What kind of people will be in heaven?

I don’t know how many of you are ‘party animals’? Or maybe were party animals? Although if you think partying is just for the young latest evidence suggests that fiftieth birthday parties have over taken twenty firsts in popularity! Some of us enjoy a good party more than others. If we are outgoing, the opportunity to meet new people in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere is a great experience. For many, nice food and drink makes the occasion. For others, too much drink and loud music can spoil it for us. We would rather relax at home in front of the tele or enjoy a good book. As our homes have become more comfortable with entertainment on tap, there is a tendency to be less inclined to socialise. We need to ‘make the effort’ to go to a function in the community or the church. Maybe we can remember a time when we all socialized with each other a lot more despite our British reserve.
Continental Europeans are much better at family ‘get togethers’ and parties often gathering on Sundays for extended lunches. Asian and African cultures have an expectation that visitors to the house will be lavishly entertained and often showered with gifts. Certainly, that was true of the time when Jesus lived. There are many accounts in the gospels of Jesus being invited to homes to share a meal. Often these meals took place in the courtyard open to the street so that people passing by could be seen taking place. They were very much a feature of life in the middle east of his day. It is natural then that they form a starting point for teaching in the bible, just as the familiar sight of a vineyard did in last week’s readings.
Just like last week, we have the original story in Isaiah’s prophecies which many of Jesus’ original listeners would have been familiar with. Jesus then reworks the story as it is told in Matthew’s gospel. The story is that of the Lord throwing a banquet. Isaiah writes: ‘On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all the people’s a feast of rich food, a feast of well matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well matured wines strained clear.’ (Isaiah 25.6) Some of these words seem odd to us especially food filled with marrow. For most us, a marrow is rather bland vegetable of dubious nutritional value which you must stuff to make anything of it although it’s useful for the Harvest Festival. Here though, the word refers to bone marrow which was regarded as a special delicacy along with the fattiest parts of the meat. What Isaiah is speaking of is a particularly wonderful, sumptuous banquet which serves as a picture, a metaphor for all the good things which God wants to give to Israel. Isaiah correctly prophecies the times of bareness and exile which will affect God’s people. This will not mean that he has forsaken them. His blessing will return both physically and spiritually. But the prophet’s words look far beyond the immediate political concerns of Israel towards the establishment of God’s kingly rule; when death will be swallowed up forever and God will wipe away the tears from all faces. (Isaiah 25.8)
It is not just Isaiah in the Old Testament who tells the story of God throwing a great party as a picture of heaven. The psalm writers do it too. The best known is Psalm 23: ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’ (verse 5) In the Song of Solomon, which can be understood as a sensuous reflection on God’s wooing us into relationship with him, we read: ‘He brought me into his banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.’ (Song of Solomon 2.4)
For the Jewish people, both in Old Testament times and today, there is a concept of heaven being a great feast, a party, a meal shared intimately in the presence of God which was prefigured in the many feasts which punctuated their year; the Feast of Pentecost or ‘Weeks’ which celebrated the grain harvest and the Feast of Tabernacles or ‘Sukkot’ which gave thanks for the final in gathering. Most important of all was the great Feast of Passover which remembered how the people had been spared and delivered from Egyptian slavery; how the Angel of Death had passed over them. It is this feast that Jesus reworked to give us the Holy Communion, the celebration of our deliverance through the broken body and spilt blood of Christ from the death of sin to life eternal.
In today’s gospel reading, we have Jesus telling the whole idea of God’s great party in another way as he tells the story or parable of the wedding banquet. The story appears in both Mark and Luke, but the rendering in Matthew has some extra, some might say rather harsh twists to it.
Jesus tells the crowds in Jerusalem, which includes those Jewish leaders who by this time are terribly hostile to him, about a king who gave a wedding banquet. He sends his slaves out to call the invited guests to come. Evidently, they had already been told to keep the date free on face book, but when the day came, they all had more pressing things to do. That they maltreated and killed the messengers is clearly a reference to the harsh treatment many of the prophets had received at the hands of Jewish leadership in the past.
As the invited guests failed to come, the party is thrown open to all, both good and bad, a nod to Jesus’ saying that tax collectors, sinners and gentiles would be going into the Kingdom of God ahead of all the hoity toity Jewish leadership. So far, so good. It is nice for us, gentiles to know that we are let into the feast.
Then comes a further catch. When the King enters the banquet hall, he spots a guest with inappropriate dress. He’s presumably turned up with muddy working boots, shorts, a high vis vest and a hard hat tucked under his arm. He’s not bothered to scrub up the way in which the king’s banquet might demand. He is dealt with harshly and thrown out of the party.
The message here is an important one for us to understand. Central to Jesus teaching is the opening of the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers just as Mary anticipates in the song she sings about Jesus which we call the Magnificat. Race, colour, gender, sexuality, past history, place in society is no bar. All are welcome to share in the feast of heaven. But, this does not mean that the standards of the Kingdom of God are debased or dumbed down. As Jesus makes clear in what we call ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, ‘…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. (Matthew 5.20)
It’s a hard lesson. We may want to respond like the disciples: ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18.26-27) In the great vision of heaven which is the book of Revelation, we read of those who: ‘have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.’ (Revelation 7.14) The invitation is freely offered. Suitable clothing is offered. But it must be received in penitence and faith. Through the gift of the Spirit, the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience must be worn.
As we aspire to the Kingdom of God these things need to be true in our lives. But it is also true that our view of heaven will affect the way we think about the life of our church and our understanding of its mission. If heaven is just for my kind of people, a place to be reunited with my family (at least the ones I didn’t fall out with) then we do not share Jesus view of the kingdom and our church and its mission will be impoverished. May our anticipation of heaven of the most fantastic party which never ends and embraces all who hear the invitation and respond with a life renewed. May we work hand in hand with Jesus to see that vision become a reality
Trinity 18 15.10.2017

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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