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.