Friday, October 07, 2005

Coming to the party

One of the most disturbing – but at the same time inspiring – movies I have ever seen is the 2001 Italian movie, Ignorant Fairies – fully subtitled of course – which I saw while on retreat before ordination to the priesthood.  After attractive AIDS doctor Antonia’s husband is suddenly killed by a car, she starts going through his possessions and comes across evidence that he had been having an affair – with another man.  Driven by a powerful mix of grief, depression and curiosity, Antonia goes to see her husband's lover, Michele, and finds a huge apartment that he shares with gay and transgendered friends, including a Turkish immigrant and a prostitute.  Surrounded by an apartment full of misfits, accepted without question into this bewildering community centred around a seemingly endless meal of red wine and pasta, Antonia finds she has been given the strength she needs to begin to live again.

Once Antonia – and I - had got over our initial shock at the rather ‘in your face’ world that she had stumbled into, I found myself reflecting that this was nothing less than an analogy of what the church is called to be.  A place where misfits are made welcome.  A place where we gather around a meal-table, where we accept and welcome one another, a place where souls and bodies are fed and where lives are transformed.

I remember when I was 18, my friends and I discovered alcohol.  I might have been a late starter!  I remember that year there were a number of raucous parties that we all attended – I guess there was a particular sort of etiquette that no matter how tired and emotional we got, we knew we had to observe.  As you get older, when you get married and have kids, the teenage party gives way to the adult dinner party – not quite so raucous, not quite so hard on the neighbours – but again there are unspoken rules of behaviour.  If you’re putting on the dinner party you cook something really nice – it’s important that there be plenty on the table, you’re showing hospitality and you want people to feel good.  If you’ve been invited to the dinner party there are also some obligations.  You bring something to drink, or some flowers or chocolates, there are rules for conversation, for making sure everyone is included, that everyone gets a compliment.  Everyone at the dinner table participates, and generally speaking we all know what’s expected of us.

In Jesus’ day, the party was a whole lot more complicated, but it’s the same basic idea.  There are obligations of hospitality on both sides.  Throwing a party in a peasant village in Galilee was a major event – you don’t just pencil in for Thursday evening, you scratch out the rest of the week.  Some pretty major planning would go into it, enough food and wine for three or four days.  Everyone in the village would know you were getting ready – then when the time came you’d send out word to the guests.  Pretty embarrassing if nobody came!  So in the story Jesus tells – and Matthew embellishes a bit – the host just decides to invite the whole village.  You know, it’s not one of the really obscure parables, is it?  What does it mean?  Jesus wasn’t the only prophet to speak about God’s kingdom as being like a great feast, but here was something different – the party’s going ahead regardless, Jesus tells his listeners – if you don’t turn up when you’re invited then somebody else is going to get your place.  The alternative guests – in Luke it’s the poor, the outcast and the marginalised while in Matthew it’s the ones who aren’t very nice, the ones who aren’t very religious – God’s party just rolls on, and if the ones who think they should be on the guest list don’t turn up then the party’s going to go next door.  Then there’s this peculiar little addition that only Matthew mentions – if you do turn up at the party you need to be wearing a party frock – at one level it kind of contradicts the earlier bit about scouring the village to bring in the riff-raff but again what’s being said is pretty clear – if salvation is a banquet of which the Eucharist is an advance token – if the Church is a party - then just turning up is not quite enough – you have to follow the etiquette, first you’ve got to turn up then you’ve got to join in – obeying the unspoken rules of the party means participating, it means doing your bit to bring the party to life.

And that, I think, is exactly what St Paul also is getting at when he talks about spiritual gifts.  There are very many spiritual gifts, St Paul tells us, like the gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of working miracles, the gift of prophecy, the discernment of spirits, the gift of speaking in unknown languages and the gift of interpretation.  And all of them, St Paul tells us, are secondary to the most important gift of all, which is the gift of love.  Like I said last week, Paul’s list is not definitive, you get to the end of the list and you say, no, sorry, none of those – well, a good definition of a spiritual gift is just this – an ordinary activity that you do with persistence and with love – the only difference between an ordinary activity and a spiritual gift is intention – intention and love.

There’s nothing hifalutin about spiritual gifts.  Speaking the truth is a spiritual gift.  Showing hospitality is a vital gift in Christian community – providing morning tea or supper after a service, bringing flowers to gladden the hearts of everyone who comes into the church.  Doing the washing up.  Your spiritual gifts are just the things that you have to offer in love to the people around you, and in love to the Church.  St Paul uses the analogy of the body, and he says the gifts we have are all different, and they need to be different, because we are designed to depend on one another, to add the uniqueness of our own abilities to the overall body of Christ.

St Paul is writing to his wayward church in Corinth, where there seems to have been a lot of competition between people who wanted to be thought of as most important, and St Paul says, there’s only one reason you have any spiritual gifts at all, and that is for the building up of the church.

But the sort of church St Paul is talking about is not a place, it’s not a building, it’s a doing-word.  Church is a verb that comes in two parts – at first it’s about Gathering, and then it’s about Sending.  Every week Christians come together for the Eucharist and then we get sent out into the world in peace to ‘love and serve the Lord’ – that’s where you bring your spiritual gifts to bear in your relationships with neighbours, with people at work, with members of your family.  We come along to the party that is the Church, and it is here that our spiritual gifts are used in building one another up in Christian life and worship – and then like the servants in the story we get sent out again as messengers.

The endless dinner party in Ignorant Fairies was a place of transformation and a place of redemption – a place where people came in broken, and around the table they became whole again.  That’s what Church is, that’s the banquet Jesus is talking about and that’s what we are on about here.  Nothing less.  But here’s the pinch.  For all the work the host puts on, you need guests who are in a party mood.  The party you get is the party that everyone contributes to and the party that everyone chooses.  You get the sort of Church you’re prepared to invest your dreams and your skills and your creativity and your gifts in. 

Our Church is a rich and varied tapestry of the gifts that many people have given so generously over the years.  The building itself is a labour of love.  The liturgy we use is a work of love and dedication.  When you look around you can see layers and layers of love – people reading, people pulling out weeds and tending gardens, people sweeping and cleaning and painting, people drawing and writing poetry, people coming together to sew wall hangings and altar frontals, people studying and praying together and visiting the sick.  People involving themselves in the great issues and the local issues of their day, people reading Synod papers.  People playing music, welcoming visitors, people laughing together and crying together.

We stand at a time of great urgency.  There is much to be done today in our Church.  And Jesus tells us there is miraculous new life to be found in doing it together.