Once again I found myself preaching on the Lord's Supper on a non-Communion Sunday. It's strange, pointing to an empty altar and inviting people to partake of what's not there.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Upon hearing today's Gospel reading, you might think that Jesus is simply giving us some advice about good table etiquette. It could seem as if he's just outlining proper protocol when you're at a special meal or banquet. However, Jesus is obviously doing more here than teaching etiquette. First of all, he's exposing our sinful tendency to exalt ourselves. In Jesus' day, there would be a very clear ordering to the seats at a special meal, from the greatest to the least. Jesus' spoke these words when he noticed how everyone was trying to get the most honored places for themselves.
I'm sure that every one of us here can identify with that desire. At a wedding reception or out with friends at a restaurant, we want to be seated in the right place and be associated with the most liked people, to exalt and build ourselves up before others. We even want to pick the perfect pew. Jesus exposes and condemns this urge in us to put ourselves first. He says, "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled."
In fact, so ingrained in us is this sinful urge, that we hear Jesus' words and turn them against their intended meaning. We say to ourselves, "Oh, so that's what I should do next time I'm at a special meal. I should choose the worst possible spot so that someone will be sure to invite me over to a better spot, and then I'll look good in front of everyone." Thus, even our humility is shown to be tainted and false. It's just another technique to get where we want to be. It is self-centeredness wearing the mask of modesty. If nothing else, our lack of humility is revealed in the fact that we pride ourselves on being fairly humble people. No one who thinks he's humble actually is.
In this Gospel, then, Jesus is calling you to true humility, the humility which St. Paul speaks of in Philippians 2: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each consider others better than himself." Jesus is calling you to the kind of humility that is not only outward but from the heart, that is modest not only before other people but also meek and lowly in the eyes of God. Ultimately then, Jesus is calling you to the humility of repentance, of confessing your self-exalting sin, of acknowledging that you have no power to achieve real humility and that you don't deserve any place at God's table, high or low.
The humility which God seeks is a lowly and contrite and penitent heart, a heart which says, "There is nothing in me that merits anything from God or that requires Him to do any good to me. Therefore, I trust not in my own works but in the works which He has performed for me in His Son Jesus. My help does not come from within but from outside of me, from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. My hope is in Him alone." It is this repentant faith which God seeks, to humble yourself before God that He may lift you up, that He may say to you, "Friend, come to a higher place," to receive your place at the table as a gift from the Master of the feast–not because you've finagled it for yourself, but because out of His great love and mercy, the Lord has freely exalted you and has earned for you the privilege of sitting at the heavenly banquet.
Jesus earned this privilege for you by fulfilling His own words. He put Himself in the lowest place in order to save you. He who is the Almighty Son of God, having taken on your humanity, was born in a lowly manger, lived as a poor and humble carpenter, had no home of his own during His ministry and no place to lay his head. He finally died the way the worst of criminals died, by being executed on a cross. Christ didn't claim glory and honor for Himself but laid aside His majesty as King of creation to be crowned with thorns and to be made the lowest of the low. All this He did for you. He received the punishment you deserved so that you might be released from your sin and set free. In Christ, the humble Redeemer, you now are forgiven. Jesus has fulfilled these words for you, "He who humbles Himself will be exalted."
Our Lord Jesus is indeed the most honorable one at this feast, the one who took the lowest place and who has now been called to the highest place at the table by His heavenly Father. For this is Christ's own wedding feast, the celebration of His holy union with the Church, His bride. And if He is honored, then she also is honored with Him. By faith in Christ you are joined to Him in such a way that you now share in His exaltation. Even as Jesus took your death into Himself and destroyed it on the cross, so now by the power of His resurrection He lifts you up in His new life. To you who humble yourself before God, who repent of your sin and trust in Christ, the Father says, "Friend, go up higher." And He seats you with Christ in the heavenly places and gives you to partake of His glory, a reality that will be revealed in all its fullness at the close of the age. This is what Jesus means when He says, "He who humbles himself will be exalted." You who in lowly faith follow Christ and share in His cross in this world will ascend with Him in the next and share in His everlasting life.
As you await that day, the Lord invites you to come to His table, to the foretaste of the wedding feast. You are bidden to take the lowest place, that is, to come in all humility before God as a repentant sinner. No one who comes to the Lord's Table is any better or higher than another. All are unworthy to take part in the feast. All are as nothing before the King. To claim otherwise is to dishonor the King and to be cast away from His presence. You are urged, then, to come to the Lord's Supper as beggars, as ones with nothing to give and everything to receive. Come as the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. For in the Supper the Lord Jesus bestows upon you the greatest honor that heaven has to offer, to receive His true and living body and blood. Here Christ comes to you personally and concretely to lift you up out of the pit and to raise you to heaven. Just as Jesus healed the man in the Gospel, so also in the Sacrament He heals all your ills of body and soul. Through His holy Meal, He cleanses you of your sin, He fills you with His life, and He prepares your body for the resurrection on the Last Day. God grant each of you, then, to have those heavenly table manners Jesus speaks of, that humbling yourself with Christ, you may also be exalted together with Him. In the name of the Father and of the Son (†) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.