Summary: We are never beyond God's grace, but if we want to experience the full benefits of that grace, then we have to work on growing in God's grace.
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.