Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Banquet / A Party Worth Going To

In my last post I explored the central place that community has in Jesus's imagery of eternity, with the picture of a banquet being a repeated theme. The main place this banquet imagery occurs is in Luke 14:15-24. We saw that God is pictured as a man who sends out invites to a dinner party. However, "all the guests made excuses" (v18). One guy's bought a new field, one guy's bought some new oxen and another guy's got married. They all claim that these new distractions prevent them from coming to the party, despite the RSVP list being sent out well in advance (v16). The excuses aren't outlandish - something new coming into each of the guests' lives merited an investment of time. But, considering the importance of the occasion and the advance notice they were given they sound pretty pathetic. It's like saying you can't come to a wedding because you've just bought a new Xbox. The point is this: the guests would've come if they'd thought that the party was worth the effort.

There are probably countless reasons for being wary about Jesus's presentation of eternity but I just want to explore two. This matters because how dedicated we are to God's kingdom in the present is determined, in part, by how convinced we are that the eternal life He offers us is actually worth accepting. So, what are these two stumbling blocks to seeing heaven as the perfect party?

Firstly, there's the concept of unlimited friendship. As I mentioned in the previous post, we all know what it's like to have friendships fade or die. It's because we only have a certain ammount of space for friendships, both in the ammount of time that we have to spend with people and in our emotional capacity to know people properly. Intimacy requires exclusion. People on facebook with 3,000 'friends' obviously don't have 3,000 friends. Nobody has the capacity for it. With the disclaimer that this is speculative (i.e. just my gut reaction), I think that we won't have this limitation in eternity. A parallel might be found in what Jesus has to say about marriage, a relationship which is obviously exclusive in this life but won't be in the future. Jesus says, "When people rise from the dead, they will not marry, nor will they be given to someone to marry. They will be like the angels of heaven" (Mark 12:25). In other words, emotionally content in God. Just as the angels don't need exclusive companions because of the nature of heaven, neither will we. I strongly suspect that the community of heaven will be such that we'll be capable of sustaining a limitless network of friends without ever feeling like we're apart from anyone.

Secondly, there's the people who aren't there. Every Christian knows people, some of them very dear, who don't know God. Unless you subscribe to a universalism that contradicts what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught throughout His life then heaven isn't the only future, eternal reality. Can it really be possible to enjoy paradise when people you love aren't there? A couple of points might be helpful here. Dispensing with the notion that hell is a torture chamber where God maliciously takes His revenge through suffering on non-Christians, an idea which is neither necessary nor Biblical, is a starting point.

Another parallel that might be helpful is Isaiah 65-66, which serves as the key supporting influence on the image of heaven in Revelation 21-22. Isaiah 65:17-19 gives several key images that Revelation repeats: a new heavens and a new earth, a renewed Jerusalem, God with His people, a promise that sadness and crying will end. Isaiah 65:17 says that God's people "will not remember the past or think about those things". And in 66:22-24, where the imagery of a new heavens and a new earth picks up again, there's a new picture of a pile of bodies. These are the corpses of the nations that stood in opposition to God and which God has judged. 66:24 says that "everyone will hate to see those bodies". There's an implication there that God's people can see those who've been judged if they want to...but that nobody will. That's a sobering message, but one which doesn't, I think, contradict the goodness of eternity for God's people. If we really believe that living in rebellion to God is akin to spiritual death then we don't want the contaminating influence of sin to enter God's kingdom, even if that means that people we love (and which God loves) are excluded. Salvation has to be more than an optional extra. There's doubtless more to be said, and more to be prayed over, here but I hope that this image from Isaiah provides a window through which to view the problem: the loss in separation from loved ones may be great but doesn't spoil a future in which all the pain of the past will be eclipsed by an unsurpassed present.

This may be tough stuff. We may not have all the answers. But our response is important. We've been issued with an invitation to an eternal banquet. We can choose to make excuses, which might take the form of intellectual objections to what heaven's like. Or we can send back an eager 'yes!' and, together with our questions and worries, wait for the news that dinner is served.

