Sunday of the Forefathers, December 11, 2016
Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? In our time, a lot of people if asked what Heaven is like would probably give answers that are not very compelling—we think of sitting on clouds and playing harps. This is the picture we often see in cartoons.
But what is Heaven really like? Have you thought about it? Does it actually sound like a place you’d like to go or a state of being you want to participate in? Does it sound boring to you? I sometimes have heard Orthodox priests tell people that, if they don’t like going to church services, then they won’t like Heaven, because it’s basically one eternal church service. I have also never heard anyone who said that that threat of an eternal church service motivated them to get more serious about church participation.
But what is Heaven like? This question is asked and answered several times and in several ways in the Scripture.
Today for the Sunday of the holy Forefathers of Jesus Christ, which is always celebrated two Sundays before Christmas, we hear the Gospel of the Eleventh Sunday of Luke, which is a selection from Luke 14. And while this Gospel reading does not specifically mention that we’re talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, the parallel passage in Matthew 22 does indeed begin with the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”
So we’re hearing here what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And in this case, we’re being told that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a great banquet.
Often when we read this passage we focus on the excuses of those who decide not to participate in the invitation that is offered. One refuses the invitation because he’s just purchased some real estate and needs to survey it. Another bows out because he has just bought some oxen and has to go check them out. Still another skips the banquet because he’s just gotten married and wants to spend time with his new wife. These are the entanglements of this world—possessions, pleasures, power and position. These people all settle for something lesser than what is being offered because they just can’t be bothered.
Today I don’t want to focus so much on those excuses. They’re bad, of course, but perhaps we have to understand how bad they really are by instead understanding what these excuse-makers are really giving up. So what does it mean when the Lord says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet?
We probably immediately think about banquets we’ve been to—formal affairs with a head table, assigned seating, speeches and such. These kinds of banquets can be pleasant at best but sometimes not so great, especially if what you’re getting is bad speeches and overdone hotel food.
But the Greek word translated here for banquet is deipnon, which is also simply the word for dinner or supper—it is the evening meal. It may be formal or not. We do know that in this passage it is a “great” dinner to which “many” were invited. It might be a kind of reception, a big celebratory party. And in the Matthew 22 version of this parable, it is explicitly a wedding dinner given for the son of the king.
In thinking about this passage, I recalled recently an experience I had when I was in seminary, which came up recently in conversation here at St. Paul’s when someone asked what Heaven is like and wanted to discuss it. This was probably about eleven or twelve years ago, before any of our kids were born. We invited over for dinner three of our professors from the seminary.
To understand why we would invite them over, you have to know a little something about our experience there with those professors in particular. They were not just our teachers. They also came to church with us, prayed with us, cared about us and connected with us in a very personal way. They were more than mentors, and we felt close to them. So when we invited them for dinner, it was not really a deeply formal affair. But we put out our best food and wanted to make it a special evening together.
The food was wonderful, and the conversation just kept going. We shared a love for each other, a love for Jesus Christ, a common sense of purpose and mission. We had prayed together and worked together. And here we were eating together. There was a good, good feeling.
At that point, one of the professors, who had a background in Greek culture, said, “There is good parea here.” I had never heard that word parea (παρέα) before, so I asked him what it meant. He said it was what we were experiencing—the feeling of togetherness and company with one another, where we could simply stay with each other for hours and not notice the time passing. It is companionship, closeness, togetherness—that deep, good feeling you get when spending the evening with family or friends whom you love.
So what is Heaven like? There are many things we can say, but one of them, I believe, is that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this kind of dinner together, an evening of love and companionship and togetherness that you just don’t want to end—great food, great company and a sense of oneness. It is built upon common purpose, common experience, common prayer and love for one another. It is expressed in the common meal with conversation and closeness.
So if we look at the excuses in this light, then they really do come across as not only very sad—why would anyone want to miss this?—but even insulting. They have been invited to a time of celebration, a time of great love and closeness together, and they have made lame excuses why they can’t come. In some homes, this would be like skipping out on Thanksgiving or a wedding reception because you want to go look at some paperwork.
The Kingdom of Heaven is indeed this feeling of parea, togetherness and companionship between people who love one another and are united in life and purpose. And this is one way of understanding what it is we do here in the Orthodox Church.
We come together, united in prayer and purpose, to receive the Holy Eucharist together. It is called communion for this reason. We are united with Christ and with each other in this act. And we continue our gathering around the table of companionship when we break more common bread together afterward. There is a reason that the Divine Liturgy is a meal and should ideally be situated within the context of a meal we take together afterward. The table of companionship continues even after we have prayed the last Amen together.
And this table of companionship should continue even after we venture forth from this building. Many of us have families here, but even if we are not related by blood we are all related by the Blood of Jesus Christ, so our lives should be knit together even outside of our corporate worship and our uniting together over food and drink.
We are family. We are friends. We are called together by our Lord to this meal at His holy house, a meal that is not for our spiritual sustenance in an isolated, individualistic sense, but one that provides us with the sustenance that comes of companionship together, both with Him and with each other. When we say “Christ is in our midst!” this is what we mean—He has come among us and given us His love, His warmth and closeness. And so we share Him with each other. And we invite all who will come. And we keep inviting them until the Lord’s house is full.
To the Father Who invites us to the great dinner in honor of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.