|Waiting at the table.|
From morning prayer today:
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40The "all these" in Hebrews 11:39 refers to the litany of characters the author has described to this point through the lens of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the people who with Moses passed through the Red Sea, Ra'hab, Gideon, Bar'ak, Samson, Jeph'thah, David, Samuel, the prophets, women who "received their dead by resurrection", and wanderers "in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."
Then the author says a preposterous thing: the "better" thing for which "all these" have waited - the thing God had promised, not realized in their lifetimes - was that they would not be made perfect apart from us.
That Henri De Lubac, that wonderful and provocative Cardinal of the Catholic Church, once said something similar should not be surprising, I guess. De Lubac lived and breathed holy Scripture and the witness of the early Church in a way few others have. What he said was this: that the saints before us sit at the table of the heavenly banquet, in the presence of God, the feast in its fullness before them. But they do not eat. Not yet. They wait. For us. For everyone. Because "they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."
I have heard it said lately that, when it comes to evangelism, the Episcopal Church is at a comparative disadvantage to our Evangelical sisters and brothers, because, less inclined to appeal to fire and brimstone, Episcopalians lack the urgency necessary for action with respect to others and "their" salvation.
But it simply cannot be true that appeals to fear are necessary for the work of being compelled evangelists. That is, Episcopalians determined not to threaten our sisters and brothers with fires of hell have not, by the fact of that determination, gotten ourselves off the hook for proclaiming the Kingdom's Good News with enthusiasm.
As an alternative driving force for evangelism, we Christians would do well to wonder together what De Lubac and the author of Hebrews see and describe as the interdependence of salvation. As Rowan Williams likes to say, in echo of the desert fathers, "My life and death is with my neighbor." Even those already seated at the table wait, with patience, for the promise of creation reconciled, restored, brought near to God.
In the same way, we who meet God in the Eucharist carry from that table the longing to have our salvation perfected by reconciled relationship with one another and others. We long to hear the voices of others make our own song more beautiful, because the God whose love makes us beautiful has given us God's Spirit to love one another. Thus our proclamation is marked by humility and service, but these describe, rather than replace, our zealous proclamation.
For the author of Hebrews is clear: in sharing this beauty of God - in inviting and waiting for others with patience - I am not simply asking to be joined, but to be perfected. We will be made perfect in the full assembly of God's saints.