11/05/17 – The Banquet of Eternal Life

THE BANQUET OF ETERNAL LIFE

November 5, 2017
All Saints’ Sunday
Sermon: Rev. 7:9-17; Ps. 34:1-10,22: 1 John 3:1-3; Matt. 5:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

My husband, Tom, and I recently saw the movie, “Victoria and Abdul.” If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, I won’t tell you how it ends. What I will tell you is that the story takes place when Queen Victoria is 81 years old. She has health problems and has grown weary of the duties and obligations of being Queen of the British Empire. She first meets Abdul, a young Muslim from India at a royal dinner. She is sitting wearily at the head of a table the length of a basketball court while one server stands behind each pair of the many guests. Victoria eats her food quickly and voraciously – did I mention she had become quite obese? The rule is, when the Queen finishes her course – and there are many – everyone’s plate is removed, and a new course is served.  Needless to say, the guests have to shove down their food if they want to get any.

Abdul has come to the palace to present the Queen with a coin minted in India in her honor. His presence sparks a renewed interest in her role as Empress of India and she wants to learn more about the culture. Abdul, tells Victoria that in his culture the afterlife is described as “the great banquet of eternity.” Victoria is captivated by that image. In the bible, in both the Old and New Testament, eternal life with God is described as a heavenly banquet at which all of God’s children are seated at the table and fed. Unlike Queen Victoria’s table where only honored guests who merit a seat by virtue of class, power and wealth, everyone at God’s heavenly banquet shares the feast.

Each of the authors of the two Epistle texts we have heard for today originally spoke encouragement and comfort to an audience that was suffering persecution for their faith in Christ. Jesus’ Beatitudes, as recorded by Matthew, spoke to a Jewish-Christian audience that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ words were revolutionary. When Jesus says, “Blessed are” the verb tense in the original Greek makes the phrase mean “God has blessed” – not “will bless in the future” – people who the world would push to the margins. These words speak to all Christians who are suffering in their present circumstances, perhaps questioning their faith. They speak to those of us who fear death and those of us who feel a sense of loss for loved ones who have died. These words also speak to those of us who feel unworthy to be called a saint; those who won’t allow themselves to accept the gift of love the author of First John proclaims that God has given us.

In the passage from the Book of Revelation, the exiled Christian, John of Patmos, wrote words of comfort to Christians living under the rule of the Roman Emperor, Domitian. Under this Roman emperor, Christians were horribly persecuted. Historical records tell that Domitian used Christians, strung up on tall poles, as human torches to provide light for his garden parties.  John was believed to be exiled to the island of Patmos because he was considered a threat to Homeland Security with his Christian message so at odds with the rule of the Roman Empire. The Book of Revelation, is a collection of letters John wrote to seven churches. These letters gave words of comfort and assurance, but they were also a scathing response to his persecutors, written in the veiled language of Apocalyptic writing.

But in this passage, his words were not words of righteous anger, but words of encouragement to the Christians who lived in fear. Some of the verses may be familiar to you from hearing them at funerals. John of Patmos wanted to assure Christians that the suffering they were currently experiencing was not in vain, that they were part of an eternal life. He wanted to assure them that the evil that caused their suffering would, ultimately, not be victorious; and, that God would use their acts of courage and faithfulness to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. Like the Beatitudes, John was encouraging people to keep the faith, to continue to try to do God’s will even when the world seemed to only offer rewards to those who did, or were complicit in, the evils of the world. Both of these texts affirm that the good of righteous living exists eternally, but the evil wrought by unrighteousness living is temporal, a mere moment in the realm of God’s time.

These are words of comfort to us, bombarded by news which frightens and discourages us – mass killings, threats of nuclear war, and climate change that will continue to make the world less inhabitable. These are words of assurance for those of us who are experiencing the collateral damage of human evil that has taken away life. These are words that apply balm to the pain of what philosophers have called natural evil – the injuries and diseases that end lives too soon.

Why were Christians so feared in John’s time? John’s communion of saints believed that the peace of Christ was found in humility before God and service for one’s neighbors. Pax Romani, the peace of Rome, was achieved by order and submission to the Emperor and his minions. Power was achieved by inducing fear. All you have to do is listen to news media sound-bytes, Presidential tweets and oratorical posturing on the floor of our Congress and Senate to see this same tactic in practice. Franklin Roosevelt said, “the greatest fear we have is fear itself.” History before and since has certainly demonstrated the truth of those words.

The author of First John claims: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” We have Christ’s promise that whatever good we do for God or God’s people; the Holy Spirit will strengthen our efforts beyond our calculations or imaginations. Paul gave us a long list of Christian virtues, but recognizing evil, injustice and dire need while doing nothing wasn’t one of them.

Paul referred to all of God’s children as “saints” in his letters to the congregations he started. In that tradition we refer to all Christians as saints. Does it make you a little uncomfortable to be called a saint? If it makes you feel any better about such an auspicious title, it is “saints” with a small “s.” The Bible doesn’t talk about anyone with a title of Saint with a capitol “S.” No one has a title earned from achieving greatness or perfection except Christ Jesus. The saints of the Epistles are people like us, people who have chosen to follow Christ, a path toward perfection, but impossible to reach until, by grace, we meet Christ face to face in God’s Eternal Kingdom.

When we think about All Saints Day, we tend to think of the past – people we have loved that have left this mortal coil to spend eternity with God. That is a part of our recognition of this as a special day in the Christian calendar. What we forget about eternity is that it is not just the future, eternity is past, future, and most importantly for us, the present. The Bible from beginning to end leads us through life’s most profound and challenging questions: “Where did I come from?” and “Where am I going?” The Bible gives the same answer to each question – God. From Genesis to Revelation we came from God, live with God and return to God. All of this time is eternity. What that means for us is that what we do now, this very day, has eternal significance.

Those saints that have gone before us are now in that glorious company of the saints in heaven that await with us the new heaven and new earth that will come when Christ returns. Every time we come to the table we are joined to Christ, to one another, and to all those we call “the communion of saints.”  Today we take our place at the table beside them in God’s eternal time. We take a place at the table to which Christ has invited all so that ‘they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.’ This is the table where the food is not eaten on the run to the next activity, but savored. No one is denied at the table and left hungry. We come to be nourished for the present day to day journey of faith. Here we get a foretaste of the world that is fully known to those that have gone before us. Here we experience what God’s kingdom is like when it becomes manifest here on earth, even if we see only an occasional glimpse of it. Here we give thanks for God’s gift of Christ for us, the one who became one of us, so that we can one day be fully like him – saints living with him and the One he called his Father, bound together, as the eternal ones are bound, in the unity and power of the Holy Spirit.

When we leave this table, we go out into a world to bear witness to Christ, to make our mark for eternity, to use our blessings to be a blessing to the world.  Anytime we do God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven” we live a moment of holiness in the eternal life we are promised.

All power, honor and glory to our Eternal Triune God.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois