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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Parties, the Kingdom, and Meeting Loved Ones after We Die

When loved ones die, people naturally hope that they are in a better place.  A regular feature of this hope for many people—Christian or non-Christian, religious or non-religious—is that the person who has died is now reunited with other loved ones who have gone before.  Now, I happen to believe that when saved people die they go to heaven to wait with the Lord for his second coming and the new creation (which may be a post for another time), and I am inclined to believe that if there are many people who loved each other on earth that are all with the same Lord then they will also be reunited with one another.  But curiously, in the basic passages of the New Testament about the "intermediate state" or even the "final state," I find very little to this effect.  For example, Paul says that it is preferable "to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8), not that "it is preferable to be away from the body and at home with my dear parents and with Stephen so I can apologize personally for approving of his death."  (But can you imagine that conversation?!)  And John the Revelator saw in his vision of the new heavens and the new earth no more death, mourning, crying, or pain, but he doesn't describe reunion with loved ones from the present age.

So what's the deal?  When we jump so quickly to "Now she gets to see Mom and Dad again"-type condolences, are we off the mark biblically?  Even if we're correct in what we're saying, are we emphasizing what God doesn't intend us to emphasize?

Maybe.  But I actually see in Scripture support for the idea of reunion, that it is in fact important to God, and I found it in places I didn't quite expect—Jesus' parables about the kingdom of God.

If you look at the parables of the wedding banquet, the ten virgins (i.e., bridesmaids), the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son(s), you find that there are a few things that they have in common despite the different plots.  They all involve a person who invites a whole lot of other people—in fact, everyone around, great or small—to party with him or her.  That is what the kingdom of God is like.  I assume (because I haven't read it) that these parables inspired the title of one of Tony Campolo's books, The Kingdom of God Is a Party (1990).

To me, this is the strongest biblical evidence that it is important to God that we be reunited with those who have gone before us in death.  Life after the resurrection is going to be a party.  And what do people do at parties?  Among other things, they talk with people that they like and reconnect with people that they haven't seen for a while.  The party might not be in their honor, but they do enjoy being with each other while they honor the person for whom the party is thrown.  It is impossible for me to imagine the kingdom of God being like a party if the partygoers, who may not have seen each other for a while, don't talk to each other.

But since this describes the resurrection life, how are we to think of heaven, our residence in between?  Heaven is kind of like the foyer or (if the weather's nice) parking lot or patio of the reception hall where the party is held.  We're not really partying yet, but we're anticipating it.  We're getting warmed up.  We're finding old friends and making small-talk before we go through the doors.

Now you may have noticed another interesting commonality of these parables.  Three of them—and in fact you could say all of them if you count the lost sheep and the lost coin as the set-up for the lost son—involve people who choose not to party.  Everybody is invited, but some don't go, because they don't appropriately value the invitation.  There are the important people too absorbed with their selfish, mundane interests to take the prince's wedding feast seriously.  There is the man who isn't dressed for it; he hasn't been made clean enough to come.  There are the bridesmaids who were happy to celebrate the groom's arrival if he comes soon but who weren't prepared for a long wait.  And there is the elder son, slaving away alone in the field, who just wants to throw his own rinky-dink party, but who refuses to enjoy the father's bounty with the father himself and with the brother who doesn't deserve it.  And their fates?  Some are killed and their city burned.  Others remain outside in the silent darkness, alone, wailing and gritting their teeth while the celebration churns within.

Macho, bitter enemies, just before breaking ties forever, have been known to growl at each other, "I'll see you in hell."  I doubt that.  Hell (or more precisely the "second death") seems like a very lonely place.  I'm not sure that anyone sees anyone.  It is the opposite of reconnection.  It is disconnection.

But reunion awaits for those who value the invitation to the kingdom of God—those who put the invitation ahead of everything else on their agenda, who are clothed for the party with the righteousness of Christ, who are prepared to wait for it for as long as it takes, and who accept the other people that God has invited as much as he does.

This post is in memory of Peggy L. Yingling (1926-2010).

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