On Earth as It Is in Heaven
What the wedding feast of the Lamb means for the church today.
By Jessica Haberkern
This month we kick off The Missing Persons Project, an ongoing series of special reports about the people missing from our local church bodies—men, women, and children who are necessary to the health of our congregations but often go overlooked. For this initial installment, we present the theological foundation for the project: that final day when all will be made right, and God’s children will be held close and healed in His presence.
—The In Touch Staff
Each year when the days start getting shorter and colder, a ministry in Atlanta—part of a local congregation—prepares a Christmas feast for the homeless.
It’s not your average soup kitchen: this church community assembles their best porcelain china on candlelit white linen-covered tables, then gathers to celebrate Christmas—not by observing the homeless eat a meal, but by eating one with them. Together.
The ministry, aptly named for Lazarus the beggar, strives to see all people, whether homeless or housed, as human beings on equal footing in God’s sight, who bear His image and are worthy of respect and love.
You might remember Lazarus, the underdog of Luke 16:19-31, who was denied even the crumbs from a rich man’s table and sat on the lowest rung of Palestinian society. In the passage, Jesus described Lazarus as a poor disfigured beggar whose sores were licked by dogs as he lay on the doorstep of a selfish and insensitive rich man.
It’s a striking contrast, and at the core of the story is the heart of the rich man, who chose not to see Lazarus as a brother or fellow human being. For his sumptuous lifestyle and overwhelming apathy, Luke tells us, the rich man was compensated with “torments in Hades” (Luke 16:23 NKJV) while Lazarus was finally comforted in God’s everlasting kingdom. The MacArthur Bible Commentary gives us a way to interpret this passage—that “Lazarus was given a place of high honor, reclining next to Abraham at the heavenly banquet.”
Theologians have a name for that feast—they call it the marriage supper of the Lamb. The scene unfolds in Revelation 19 where the bride, the church, is ready to enter a covenant relationship with the source of her salvation, Jesus. She is adorned in beautiful clothes, in righteous acts, in love. There is merriment, food, and drink, and presumably Lazarus is seated at the table. Not the rich man. Not the Pharisees to whom the story is told. Not the in-crowd.
This wedding feast is the event of the universe. It’s arguably the climax of the creation account—millennia after dust and breath were woven to form the earth and its inhabitants. Millennia, even, after Christ, the ultimate hero, first wooed the world by hanging on a cross. This celebration is the final act of God’s ongoing promise to bring the church home to live forever with God on His turf, where He will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes.” A place with “no more death, or mourning or crying or pain” (21:4 NIV). No more begging.
There will be all kinds of people at the marriage feast—men and women, rich and poor, prisoners, those who endured a lifetime of illness, others who labored to spread the gospel, and folks just like Lazarus. Keep in mind this picture painted for us in Revelation 19. What we’re faced with is an image that stands in stark contrast to the way our present world often works—including our churches.
It’s time for a difficult question: What compels a Christian to see a fellow human being as unnecessary to the body of Christ? What makes him treat someone like a project—or worse, causes him to ignore his neighbor altogether? To be human is to see and be seen; to hear and be heard; to love and be loved. See, hear, love. This is the Christian’s anthem, in both theory and practice. We are charged to see, hear, and love our neighbor as we ourselves are seen, heard, and loved by God.
What all of this means is that in the Christian world-view, Lazarus should be esteemed as highly as someone who appears to “have it all together.” Take the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the temple, for example. The religious leader, who tithes regularly and fasts twice a week, looks disdainfully upon a tax collector—who, meanwhile, happens to be beating his breast and pleading, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
His response to the Lord is one of genuine repentance and humility. In contrast, the Pharisee outwardly follows civil rules, but inwardly honors himself, as is evident in his prayer, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . . even like this tax collector.”
Jesus shares that it is the second man—the one despised by nearly all of ancient Palestine—who leaves the temple justified. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14 NIV).
Paul also addressed this mindset. He encouraged the Corinthians to care for every person in the church with unbiased compassion, saying, “The members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary” (1 Cor. 12:22). Yet generations later, we are still a culture afraid of the weak. Consider this statistic: Ninety percent of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are aborted because doctors and mothers are afraid that life with a special needs child will be complicated and unpredictable.
Yet the weak, who remind the strong of their own mortality, are among those invited to the table.
In his book Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright encourages Christians to view their work in this lifetime as bearing an eternal weight. “You are not restoring a painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire,” Wright says. “You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are . . . accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.”
His new creation. Heaven. The work that we begin in this life very much influences the next.
And right now, in 2013, we are charged with cultivating the seeds of heaven here on earth by seeing, hearing, and loving our brothers and sisters, no matter what part of the body they represent—the strong, the weak, or the broken.
We’re called to display for the world what Jesus is like. That can seem daunting, but you’re not asked to do it alone. Pray for the Holy Spirit to replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh—that’s the most powerful way to reshape your mind for the task. Like the tax collector in a posture of repentance, come before the King of kings humbly, recognizing your own weakness and brokenness.
This is key to fostering a practice of compassion—one that allows you to experience deeply the pain and joy of another person. As Paul wrote, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
As you pray boldly before the throne of grace, ask for big things. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 NIV). The Son of the God of the universe is petitioning on your behalf.
One final suggestion: Start small. Mother Teresa said to “do small things with great love.”
Who has the Lord placed in your life today? Make friends with those people. Ask them questions. What are their needs, immediate and long-term? Mobilize resources within your network of friends and church family, or use your skill set to aid an existing organization.
With each act of compassion, we are cultivating God’s kingdom on earth; meanwhile, we are preparing our hearts to dine with Him.