The Great Banquet

October 5, 2003



The Great Banquet (10/5/03)

World Communion Sunday — University Congregational Church

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

This is World Communion Sunday, the day when most churches from around the world, regardless of their differences, agree to celebrate the Christian sacrament of communion. We celebrate communion four times each year here at University Congregational Church: on World Communion Sunday, which is always the first Sunday of October; once in April, to celebrate the founding of this congregation; again in January; and then on Maundy Thursday—the Thursday evening before Easter, when we remember that Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion on the evening of the Last Supper.

As most of you know, I love communion. I love the theology behind it. I love teaching about the different ways communion is interpreted in different parts of the church—the Catholic view of transubstantiation, and the three Protestant views, as argued by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldreich Zwingli. But I can’t do that every time communion roles around, so I fight the temptation and only teach about that aspect of the theology of communion every couple of years.

Communion is still working on me. I continue to find it extraordinarily meaningful. There are so many layers of theology bound up in this one simple sacrament. One of my favorite images of communion is to view communion as a foretaste of the Great Banquet, also called the Messianic Banquet. This image may have carried more meaning in the first century, but I hope we find a way to hold on to the power of that idea—communion as a foretaste of the Great Banquet.

The Great Banquet is a Christian metaphor for the fulfillment of time. The idea is that we live in a universe that is filled with meaning—a universe with a sense of direction. Aristotle called it the Final Cause. It was Aristotle’s contention that things grow and change, not haphazardly, but in order to become what they were meant to be. The acorn doesn’t become an oak tree through a series of flukes. The acorn becomes what it was created to be in the first place. Why does the acorn exist? What is its cause? Its cause is to become an oak tree—that is its final cause.

As for creation—as for the universe—Aristotle argued that anything as complicated, as delicately balanced, and as intricate as the universe has within it an intelligence. And the presence of that intelligence points toward a purpose. That purpose unfolds in time, and through time, as we are drawn toward…toward…toward what? Something meaningful. And the Christian metaphor for this ultimately meaningful final cause is the Great Banquet.

The Great Banquet is not a well-defined element of Christian theology. How could it be? It’s more of a spiritual idea than a religious idea. And there can be a big difference between the religious and the spiritual. Bishop John Shelby Spong caused a huge uproar many years ago when he was quoted on the news show 60 Minutes as saying he did not like religious people.

I personally took no offense at that whatsoever. Most of the headaches I get come from talking with religious people. Religious people tend to have all the answers. They start off with an honest enough spiritual quest, and when the answers don’t come as easily as they would like, they find some religion that answers the questions for them.
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I admit, I sometimes find myself envious of those folks. They have an answer for everything. What is the nature of the Bible? Is it inspired by God? Is it the literal word of God? Answer? It is the perfect and literal word of God. Case closed, next question.

Okay, how old is the universe? What was before the Big Bang? Will the universe expand forever or collapse back on itself? Answer? The universe, which was created in six earth days, is 6,000 years old, a number you can arrive at by adding up the ages of people found in the Bible.

Hmmm. Okay, how do you explain all those dinosaur bones that date back millions of years? Answer? The devil put them there to confuse people and make them question God.

Why are there earthquakes? Why do children die of cancer? Why do good people suffer? Answer? It’s all a part of God’s plan, and the fact that you are even asking such questions shows you are pretty much beyond God’s reach.

Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a certain comfort in having all the answers, even when the answers are all wrong. And that can be what religion does to people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because religion can be the way we embrace our spirituality. And for all the problems I have and all the headaches I get from religious people, spiritual people are my favorite people in the world.

I must confess that there are a certain number of “people of science” who give me a migraine almost as severe as the one I get from my more dogmatic religious friends. Einstein said it best: Religion without science, like science without religion, is folly.

A good example of the narrow minded attitude of many people of science comes in looking back at Aristotle’s Final Cause. Many scientists disagree with Aristotle’s arguments about Final Cause, and I have no problem with that. But consider Aristotle’s simple contention that there is an intelligence in the universe. We’re not talking about a bearded man in the clouds who creates the world like a scientist creates a test tube experiment. We’re simply talking about the inherent intelligence in nature—the force that bonds protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom; gravity; light; the fact that beings evolved who can look out at the universe and question it for meaning.

“No!” claim some. There can be no such intelligence. It’s just one big accident. There is no intelligence. There is no purpose. There is no meaning. Because if we admit there is some sort of intelligence within the universe, that borders on the idea of “design.” And it can’t have a design. Everything that happens is an accident.

