Earlier this month our Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer arrived on our driveway, as always, in a drab plastic bag.
But Section D delivered a glimmering image of the promise of days to come. Under the headline, “A Global Takeout Destination” was picture after picture of all the best delicious offerings of Northeast Philly’s immigrant communities.
I showed my wife and promised: “On the other side of this – ‘this’ of course being our long Covid tribulation – we’ll get Uzbeki shish kabobs.”
No takeout then – we’ll go in person to the Shish-Kabob Palace. We’ll pull out the stops.
On the other side of this, we will feast.
The text from the newspaper won’t be a hypothetical-out-there-somewhere, but lived experience; not reheated in the microwave but fresh to the table: “the intoxicating smell of cumin-flecked lamb rice…flaky samsa meat pies, and crispy rounds of Uzbek bread.” It hovers out there on the horizon and gives us hope.
On a Thursday night tired centuries ago, Jesus and his disciples sat down to a meal together.
It was a heavy, strange meal, a somber Passover Seder.
Some weeks prior, Jesus had begun to drop disturbing language into their fellowship – “The Son of Man must suffer many things” – and then had led them relentlessly step by step to a city where powerful people wanted him dead.
And at this meal it all now was darker and deeper and more imminent than ever, as Jesus told them, “One of you will betray me…take, eat, this is my body…Drink, for this is my blood poured out for many.”
But as he gave them the cup, he also added, I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom (Matthew 26:29). In the midst of the tense foreboding and gathering darkness, Jesus says, in effect, “on the other side of this, we’ll feast.”
He does not say it wistfully (“maybe…wouldn’t it be nice if someday?”) but confidently – this is coming, and it is certain. What is immediate and in-their-faces (a long night of agony and abandonment) is also, Jesus is quite sure, finite and limited. It won’t be the final word.
What Jesus says communicates a lot.
When I drink: Jesus is talking about physical, bodily enjoyment. Not an ethereal, ghostly, metaphorical state, but real wine in a real cup savored on a real tongue. The Apostles’ Creed says, I believe in the resurrection of the body; Jesus does, too.
With you: Not alone on a TV tray in an empty apartment. With you! It wouldn’t be the same without you, he says – of course, you’ll be there too. That’s the entire point. What he’s doing, he’s doing for the sake of fellowship with the ones he loves – warm proximity. We all have done what we could through our COVID year, doing socially distanced Thanksgiving dinner with a few family members on a chilly back deck, Zoom book groups, drive-by birthdays – but then, there will be no masks, no six feet apart. Glorious, uncomplicated proximity.
In my Father’s kingdom: In a restored world. When all the loose ends have been tied up, when no corner of injustice still remains, when it is, finally, on earth as it is in heaven. There. Then.
It is what the writer of Hebrews calls, the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2) – the anticipation that fuels Jesus’ courage as he suffers, the confidence that empowers his endurance: an “on the other side” with you and me.
At a time like this, our perspective can get shortened: there’s Now (in a tired sad world) and there’s Then (in a renewed, relieved future reality). But between Good Friday and the Feast of the Lamb comes Easter. And Easter is past tense as well as a present reality.
This is worth noticing: in the Easter narratives, Jesus does a lot of eating with people.
That first Resurrection Sunday, Jesus presides at a dinner table in Emmaus. Later that night, to satisfy an anxious room of spooked disciples, he eats some leftovers. And a few weeks later by the Sea of Galilee, the Risen Christ prepares a hot breakfast on a campfire for his friends.
Those meals are not that meal, not yet.
But they are occasions of genuine fellowship with Jesus, on the other side of his suffering. He is with them, as much as he ever will be. They are physically proximate and they enjoy his presence.
This is our reality, too.
It’s not just now and then – we live in a Now that is already Then-soaked. Then has already begun.
Today, on this side of Easter, we live in the Age of the Spirit, the Age of the Gospel, the Age of Grace. Already now all the benefits of Sonship are ours.
Already now, the Spirit longs to give us eyes open to “the hope to which he has called you…the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).
A lived experience of grace and power and fellowship with Christ, now.
The feast is being prepared. The wine has not yet been poured. And the guest of honor has not yet arrived.
But his Spirit is present Now and the hors d’oeuvres are already being passed – it’s both glorious in its own right and also just the first taste of something better.
We look back at Easter 2020 and laugh at our COVID naivety, a year ago. Then too, we said “on the other side of this” – but we meant, in a few weeks. This summer. Certainly by Labor Day.
We had no idea. And even now we’re not entirely sure – is there “another side” out there for us?
Now has been longer, harder, and more tragic than we thought.
But our Then too will be longer, fuller, and more joyful than we have yet imagined.
We will feast with Him.