Based on the Scripture readings:
2013 February 3
Sitting at the Welcome Table
Almost any given week of the year, I ponder something that I am doing wrong -- I should say "wrongly" -- and almost every week I encounter something helpful in scripture that I'd hardly seen before, hidden in plain sight. Both of these are reasons to keep coming back to community conversation and to read the Bible. Because while the things that I do wrongly weigh on me, the stuff that I see anew in scripture always lifts me up.
Let me tell you one of my misdeeds and reveal how it connects with the scripture, with the week's news, and with a tripartite perennial query for churches that comes down to this: who is God for, who is Jesus' Church for, and who is his food for?
Now, here is what I've done wrong. I have served my children communion before they were baptized. Both of them. Since they were able to take solid food. And, frankly, I've done it for others outside of my family, too, and unless stopped I intend to keep doing it, with an explanation. But if I ever stand before the podium of St. Peter and he is in a conservative mood -- if I have to answer for a personal practice that I knew was sketchy, it's the one I've made around communion. So let me explain.
Traditionally, historically, the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, has been available only to folks within a communion which has meant some very specific things: you had to be baptized in the trinitarian formula, and you had to be from nearby. The locavore movement is rooted in ancient Church practice. They didn't want food or folks from away in the old days. Indeed, the Didache, the oldest church manual we know, set a prohibition on sharing food from God's table with the original unwashed. That's our history. You didn't take communion if you weren't in the communion. Some groups still operate that way with good logic.
But history ensued, folks moved around, thinkers thought, lots of other things happened, and there came to be this thing called an Open Table, which on balance meant that if you were a Methodist from Memphis at a church in Chattanooga, you could pull right up to the table without a permission note. This worked for Catholics and Anglicans and Baptists, among themselves. It honored the idea that communion confirmed baptism and didn't mean much without it. Until John Wesley described something sometime in the 1700s which he called "converting ordinances," by which he meant things that we do not because of who we are already but along the journey to who God wants us to be as a sort of behaviorist response to the cognitive assertions of early theology. That is, participating in communion even if you are not baptized sort of feeds you along the way to something More with a capital M. You don't have to wash up to eat. Others said that eating at God's table offers a "prevenient grace," uniting Augustine, the Council of Trent, an idea from Paul, and a few other things saying that God offers us lots of good things before we know that we want them, like communion before baptism, and that's a blessing and a relief, because if we had to find all of our own good stuff only after we knew we needed it we'd be in deep trouble. This prevenient grace idea asserts that God's gifts don't rely on a recipient but on God, which is a good idea.
Chances are that very few of you were expecting to hear about converting ordinances and prevenient grace this morning, although I'd wager that most of you not only engage them but affirm them. But not everyone does. Indeed, some people don't like the ideas, and they can argue from history that the ideas are wrong. But here's a supportive argument from scripture, in just one Gospel, and you can come to sermon feedback to get the chapter and verse, but you'll recognize it all from the very beginning of Luke. Here's the idea of God's global reach.
In the very beginning of Luke six characters assert one core claim: God reaches out to everyone. Ponder these five familiar phrases in sequence:
But here is something that is easy to overlook, and it's one of those surprises that strikes me anew in this story about stoning Jesus for his sermon. Do you see why people turn so quickly from embrace to violence here in this text? It's not because Jesus says something about fulfilling scripture in their sight. They still like him for four verses after that. It's because he says that God's blessings are not just for them, and he gives examples from the scriptures: from Elijah and Elisha. It's when Jesus says God's stuff is not just for you that the people at his home turf want to kill him. So Fred Craddock says that Jesus does not go elsewhere in his ministry because he is rejected at home. He is rejected at home because he goes elsewhere in his ministry. Jesus is the sixth speaker in a short line saying God is reaching out to everyone.
Who is God for? God is for everyone. Who is Jesus' Church for? It's for everyone. Who is his food for? It's for everyone.
The Church founded in Jesus' name may be called Christian, but Christians are clearly called beyond themselves. Although in the old days when folks heard stuff like that it made them angry.
I was thinking about the Boy Scouts in that vein this week. They've had a long wrestling match with who they are for through many decades. They have thought that they were for a narrow group. And lots of churches, including this one, have been involved in that thinking. I have worked with Eagle Scouts, former Scouts, and Scout leaders very happily over the years. And I've been on the receiving end of some very, very angry condemnation from national Scout authorities and local ones, not because I've ever done anything particularly smart other than committing myself to the first four chapters of Luke, the table manners of Jesus, and the core of Christianity by saying that we're all invited to eat with everyone. Ours is an open communion. Gays and straights are both hungry, and frankly we're both fed best with a little variety and spice, although some beg to differ. But I'm thankful for what the Scouts appear to be doing and hopeful for what it means to lots of young people in the decades ahead and curious about what it might mean for us. I wonder, what is God's vision here?
Because, you see, the theology of an open table or an open communion, which means sharing communion with everyone whether they are baptized or not, is quite solid. It asserts something that suggests that instead of a one-way journey through the life of faith there is a many-way journey. Baptism may lead to communion, as we know, but the opposite is true, too: communion can lead to baptism. Being fed together, eating together, serving each other can lead to us to want the experience of connecting with God in more ways, through water and spirit and the kind of new life that takes something other than food to nourish. Eating together at any table can lead to committing to one another and to God in new ways, revealing that there is more than one way to be with God.
They're not in this morning's text, but if you search through the Gospels you'll notice that even at the feeding of the five thousand Jesus is not the one who invites people to meals. Repeatedly he is invited to meals. And he's criticized for what Dom Crossan calls his "open commensality," which means he'll eat with anyone. And this twist regarding who invites and who is invited is revealing. It reveals Jesus' boundaries and prompts us to ask, what our own? It reveals God's embrace and demands that we ponder our own. That is, who do we invite; who do we embrace? How do we follow the model of open commensality? Because while Jesus does not invite people to the meals in the scriptures, he does instruct us to feed his sheep. He says, you give them something to eat. He asks, what have you got? Then both he and Paul say two things: love and share. That's why I've served my children communion before they were baptized. That's why we should do the same at this table and in our mission giving and in our vision for our future. Feed the hungry. This is the way to see who God is for, who Jesus is for, and what food is for. Amen
Copyright © 2013 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.