What’s heaven going to be like? Do you ever wonder? Have you ever had any glimpses of heaven? For me, one of the times I’ve glimpsed heaven has been those wonderful meals you share with really good friends, where you eat and drink and chat and laugh for hours and hours, and it seems just a few minutes. And you never want the meal to end.
And in Scripture, heaven is very often described in terms of a great meal – a feast – a banquet. And so in our readings today. “On this mountain,” writes Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine.” And then in our Psalm today, Psalm 23, we read those lovely words, “You spread a table before me…You have anointed my head with oil and my cup is running over.” And in today’s Gospel we have this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”
God prepares with great love a feast for us – and invites us to come and eat. But there is a terrible shadow hanging over these three passages, and that shadow, as Psalm 23 puts it, is the “shadow of death.” No man or woman can enter into the banquet, into the heavenly feast, cannot come into the presence of God, until death is conquered. Both Isaiah and the Gospel use a metaphor. You cannot enter until you are clothed correctly. And that is something Isaiah longs for. He writes with deep longing of that day when “God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, and will swallow up death forever.” That word “shroud” here means the garments worn by mourners. If you are wearing mourning garments you cannot come to the banquet. Isaiah hopes for the day when those garments will be changed. But they can only be changed by God. He longs for a future when death itself will be destroyed and humans will be able to exchange mourning garments for wedding garments – and enter the presence of God, and share with God in the heavenly banquet – the wedding feast of the lamb.
And then in the Gospel story of the wedding banquet, there is that enigmatic and harsh ending, where the king notices that a guest in not wearing the right clothes – the wedding garment – and the man is thrown out of the feast.
So what do these stories about clothing have to do with us? We Christians believe that the hope of Isaiah – that one day God would intervene and destroy death – has been realized in Jesus Christ. When Christ rose from the dead he destroyed the shroud that is cast over all peoples, and swallowed up death forever. And that is very good news for us who have faith in Christ. For as St. Paul says in I Corinthians 15, “The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible – and we will be changed.”
And that I think is at the very heart of what today’s readings are all about. In order to enter eternal life, in order to share in the feast, the banquet prepared for us by God, we have to be changed. We have to allow God to change us. We can’t change ourselves, in our own power: we can only place our trust, place our life, in the hands of Jesus, and let him change us. We can pass from death to life. This is fundamentally most graphically experienced in our baptism. As Paul says in Galatians, “When you were baptized into Christ you were clothed with Christ.”
In some of the earliest descriptions of baptism we read of those being baptized taking off all their clothes, and going down into the water of the river, and then coming out the other side and putting on a pure white robe, as a sign of their putting on Christ. But baptism is just the beginning. As Christians we have to, as it were, put on Christ anew every day – and to allow him to change us each day of our lives.
We brothers wear a habit. If you’ve ever been to a clothing ceremony, you will know how moving it is to see a man put on the habit for the first time. The habit for us is a daily reminder that when I put it on, I am putting on Christ.
Perhaps you have something similar which reminds you each day that you have been clothed with Christ, perhaps putting on a cross, or making the sign of the cross. For many years I used to carry a simple wooden cross in my pocket. Perhaps you have something to remind you as you begin a new day that you are Christ’s, that you have put on Christ like a garment – and that you go out into the world in Christ’s strength.
What I find most helpful about the image of being clothed by Christ is that it is a constant reminder that I cannot change myself, but I need simply surrender myself to the love of Christ and allow him to change and convert me, day by day. And that’s hard to do. We so often prefer to be in the driver’s seat – making lists for self-improvement. Like Simon Peter at the foot washing, it is so hard to be served by Christ.
That is why what we are doing this morning at this Eucharist is so powerful. Here, our gracious God calls us to share in this meal – a foretaste of heaven – not because of who we are, or what we’ve done, but because God so loves us that he longs to share this meal with us, and he has clothed each one of us through baptism with the garments of eternal life.
What I have tried to say in this sermon is much better said by the poet George Herbert in his beautiful poem, “Love.”
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I Lack’d anything.
“A guest,” I answer’d “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down, says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
The bread and wine are ready – Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.
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