“Heaven. Heaven. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there. Heaven. Heaven. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes and dance all over God’s heaven.”
—“I Got Shoes,” Negro Spiritual
Heaven has for a long, long time been the name of that place where we are headed. The spiritual “I Got Shoes, You Got Shoes,” is a very good example of what heaven means to a people when there seems to be no possibility of life getting much better on this side of the grave. For most of Christian history, the dominant narrative has been that the whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to give us a way to get to heaven when we die. That possibility takes on urgency when things get worse and worse in this life, to the point that we can see little hope for change except to get to a place where the entire game is different.
Matthew’s parable of the Great Banquet is his own adaptation of a story that was circulating in different forms in Early Christianity. You can read a different version in Luke’s gospel and there were others. Matthew has the habit of talking about “the Kingdom of heaven” as opposed to the more primitive form “the Kingdom of God.” So when we hear this or some other story from Matthew and catch the word “heaven,” little wonder that our minds immediately click into what we already imagine heaven to be: the place where we are going in the next life.
I want to invite you to take a look with me at that. I’m not going to suggest that this is wrong necessarily, but that it obscures something very important, namely that heaven is not a place but a reality, not in the future but now. This may strike you as not necessarily the news, in which case I’d say you are lucky. Or it may land on you as downright bizarre, in which case I’d ask you to stick with it as we open it up.
First of all, where is God? That was the first question in my catechism when I was studying it at the age of 8. The answer was, “God is everywhere.” Think about that. There is no place that God is not. There is no place in the entire universe that God is not, because God is the true life, the source, the very essence of existence itself. As the psalmist says, “Where shall I go then from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your Presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me and your right hand hold me fast.” Take it further. There is no place inside you that God is not. There is no place on or in your body that God is not. You can get down to the smallest microbe in your intestinal tract and there is God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Split a piece of wood and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”
So if heaven is where God is, then heaven is everywhere. And if God cannot be located in one place, neither can heaven. And if heaven is eternal, then it can’t be measured in time. Heaven is no more future than it is past. The eternal is timeless, not infinite time. So is God.
|Heaven is everywhere, neither up nor down.|
To be sure, these are elementary lessons, but key to understanding what follows. And what follows is that if God is eternally present, the entire question for you and me is how does the presence of God impact us. What difference does God make in this world of space and time?
And that ultimately is the question that Matthew is addressing in his gospel. He does it in a way that is unmistakably clear to his readers. They knew the Biblical story. That story was one in which messengers (the prophets) had repeatedly called Israel to change. By and large the prophetic word had been rejected time and again. So another batch of messengers (Christian disciples) goes out into the world on a mission to announce the Good News. They, too, are rejected and mistreated, in many cases murdered. So Matthew takes these contemporary headlines and tailors the story to fit that situation. It is clear that the King in the parable is God, that the wedding banquet is the feast in honor of the Son (Jesus), and that those who are invited to the banquet encompass all and sundry, the bad, the good, the ugly. Don’t look for the parable to make logical sense in all its parts, because it won’t. Look instead to the point of it.
And the point can be found at the very end in that strange part about the man who shows up without a wedding garment. It makes no sense if we look at it logically. Why should a man who has been randomly rounded up with a bunch of others from the streets even have a wedding garment? And where did all the others get theirs? And so on. Think about the wedding hall as the gathering of a faith community, called church. Everyone reading Matthew in the first century would know that the most common way of speaking about baptism was reflected in the way that at the entrance into the life of Christ every newly baptized person was clothed with a new garment symbolizing how the old life without Christ was gone and the new life in Christ had been put on. As Paul had said it earlier, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is the “wedding garment” that Matthew has in mind. And it is not too hard to see that the fate of the poor guy who failed to wear the garment is cast into outer darkness, for that is a metaphor of the Last Judgment. Either you come to the Light or you dwell in Darkness.
|Early Christian baptism: candidates stripped naked, descended into the water, |
then donned the new robe symbolizing Resurrection Life.
