Friend, come up higher

A few years ago, I was very fortunate to be invited as a guest to a dinner at the Mansion House in London, given by the Lord Mayor of London for the bishops. I felt very privileged to be asked, however I had a little nagging doubt that I shouldn’t really be there, and I might be exposed as an interloper. Before the  dinner, I went into a church to pray that the Lord would keep me humble and not let me get overly proud and conceited. When I got in looked at the seating plan, and found myself next to the Bishop of Lynn. The Lord must have decided that his lordship’s need was greater, as not only was he stuck next to me but he was at the end of the table.

The parable of Jesus today is practical, good advice. Don’t go consider yourself too important, for someone might bring you down. Take the lower position and you may be raised up.  Jesus tells this parable as he witnesses the unseemly prospect of people snatching the places of honour at table, with complete lack of humility but with an exalted sense of their own importance. They had been scrutinizing him, but he was also closely watching them.  

This accords with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about not drawing attention to ourselves, not wanting to show to the world how good and holy we are. He says to give to charity discreetly, not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing, not to pray in an ostentatious way so that people can see us, but to go privately into our room and close the door. We should not seek acclaim and glory for ourselves, but reflect it back to God. We must be like good and faithful servants who are just doing their duty.

One of the most difficult things about organizing a formal dinner, or a wedding reception is creating the seating plan, there are always one or two people you cannot quite place. And getting the seating plan right is important because it can enhance the evening if the company is good and guests are with people with whom they have something in common.

At formal dinners there is a certain protocol to follow. The guest of honour should be seated to the right of the host. In processions the most important person generally comes at the end. In King’s Lynn, the Mayor is at the end because he is the first citizen of the borough, but if a Deputy Lieutenant is there they go behind as they represent the crown. These rules, honed over the years, prevent embarrassment, and no one feels insulted as everyone knows their rightful place.

It used to be more so in church, with the squire and his family in a box pew, perhaps with a fire in the grate and the poor, who could not afford to rent a pew, on benches or standing at the back. There was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place. But this is not so now. For all sittings are free and church is a place where all may freely enter. Apart from the clergy, servers and the organist, no one has ‘their seat’ and never should we see visitors moved out of ‘my seat’. Church is a place where we are all raised up higher, where we are taken out of oursleves, out of whatever is going on in our lives; we are raised up higher when we are invited by the Lord to receive himself in holy communion. 'Friend, come up higher' he bids us. What a great privilege this is.

And the Letter to the Hebrews goes further: by virtue of our faith, we are exalted to the presence of God himself, that which previously was the preserve of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple once a year. We are raised up to God’s presence to the privileged position of his own children, heirs and citizens of heaven. We are raised up to be alongside the saints and the angels. How awesome is that.

Today the gospel teaches us that we must not be proud and arrogant, and lord it over other people. We must be humble and not seek glory for ourselves. By not raising up ourselves we are prepared to let the Lord raise us up. And that is something we should always hold onto, especially when we don’t feel that good about ourselves, when we lose self-confidence. We are citizens of heaven, we are part of the family, brothers and sisters of Christ, especially when we are acting in accordance with God’s will.