Monday, 10 October 2011

Trinity 16: Getting Changed

Trinity 16 11

“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord…” says Paul to the Christians at Philippi.  If I were Euodia or Syntyche, looking down from heaven now, I would be really fed up. They only get one mention in the Bible, these “co-workers” of Paul, probably leaders of churches meeting in their houses in Philippi. They have obviously done a huge amount of good, struggling beside Paul in the work of the gospel, as he puts it, but it’s what’s gone wrong which is the thing which gets noticed and remarked on. Paul didn’t know that his letter to the Philippians would be preserved for two thousand years – he wasn’t writing for publication at all, but today all we know of Euodia and Syntyche is this squabble. Wouldn’t you just be kicking yourself if you were them?

Leaving aside their feelings though, I am actually quite glad that their spat has made it into Holy Writ. It reminds us of the reality of community living. It is easy to get idealistic about the early church, to imagine a time when everyone was filled with love for one another and a passion for truth and justice. In every generation there have been Christian groups who have tried to recapture those imagined early days through revivals and reformations. There’s nothing wrong with that – we need to discover the Gospel afresh for our own age. But those attempts never really work because they are based on a fantasy, not on reality. Euodia and Syntyche and their unnamed squabble perhaps do us a good service here. They remind us that we need to be realistic about our flaws – flaws which people in every age have shared - if we are actually going to achieve anything. We need to admit where we go wrong if we want ever to go right.

That’s not a counsel for despair. This letter tells us that despite their squabbles, these early workers with Paul made a difference for good in the places where they were. Paul calls them his “joy and crown”. Perhaps it was even the fact that they tried so hard to stick together and resolve their conflicts rather than giving up on each other which was the real testimony to the power of God working in them.

Community living is hard, whether that is the community of a local church, the community of a family, the community of a neighbourhood or a workplace,  the community of a nation, the community of Europe which is having such problems at the moment, or the global community. It was ever thus.

I’m reminded of St Benedict,  the founder of the monastic traditions of Western Europe. As the Roman empire collapsed in the 5th century, he sought refuge in the hills outside Rome, looking for peace and solitude to pray. Soon, hearing of his wisdom and holiness, others came to join him and rather against his will, they formed a community around him, an early monastery. They might have admired him as a holy man, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jealousies and resentments festered. Twice some of the monks even tried to poison Benedict , which seems a rather extreme way of making your feelings known!
Benedict survived, but clearly something had to be done. So he wrote a Rule, a way of life for the monks to follow, and that Rule in some form or other has become the foundation stone of most of the monasteries of Western Europe ever since.

Most of it is simply common sense advice for getting along together, observing a healthy rhythm to life, balancing time for work, prayer and study. It sets out the way in which monks were expected to treat each other, with respect and courtesy. They elected their Abbot, but having elected him they were expected to obey him – there’s no point giving him authority if you don’t trust him to use it. They all had a say in the running of the monastery, but when a decision was made, that was it. They took a vow of stability, staying put in that community for life – you couldn’t just flit from community to community as the mood took you. It was a seriously challenging commitment. It still is for the many religious communities that follow it. And Benedict knew that living up to it would mean an equally serious commitment to knowing yourself, tackling your own failings, growing and changing. If someone else irritates us and gets on our nerves, it is never entirely their fault; their behaviour is usually touching a raw, perhaps wounded nerve in us, which we need to find healing for too. Following Benedict’s rule means committing yourself to “conversion of life”, as the rule puts it. It is a tough demand, and it doesn’t surprise me that monastic communities, like many other experiments in community livingoften fail or run into difficulties , as do the communities of family, neighbourhood and nation – it is much easier to blame others than to accept that we need to change ourselves.

And that brings me neatly onto the Gospel reading where we meet a man who also needed to change – quite literally in his case.

Jesus tells a parable about a Royal wedding. Royal weddings are always about the future, the continuing of dynasties, the next stage in the life of a kingdom. Prince William and Catherine Middleton found that out when they got married earlier this year. Speculation started instantly about when they would start a family and provide the next generation of heirs to the throne. Whether they, or we, liked it or not, their marriage wasn’t just their marriage; it was an event which will affect the course of our nation’s history. In the Gospels, Royal weddings are meant to help us think about the future of one particular kingdom – the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ story, the wedding guests aren’t just being invited to a party; they are being invited to be part of the future the king has planned for his nation. But what’s this? They all refuse to come. It’s all a bit ridiculous, frankly, and those who first heard the story would have known that. Refusing the king’s invitation in an era when kings ruled absolutely and often brutally, was suicidally foolish, as the ungrateful guests discover. Please note that we aren’t supposed to read this as a description of the way God is – it is a story, meant to make us think, and no more than that.

But if those guests won’t come, the king knows there are plenty of others who will.  His servants are commanded to invite any Tom, Dick and Harry they find standing around the streets and soon his hall is filled with people – good and bad, says the parable. The only thing they have in common is that they want to be there and to share in the future they are being offered, unlike the first guests. Mark and Luke’s version stops with this happy scene, but Matthew puts a twist in end of this tale, and it is a twist which I think the story really needs, even if it is sometimes a difficult one to understand.

The king spots one guest who isn’t wearing a wedding robe and, furious, he throws him out into the outer darkness.  Again, we need to remember that this outer darkness is just a part of the story. It’s not a description of life after death. It’s always tempting, with Jesus’ parables to take them too seriously, to assume they are giving us a point by point description of the way things are. They aren’t and we get ourselves into serious trouble if we over-analyse them or forget to read them in the context of the wider message of the Gospels. That’s why it’s important, also, not to get worried by the red-herring of why this man hasn’t got a wedding garment. Is he too poor?, we worry. Perhaps he didn’t have time to go home and change? I f that were the case it would be completely unfair to judge him - but it would also make a nonsense of the story. We are clearly meant to understand that he could have got changed if he’d wanted to – he just didn’t.

The point Jesus is making is that although this guest is at this feast in body, he is not there in spirit. He isn’t willing to lift a finger actually to be part of what the king is planning for the future. He won’t get changed, literally, and that shows the king that he isn’t going to be any use practically as the work of the kingdom gets underway. He’ll come to the party, but he doesn’t want what it celebrates to make any difference to his life.

Matthew’s version of this story tells us that being a Christian is not simply about getting a ticket to the banquet, a seat at the table for ourselves. It is about being involved in the making of God’s kingdom – being part of his work. And that means being prepared to get changed, not physically into fine clothes, but into the people we are meant to be. We need to let God change us inwardly, showing us where we need to grow, where we need to repent and make amends, where we need to learn to love and to be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to give help, and to accept it. It doesn’t matter how old or how young we are, how sorted or how messy our lives are; this applies to all of us. When we stop getting changed, we stop growing. If you are the same person as you were a year ago, or ten years ago, if you are still carrying the same resentments, repeating patterns you know aren’t healthy, if you know no more of the Bible now than you did then, then there is something that needs changing – through prayer, through talking with someone you can trust, through taking the action you’ve been putting off (we usually know what we need to do, we just don’t do it somehow.)

We all need to get changed, just as the wedding guest needed to get changed and Euodia and Syntyche, enmeshed in their squabble in Philippi needed to get changed. I’m sure they’d rather be famous for something else, but actually they have given us a precious gift, a glimpse into the reality of what it means to live in community, with its challenges as well as its joys. We don’t know what happened to them, but let’s hope they heeded Paul’s words, and learned to think on whatever was honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable, so that the God of peace could change them. And let us hope that we have the courage to do the same.

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