This is where the big debate over “intelligent design” comes into play. The religious folks try to define intelligent design as meaning the Father God created the world in six quick earth days. The hard-nosed scientist rightfully rejects that notion, but then throws the whole idea of God out the window, saying everything that exists is a meaningless accident. I’ve always wanted to take people from both sides of this argument and get them to put their heads together—real hard.

Of course, there are countless people of science who are also quite spiritual, just like there are countless religious people who are very spiritual—and very scientific. For those groups, science and faith are not at war. They each form a beautiful side of the same coin, and one can’t exist without the other. And for those people, the Great Banquet is no more a hard and physical fact than it is a meaningless illusion.

Many call the Great Banquet—the fulfillment of time—“heaven,” but what is that all about? The idea of the Great Banquet probably works a little better. As ideas go, at least it is a bit more concrete. We don’t know what heaven is, but we do know what a banquet is. It is hard for us to understand why this image would carry so much power in the time of Jesus, and in the early church. After all, when was the last time we were hungry? When was the last time we watched others eat their fill, while we looked on helplessly, our hungry children at our sides? That may be the case for a few billion of our brothers and sisters on this planet, but not for us. What we call hunger, and what a person in sub-Saharan Africa calls hunger, are two different things.

But those who lived in biblical times knew about hunger. The Bible tells story after story of droughts, crop failures, and famines. It is a recurring theme. When Jesus is said to have fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, that would have been more than a cute parlor trick. People knew what it meant to be hungry, and feeding the masses with limited resources would have been a mighty miracle indeed.

And so the early church developed the image of the Great Banquet at the end of time. What is the first thing that will happen when God intervenes and ends the suffering of humanity? There will be no more hunger. And people will thirst no more. How many stories do we find in the Bible that involve wells? Water was the most precious resource. Remember the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus asks for a drink of water as she draws it from a well. Jesus tells her, “I can give you living water, and you will never be thirsty again.” Jesus uses water—something we can’t live without—as a metaphor, as a symbol of something else we can’t live without—God’s love. But Jesus would have gotten her attention by talking about living water. Because she knew what it was like to be thirsty—really thirsty. Almost everybody knew what that was like.

So the Great Banquet is God’s answer to human suffering. All the pain, all the sorrow, all the unexplainable twists and turns we take through life will all have been worthwhile. Because the universe has purpose, and meaning, and there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from our ultimate destination, our final cause.

I believe that, and I find great comfort in that. It takes the pressure off when you know how things are going to turn out. It’s sort of like watching a tape of a football game when you already know the final score. You can be taken completely by surprise by the way the game unfolds along the way, but sure enough, when all is said and done, your team ends up winning—just like you knew they would.

Before we partake of communion together, there are two images regarding the Great Banquet that I want to share with you. The first involves the food itself, and is grounded in ancient myths. In both Hebrew and Greek writings, the “food of the gods” bestowed immortality on those who ate it. In Greek myths these foods were ambrosia and nectar. In Hebrew literature the food ranged from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Life to honeycombs.

For Christians, the bread of eternal life is Christ himself. And we celebrate access to that eternal life—to the Great Banquet—through the bread and wine of communion.

The other image I want to share with you is that of the presence of Jesus. I began the sermon by saying communion is a foretaste of the Great Banquet. And in the fullness of time, when pain and sorrow are no more, Jesus will be at the Great Banquet. If our hearts are open to the possibility, Jesus also will be here, at our foretaste of the Great Banquet.

The Great Banquet will be the most inclusive meal in history. All will be welcome at God’s table. In that spirit, I remind you that at University Congregational Church, we celebrate “Open Communion,” meaning all present are welcome to partake, whether they are from a Christian faith tradition, or some other faith tradition. Our feeling is that Jesus welcomed everybody to his table, so we certainly welcome everybody to ours.

Let’s join our hearts in prayer:

We give you thanks, God of majesty and mercy, for calling forth creation and raising us from dust by the breath of your being. We bless you for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.

We remember with thanks the prophets and teachers you sent to guide us, and thank you above all for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life, who revealed to us so perfectly the beauty and power of your almighty love.

And we give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit, in this place and time, which unites all of those present to one another and to Christ. May your spirit be present upon this food and drink, as surely as it is present within our hearts, as we partake together.

In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

We recall that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise, after the supper, he took the cup, raised it, gave thanks and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink of it, in remembrance of me.”

(The Body of Christ)

(The Blood of Christ)

Let us go forth into the world to serve God with gladness; being of good courage; holding fast to that which is good; rendering to no one evil for evil; supporting the weak; helping the afflicted; and honoring all people as we love and serve God, through the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.