With Charity for All, Part 7: What Starts at the Table

In part 6 of this series on Christian virtues that guide our engagement with culture, I discussed how the practice of hospitality and table fellowship opens itself to participation by all people regardless of sex, race, religion or none at all, and questionable moral lifestyles. All are invited to share in Christian community where they belong so that they might also believe and be transformed. Today, I return to the virtue of hospitality with further explanation of what it means for “all” to be invited to the table of God with specific emphasis on the Eucharist practice today and the way that it shapes our hospitality elsewhere. I will be drawing my reflections primarily from I Corinthians 11:17-34.

For centuries, Christians have gathered around the Table to celebrate the Supper. Yet, it has not always been such a welcoming Table. In many churches, sharp distinctions and bright line rules determined who was worthy to eat the Supper and who was not. You were either Catholic or you were not. You were baptized or you were not. You were an adult or you were not. You were a believer or you were not. Over time, Communion came to be as much understood by who was excluded from it than who was included in it. But the emphasis on exclusion is a far cry from the Table of God which always was intended as a banquet table for all. This Table is defined more by who it includes than who it excludes.

The Corinthian church met in a home, and they regularly ate a meal together. The early church understood the Lord’s Supper within in the context of a larger and regular “love feast” or meal. It was in the midst of a fellowship meal that the church came to understand that Jesus was present in such a way that the meal was not merely a meal, but it was the Lord’s Supper when bread and wine were offered in thanksgiving to Christ.

What exactly was the problem in Corinth? When the church came together in Corinth to eat together and also to participate in Communion as part of that meal, some were included and others were excluded from the meal. It seems that these new Christians had reverted to their old pagan ways of eating the meal. Ancient meals were very hierarchical in arrangement. The social stratification such as rich and poor, slave and free, were incorporated into the dinner arrangements. So, the best seats, the best food, and the best wine were all reserved for the affluent, who of course ate first. They also drank first, which meant that they were often drunk by the time the lower classes joined them. Nowhere were the distinctions in society more evident than around the pagan table.

It was that practice that evidently crept into the meals of the church in Corinth. At the Table where all distinctions should have given way to a common meal, the rich were still separating themselves from the poor. Instead of transforming the values of the Corinthian meal into God’s values at the Table, the church adopted the values of Corinth at the Table. So, the poor showed up to find no food or drink left for them. Paul describes the problem in verse 21, “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

Now to be fair to the wealthy members, they probably felt like everyone should just take care of themselves. If poor people couldn’t have the same food or the same quality of wine that they enjoyed, well, that was just life. After all, Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” I read a study this week that political conservatives are generally happier than liberals because they have accepted the realities of inequality and dismiss notions that it should be otherwise. They don’t feel the liberal guilt or burden for those that “have not.” I am not sure if that’s true, but Paul says very plainly that acceptable of distinctions and inequality is not a value of the Table of God. At the Lord’s Table, the church shares a common meal together. It is not that the Lord is a Marxist or a liberal. Paul’s instruction was not a matter of guaranteeing equal rights, providing social welfare or setting up an affirmative action program. It was a matter of whether the church was being shaped by a gospel that sought to obliterate distinctions and not to enforce them. The gospel intends to unite diverse groups, to transcend cultural, economic and ethnic barriers, and unite all into one common union in the body of Christ, and it that truth that the Table must always represent and display.

Distinctions, divisions and differences have no place at the Table of God. No one is more worthy than another, and no one is more deserving than another. We all come as poor sinners desperately in need of the grace of God. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor –equally a sinner, equally redeemed. The Table is never about us – about our worthiness, about our status or about our rights – it always is about that “other” narrative we find in the story of Jesus.

The Table proclaims how the Lord’s death has broken down every social, racial and gender barrier so that all become one in Jesus Christ. To the extent that the Table represents gospel values like justice, unity and generosity, it proclaims “the Lord’s death” until He comes. But when the Table becomes the place where differences are highlighted and barriers are erected – where the very distinctions the gospel seeks to destroy are made more evident by its practice – then the Table belongs to some agenda or to someone other than the Lord. The practice of the Table should never deny the values of the Table, values that always are cross-shaped, values always grounded in the gospel which is for all.