Let's be clear of one thing. The party is utterly worth going to.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

The Banquet / He Will Reunite Us

We all have friendships that have changed over time, people that we once used to be best of friends with but whom we haven't spoken to for years. It varies from person to person but I know that, for myself, the friends that I was incredibly close with in primary school are now nothing more than acquaintances. Even right now I have friends whom I like and respect immensely but who I just don't see as often as I would like.

This post has been prompted by a couple of friends coming to mind who I know from university but who have now graduated. These are people who I miss a lot, people whose conversation and presence are a gaping hole in my life. Thankfully, I'm not without friends and there are a whole spate of friendships which have started from scratch or which have gone from strength to strength in the last few months. I'm incredibly grateful for these relationships, together with the more long-term relationships which continue to remain strong. But these new relationships don't replace the old ones. The people who are no longer part of my day-to-day life are missed for who they are as individuals.

When I think of and miss people from my past I remind myself that we will meet again. I know that with certainty, not in a wishy-washy way or as a petty consolation. It stems from the absolute truth that we are eternal beings. That this life isn't all there is. We have always been created for never-ending existence, not just for the single, earthly lifetime we're currently experiencing. You might have heard that before. But just think about it: you're going to live forever. (Try to avoid singing Fame at this point). We all are. We're eternal beings. It's simply how we've been created.

This principle of eternity is right at the centre of Jesus's teaching and message. There are a variety of different images that Jesus used to represent what life in the 'kingdom of God' is going to be like. One of the most persistent ones is of a banquet. He unpacks it extensively in a parable in Luke 14:15-24 (although it also occurs, for example, in Matthew 8:11, Luke 22:29-30 and Revelation 19:9), where heaven is presented as an invitation to a huge dinner that various people turn down. This recurring imagery of eternity as a shared meal makes me both joyful and excited. It confirms to me that heaven will be about community.

What images first come to mind when you hear the word 'heaven'? Perhaps you think of a grand, majestic scene of unceasing worship like the throneroom vision in Revelation 4-5. God's sovereignty is an absolutely vital part of Biblical eternity, as God's rule becomes absolute and His kingdom comes. But I feel that we lose something crucial to the way in which Jesus presented heaven if that's the only aspect we recognise. Part of that is to do with our understanding of worship, which is surely unimaginably minute if we confine worship to collective singing in a church service. That's part of worship, but true worship - the kind of worship we should all be aspiring to - means honouring God with our whole lives. It means that everything we do or say is wrapped up within that worship (Colossians 3:17). Why shouldn't that include a good meal shared with friends?

Some might say that seeing heaven as a dinner party undercuts God's place at the centre of the image. But good human friendship isn't incompatible with a proper acknowledgement of who God is. In actual fact, being in a right relationship with both God and other humans is always how we were created to live (remember Mark 12:29-31?).

How will friendship work in the new creation? I'm on more speculative ground here, but I'm convinced that it will include an opportunity to catch up with old friends. To see family members that we've been separated from by death. To maintain friendships established in our earthly life. Yes, even to make and sustain new friendships throughout eternity. All of these things necessitate a space where you can have a conversation, like the kind that you get when you sit down and eat with someone. Eternity will create an unparalleled opportunity to really talk with and enjoy the company of people, without either the pressure of time constraints or the destructive influence of sin. I was going to explore some of the other potential consequences of having eternal friendships but, on second thoughts, that might be best left to a future post. For now, let's recognise the essential role that community has in God's future.

We all know what it's like to lose touch with friends. Hopefully, we also all know what it's like to share a good meal with good friends, where everyone has their guard down and simply enjoys one another's company. I'm convinced that heaven will be like a banquet and that Jesus was very particular in choosing this imagery. God's going to create a reality that involves worship but which also involves all the best things that are part of human friendship now, renewed so as to be made perfect. And, naturally, that involves talking and connecting and laughing and sharing and listening...and eating.