But don’t be distracted from the point here, which is not to get us to wondering about what happens in the future or to begin pondering whether God is really just and so forth. The point is that this entire project of God is in fact a wedding. It is a joyous occasion. Invitations come from the hand of the King himself who displays an inordinate amount of grace and patience, trying again and again to share the joy with people. So the issue is how do people (we) respond to the invitation?
The answer is pretty simple, although the implications of it are not. The answer is to answer yes: accept the invitation. Then come to the banquet. I don’t know about you, but I get invitations all the time. I never get on my computer that someone isn’t trying to sell me something, attend some event, give to something or someone. 99% of the mail that comes daily is full of invitations to join, contribute, attend, support, and buy. I would do virtually nothing else for half a day on average if I took the time to respond to all of those invitations of various sorts or even investigated what they were all about. Most of them either get the delete button or the trash can. So what is different about this invitation? In a word, unlike all the other invitations that you’ll ever get, the invitation to the wedding feast of God is an invitation to engage in a lifelong process of being changed. Yes, changed. And that already should sound an alarm in our heads, for change is something that on some level nearly no one really wants. Like all forms of life, we prefer to continue doing what we are doing until the cost of doing so exceeds the benefit of doing something different. Like all forms of life, we are busy adapting, accommodating ourselves to the forces that press upon us so that we can survive. Resisting is costly. Changing lifelong patterns is difficult. How many people do you know or have you known in your entire life who have kicked over the traces and actually undergone radical transformation? You have probably known some, but getting past four or five would put you in an exceptional category.
One of the ironies of the Christian Church is that we often, as a global community, specialize in getting people, beginning with our children, to adapt more than we support folks in making radical changes. Indeed, we tend to look with deep suspicion on anyone who is odd, an outlier, a misfit. And the pressure is on full blast to get that person to adapt or else. The way I read and understand the teachings of Jesus is that he was constantly saying that life with God is a great adventure that at many points is diametrically opposed to what human society prescribes. The life of God is a life of unqualified generosity, profligate love, unexpected grace, countless mercies, fathomless forgiveness, infinite welcome, and inclusiveness. The life of God by its very nature demands focus, hard choices, discipline, mindfulness, purposefulness, and accountability. But at its core it is a great party.
So the old spiritual had it right: When I get to heaven, that is when I get to living the life of God, I’m gonna have shoes and I’m gonna dance all over the place. And I’m going have a robe (notice that!) and I’m going to wear it. And I’m going to have a harp and I’m going to play it. And I’m going to be able to fly all over God’s heaven. Oppressed, beaten down, overburdened, abused, you name it: those who first sang that of course looked to a future that was beyond their lives. And you and I know that we can do that as well, because eternal is the love of God who throws the party in the first place. The banquet never ends. But neither does it wait until we die to begin. Those very barefoot slaves singing about having shoes in heaven were in a profound way already there. They were hoping, dreaming, singing even when there couldn’t possibly have been a dry eye among them. And because of that, they and tens of thousands of others have tasted the glory on their very human tongues even before that glory was fully revealed and realized.
That is what living your faith is all about. But it is living it now in the reality that God is no farther from us than the air we breathe. Those early Christians who came up from the waters of baptism, having been stripped naked of all that belonged to their life before Christ, put on the robe of Christ’s resurrection. That resurrection was not only a promise of dwelling in the land of the immortals but a reality that would take careful tending every day, constant renewal and return to the center, an open mind and an open heart, the courage to persevere. But boy was it a joy! Life became a wedding thrown by the Maker of the Universe for every single soul as if that soul were the Prince or Princess of the realm.
And that prince or princess is none other than you.
|The Great Banquet at the Son's Wedding: Lady Wisdom blesses the marriage of Christ and the soul.|
Icon in the Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa (Episcopal), San Francisco
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017