.