“In his will is our peace.” Sermon for Trinity 11. 01/09/19. Roberta Berke
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 14.11]
In thirteenth century Florence, there lived a young noble woman, Piccarda Donati. Piccarda made a vow of chastity and she became a nun. Despite her religious vows, she was taken from her convent by her brother, Corso Donati. She was forced to marry his political henchman. Corso Donati was the type of man who acts solely for his personal political gain, regardless of the harm he causes. Piccarda died shortly after her forced marriage. In The Divine Comedy, Dante imagines meeting Piccarda in the lowest circle of Paradise. In this circle are placed those who have broken their vows, even unwillingly. Dante asks Piccarda if she would like to have a higher place in heaven, a more honourable rank. She replies, “In his will is our peace.”, “E’n la sua volontade è nostra pace.” [Dante, Paradiso, III.85. Trans. Hollander 2007] If you look up at the reredos behind our high altar, you can see her words. “In his will is our peace”. This is a reminder of the words we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done.”
We all want to have a high place, we all want the seat of honour at a banquet, we all want to be the most favoured person. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us not to seek the best seat at the table, but to choose a lower place. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour.” [Luke 14.8] We should wait to see if the host will honour us by giving us a higher place. The will of the host decides if we are to be honoured. Similar advice is found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘come up here,’ then to be put lower in the presence of a noble.’” [Proverbs 25.6-7] Yet Jesus’ words are much more than advice about good manners. Jesus is telling us a parable about the heavenly banquet, the feast of the righteous in paradise. The will of God determines who is to be included in this heavenly banquet.
Many of the early Christians were Greek Gentiles. Greek society at this time was obsessed with indicators of honour and shame. Humility was considered to be a vice, not a virtue, in Hellenistic culture. Among the Jews as well, there were rigid distinctions between those who were honoured and those who were dishonoured. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the elite, the favoured ones of God. The word, “Pharisees” literally means, “the separated ones”. They separated themselves from the mass of ordinary Jews by their strict observance of dietary laws and ritual rules. Today, we’re obsessed with ranking people according to wealth and fame. We read The Sunday Times Rich List. If some are people often in the news, we call them Celebrities. Celebrities are ranked as A list, B list or below. We make invidious comparisons. Who’s included? Who’s excluded?
Jesus turns society’s usual order upside down. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” [Luke 14.13] “The crippled, the lame and the blind” were specifically excluded from the Jewish priesthood. [Lev.21.17-21] Any persons with physical imperfections or blemishes were not permitted to enter the Holy Sanctuary, lest they prophane the temple. Yet Jesus says we should specifically invite these excluded people. These despised ones will be included in the heavenly banquet. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” [Luke 6.20] The “poor” has a wider meaning beyond lack of wealth or fame. The “poor” are all those who are marginalised by society, the outsiders, the strangers. In today’s epistle, we are encouraged to show hospitality to strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” [Hebrews 13.2 AV] We should not just show hospitality to our friends, or to important people, but also to strangers. “Entertaining angels unawares” refers to Abraham giving a meal to three strangers, who turn out to be angels who bless him. [Genesis 18.2-15] These angels are also a reminder of the heavenly banquet which awaits the righteous.
“In his will is our peace.” In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Your will be done.” Accepting God’s will does not mean we should accept social injustices. These words, “Your will be done”, follow the words of hope for justice, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” In God’s kingdom of justice and peace, those excluded by worldly standards, are now given places at the heavenly table. We shouldn’t assume that we are the ones who are uniquely favoured by God. Just because we’re sitting here in church, we shouldn’t assume that we will be given the best seats at the heavenly banquet. We are also “impoverished” in many ways. We all need God’s grace, mercy and love.
“Your will be done.” This ultimate prayer surrendering to God’s will was said by Jesus in his agony in the garden in Gethsemane. When faced with his terrible ordeal on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” [Luke 22.42]. “In his will is our peace.” Piccarda’s words are an acceptance of God’s will for her. This acceptance of God’s will, gives her not merely resignation, or even contentment, but true peace. True peace comes from aligning our will to God’s will. After listening to Piccarda, Dante realises that God’s love is everywhere. Dante says, “Then it was clear to me that everywhere in heaven is Paradise, even if the grace of the highest Good does not rain down in equal measure.” [Paradiso III. 88-90] We need to discern God’s will for each of us. When we realise and accept God’s will, then we will find true peace.