Saturday, April 19, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Where?

When I was a kid, my whole family became big James Bond fans just after the release of Goldfinger. And I remember when Thunderball came out and we went to see it at the Sunset Cinema. It was the first time we had to stand in a real long line that stretched the equivalent of an entire block just to get tickets to see a movie. It was the first big summer blockbuster I ever went to. I was also amazed that people showed up so early and waited so long. And there were no smartphones or iPods or even the Walkman to keep you entertained while you stood in the sun waiting for the line to inch slowly around the corner and then up to the ticket window. There were no multiplexes with 6 or more theatres so if a showing was sold out, you had to wait 2 hours till the next showing. There were no video games in the lobby. I had not yet begun bringing a book with me everywhere in case I had to wait. Unmitigated waiting in unrelieved anticipation was all you could do. But we knew it was going to be worth it.

Today people camp out for days to see movies or buy the latest electronic gadget or be among the first to enter Target for a holiday sale. But they want entering eternity to live with the God of love to be as easy as clicking “Like” on Facebook. They are willing to go without a shower or decent sleep for the better part of a week to get the newest iteration of iPhone but they aren't willing to do without their favorite things to possess the spiritual riches we have in Christ.

We have been talking about evangelism as inviting people to Christ's wedding feast, the big banquet which was one of Jesus' favorite metaphors for the kingdom of God. But what is the feast? If you are going to try to persuade people to try something, you have to know what it is you are offering.

What will will do in just a few minutes, the Eucharist, is hardly a feast. The early Christians apparently celebrated communion as part of something called the love feast. This made sense because Jesus initiated the sacrament in the middle of a Passover meal. It sounds however as if everybody brought their own meal to eat. At some point in the midst of it they would introduce the bread and wine as Christ's body and blood. But apparently it got out of hand. Some people were going hungry and others were getting drunk. And so Paul tells them in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that people should eat at home first. He stripped away the actual meal from the Lord's Supper so that its true significance was not obscured. Whenever we eat the bread and drink the wine we are proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. It is serious enough and sacred enough that to partake for the wrong reason or in the wrong frame of mind (ie, this is just food) is, Paul says, a sin.

Our churches take this to mean that this is more than just a memorial. How can botching a mere memorial be such a grave sin? We take Jesus' words that the bread is his body and the wine his blood seriously. We believe Christ is really present in the Eucharist in a way we do not really attempt to define. In John 6:54, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.” So this is obviously something we need to do. Why?

The word “companion” is typically used as a synonym for “friend.” It literally means “a person with whom one shares bread.” We don't usually eat with enemies. When we do, it signals a change in the relationship to one of friendship. Participating in the Lord's Supper signifies our reconciliation with God. Since we are at peace with him, we enjoy fellowship with God, as well as our fellowship with other members of the body of Christ, as Luther pointed out. So one reason for communion is to connect with our creator through parts of his creation he designated to be channels of his grace.

And how was that peace with God accomplished? Through Jesus' self-sacrifice. He died to take away the sins of the world and make possible our peace with God. That is an amazingly selfless act on his part. Think about it: we have a problem with God, it's our fault but God himself painfully fixes the breach between us through his voluntary death. Which is why our meal with him is in essence his body and his blood.

By freeing us from our sin, Jesus enables us to live with God. The feast he was sharing with his disciples commemorated another time God liberated his people. When the Hebrews were literally slaves in Egypt, God broke their chains, led them out of Egypt and into the promised land. He made a covenant with them, a promise to prosper them if they followed him. In the Eucharist, Jesus does for the whole world what God did for the Israelites but he doesn't merely liberate them from an oppressive political power but from the power of sin, of our self-destructive attitudes and habits that limit us and keep us from finding peace with God, with others and within ourselves. Jesus takes the theme of the blood of the lamb (which told the angel of death to pass over his people), the unleavened bread (which meant freedom would be too swift to wait for the dough to rise), and the wine (which meant the joy of freedom in God) and endows them with new meanings. His blood saves us from death. The bread on which we subsist is his torn flesh. The wine which lifts our hearts is his shed blood. Jesus repurposed Passover.

But the Lord's Supper doesn't just point to the past, or to what Jesus was doing in his present with the Twelve. It also points to the future. In Isaiah 25, the prophet envisions a future Zion and says, “On this mountain the Lord will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces...” This is echoed and expanded upon in Revelation 21.

A lot of people think the pleasures of this world are all the sweeter because of death, because it will all go away. I for one have never found myself qualifying my enjoyment of something because of how long I can enjoy it. Thinking about its briefness can actually take you out of the moment, out of the enjoying the present, which is the closest thing to eternity in our current experience. When you are really enjoying something, doesn't time seem to slow down or stop? Don't you feel it could last forever? When it doesn't, you don't continue enjoying it; you mourn it. At best enjoying something that is fleeting is bittersweet.

But that feeling that comes while you are lost in the moment, that it could and should last forever, is actually a glimpse of what God meant our lives, this creation, to be. It is also a sneak peek at what it will be one day: a new creation, freed from the limitations and the pain and suffering this one is subject to. And the great glimpse we get of that is Jesus himself, whose resurrected body is not hindered by distance or doors or doubts. And scripture assures us that we will be like him. What better excuse for a party!

Which brings me back to how the anticipation of a big event can be an exquisite kind of suffering, rather like waiting for a loved one to arrive. You feel you can't wait but the anticipation is itself exhilarating. We see that also reflected in the Bible. In Romans 8:18-23, Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” You know what that groan sounds like? Like the groan of a child told that Christmas is still a day away.

At the end of the book of Revelation, we get “And the Spirit and the bride says, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!'...He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming quickly.' Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” That should be our attitude in this life: looking forward to Jesus' coming and the party to end all parties, in which we will have a prime place because as the church, we are his bride, his beloved.

And we should want to invite everyone we can to this feast, a feast for the eyes and the senses and the spirit. The nature you love restored to what it could and should be. Our bodies restored to what they could and should be. Our relationships restored to what they could and should be. That's the good ending that the good news is leading us to. Which means it needs to be part of our sharing of the gospel. People today don't feel that the salvation of their soul is all that compelling. But what about the restoration of all things, the transformation of us and creation into what God originally intended it to be, and everlasting communion with God in a world without suffering? Isn't that something to commit to and hope for?

That's the ultimate payoff. That the goal of this life. That's God's plan. And it's where we will go if we follow Jesus. And we will be a part of it, of the new creation where death and mourning and crying and pain are no more. Where life is a banquet. And Jesus is our gracious host, who washes our feet and gives us the bread of heaven to feed on and the cup of blessing to drink, provided at the greatest of costs and with the greatest of love.

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