Of Banquets and Blowhards

You Are Cordially Invited…

I hate RSVPs. Invitations, as a concept, make me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I don’t like being singled out. I never have enjoyed eyes upon me. And then, there’s the inevitable sting of envy. “Oh, Mary Sue is having her thirtieth baby? Well, that’s great, why won’t she just share!” or “Oh, Bobby Ray is graduating from high school? Why didn’t he ask me if I wanted to graduate from high school, too?” They’re little reminders of what’s not in front of me and that bothers me.

But the worst part about invitations is the decision of whether or not to go. Will I miss out on something else by attending? Or will I miss out on attending because of something else? I might not know anybody at this shindig. I’ll have to buy a gift? Oh, it’s on a Saturday. Yeah, Saturday’s are the days when I don’t leave the premises. Sorry. That’s why, for a certain breed, cancellations are wonderful. Even if you absolutely love the person who invited you out for coffee, if they have to last minute cancel, it’s the temporal equivalent of finding $5 under the couch cushion.

Y/N?

I’ve been spending some time in St. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter fourteen, and I notice that a word keeps popping up. In twenty one verses, it shows up in various forms a total of seven times. My training (and also common sense) immediately tells me that word matters in the text. And it’s the Greek word kaleo ( καλέω ). It’s not quite the same as an RSVP because, in that case, you have the option to attend or not. Kaleo is a summons. There’s authority behind it that qualifies it as a summons. It’s deployment orders for a reservist. It’s an audience with the king. It’s a parent telling the child to come here now. It’s less a suggestion than it is a reality.

It’s translated as “invitation” in most English Bibles, but that’s because Jesus is telling stories about wedding feasts and dinner parties while at a dinner to which he was invited. But in those parables, God is the one behind the invitations. And so, they should be seen more as summons. And one’s response to such invitations isn’t a matter of preference, but of obedience.

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, and in it, he talks about the types of people that were attracted to Christianity and what that “invitation” to taste the wedding feast looked like in the first handful of centuries after Christ’s ascension. Jesus, in Luke 14, tells those who would host a dinner to invite the poor and the crippled and the sick (v12-14) because that’s what God does (v15-24) when he summons people to the kingdom. The proud and powerful make excuses and dodge the invite (in disobedience and indifference). They bluster and bloviate about why they can’t be there. And the underclasses, instead, get to go to the feast.

Kreider notes that much the same thing actually happened. He notes that Celsus, a great enemy of the faith in the 2nd century, complained about us because the gospel appealed to “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” These were the scum of the earth that brainwashed children and “stupid women” with their doctrine. These were people, in early Greco-Roman culture, who were voiceless. They were the pavement of society. And yet, they were largely the ones that checked “yes, my lord” on the summons.

Just As I Am

They didn’t pretend to be something they were not. Unlike Cinderella, they weren’t magically dressed up in pretentious niceties so that they could appear like they belonged at the party. They come from the highways and byways so that God’s house may be filled. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk.14:11). And the humbled were exalted by being summoned. The expenses of those who were unable to repay were covered. And we can never pay God back for calling us to himself. Instead, we simply offer that same summons to others. And how they respond (exalting themselves or humbling themselves) is between them and the host of the banquet.

This World is Not (Yet) My Home

I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.

But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.

And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.

And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”

This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.

Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

A good Platonist, Yoda was.

Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.

Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”

Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.

Some prison breaks involve more pandamonium than others.

And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.

The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.

Looking for truth in Alderaan places.

Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.

Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.

If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.

And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.

Selah

I’ve never been very good at Lent. I understand that it’s a beautiful gift to the Church. It’s a time of “bright sadness” (Alexander Schmemann) and “shadowless light” (Wendell Berry), but as someone well acquainted with the darkness, it can be an interesting and challenging time.

I chose to give up Facebook and Twitter for Lent, and it’s ridiculous. I find myself instinctively typing in the URL only to come to the login page and remind myself that I logged out for a reason. But Pascal was right. We hate to be alone with our own thoughts in the quiet. So, I find myself checking my email almost compulsively. Youtube gets a lot more screen time. That might be the next to go.

Why do I have to distract myself so readily? Be still, says the Lord. Still? Still still? How long, O Lord? How long must I be still? Until I know that he is God, despite the roar and foam and swelling of life’s raging ocean.

סֶֽלָה