Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:32-44

I’ve just put a photo of my grandfather on the Communion Table. That’s what I mean by the “communion of saints.” (Maybe next year we should all bring pictures of people who have passed away but are still close to us.) There’s a pet peeve among Reformed types like us, and that’s when people call this table an “altar.” It’s a “Communion Table.” What we do here is a sacrament, not a sacrifice. I’m not as picky as some, because I think that other word is right in its own way as well. But today, this is clearly a Communion Table. Today is all about communion, literally about being “united together” with the saints who came before us and those who will come after. So let my grandfather stand in for your saints – those who come before and after – because they sit at this table with us.

Like many people, I have trouble thinking clearly about this. What can this union with the saints mean? What can eternal life mean? It would have been easier to live before modern times, when it seems like we had fewer questions about life, the universe, and human identity. It would be easier to try and take Revelation at face value, to imagine that God will lower a new world down from heaven (which is a place up there). This would be a new world full of people we know and recognize, and we can walk the golden streets catching up on old times. That’s still exactly what many of us picture: something somehow like this, just on some other order of reality.

We may picture it, but we’re usually not convinced that’s how it will be. We at least give God’s new creation credit for being mysterious, beyond our ideas. The authors of Revelation and the Gospel of John also knew that this was too big to put in words. How do you name the resurrection or heaven?You could picture a giant city coming down from heaven, a whole new world to live in, but don’t expect this too soon. The gospel gives us the image of a dead man wearing grave clothes and walking around, which feels more like Halloween than All Saints (but don’t get me started on the connections there). But let’s look at it again. John is no more comfortable with this than we are. Martha, who only a moment before said she believed in the resurrection, protests when Jesus wants the tomb opened. Dead people smell bad, and Lazarus is really dead. Martha knows how this works. What Jesus does is more complicated than basic resuscitation. He doesn’t just help dead people to live, he shows us how to live even though we will die.

Does it make sense to talk about all this heaven stuff without bodies and a resurrection? Is it like what Warren Hanson describes in The Next Place?

I’m not sure how any of this works, how we can be recognized without looking like ourselves (or like anything in particular). Not that the Johns who wrote the Gospel or Revelation know either. They’re writing beyond the reach of words, just as we live beyond the reach of ideas. Instead, we act out our stories. We live our story at this table where we share the presence of God (however that is). Others have shared God’s presence here at this table and at others, and others will share God’s presence after us. And because God is present to them as well, they’re present to us. All God’s people join together here.

If heaven looks like anything, it looks like this table, encircled by my grandpa and your parent and your child and your spouse. And your grandchildren and nieces and nephews, your descendants in faith, who will come after we’re gone away. They’ll be at this table too. They already are, being as present to God now as our beloved departed still are. The past and the future are as present to God as we are now, because the God who made time is not bound by it like we are.

So when we come to this table to present our gifts and present ourselves, they’re still and already here, feasting with us. In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, we’ll name those in this congregation who have departed from us this year. We’ll gather with them, embodying their continued presence in memory, lessons, and hope. They’re only gone from us in time, but in God’s reality beyond time, they’re as present as they’ve ever been. Welcome to this table on their behalf. Extend the welcome to those who will follow us, because they’re here too. Welcome, with all that you present in these offerings and all that you seek in this feast. Welcome, past, present, and future.