I grew up in a church where some members felt strongly that those who waited on the table should wear a tie. I’m sure they had good reasons for their convictions, but the practical effect of their conviction was that some members who did not own a tie or could not afford one were alienated from serving at the Table. What started out as a well –intentioned practice for some gave way to blatant discrimination against others. The practice highlighted our differences and not our commonalities, and therefore that Table was something less than the Lord’s on those days. You can’t eat at the Lord’s Table and not practice the values of the Lord’s Table. And those values are always more inclusive than exclusive, always more about commonality than about differences, always about eliminating distinctions and not enforcing them.

Perhaps we would not dream of denying communion to the poor, or prohibiting a man from serving on the Table because he is wearing jeans instead of khakis. Yet, women and children often suffer discrimination at the Eucharist table even today in many churches. Women are not permitted in some churches to serve communion and children are denied it. This practice at the table that is at the very center of Christian worship and life then gives way to discriminatory practices towards women and children in other facets of worship and family life. What happens at the Table often does not stay at the Table.

The Table is not about authority. The Table is not about titles. The Table is not a ritual to be served by professionals. It is a meal where people saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus come together to eat because of their common Savior. Let me tell you a story, “On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, and he blessed it, and broke it, and said, “This is my body that is for you.” That is the only story that should ever shape our Communion practice. It is the story of humility, brokenness, and a community called together by the cross. This is never a story about who is worthy, who deserves, or who is in charge. It is always a story about a gracious gift of God to all.

In his dismay and his anguish over their misunderstanding of Christ’s sacred meal, Paul wrote not to deepen the division but to help them grasp the deep gift given by Christ to all believers. Desperate for them to see the amazing gift of God through Jesus Christ, he wrote: “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” (11:29). He goes on to say, “So then my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” (11:33). Paul says that the point is not to for individuals to get fed, but for the community to eat together without division and distinction. They must wait on each other so that they can “discern the Body” while they eat (11:28).

To “discern the Body” is not an instruction to discern the body of Jesus in the bread. Given the context, it seems to me that Paul is telling the church that they must discern the Body of Christ – that they must give attention to each other as the church – as they eat the meal. To discern the body is to partake of the supper in a way that bears witness to the unity of the body of Christ and also to the fellowship of the body which transcends every cultural and human barrier. When Paul called the church to remember the death of Christ in communion, he was not suggesting that the Corinthians should think harder about the cross when they participated. The problem was that the cross was not shaping how they ate, and so Paul called them to a communal experience of the Table where all were welcomed and all were served.

Paul therefore warns the Corinthians, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (11:27). To eat unworthily is not to eat when you are not worthy – you never will be worthy to eat at the Table except for the mercy of God. To eat and drink of the table unworthily is to eat and drink of the table in a way not worthy of the values of this Table. To “examine yourself” is a call to the community for public action, not to private introspection. Paul is not calling for an introspective assessment of our own holiness. He is asking the whole community to examine themselves to make sure that the way they eat the Table reflects the cross-shaped values of the Table – that is, to eat in an unworthy manner is to eat in a way that divides rather than unites. The church eats worthily when it eats as a united community without division and when it feasts together without distinction. When the church fails to eat that way, it denies the gospel it proclaims at the Table, and in denying the gospel, it condemns itself as it eats and drinks judgment on itself. The Lord’s Supper is serious – not because it is grounded in the cross – but because it bears witness to the gospel, and the church should always make sure that justice is done, that our needs are met, and that our divisions are healed when we meet around the Table.

The Table is where the values and story of the gospel is lived out week after week as we share bread and the cup, or it is the place where our continued practices of distinction and discrimination express themselves in the most central act of worship. The Table is for all, and it shapes everything. What we believe about the Table, and what we practice at the Table, is how we will believe and practice the rest of the Christian life.

If baptism is the beginning of the Christian story, the Table is its end. Here the good news of the gospel has become a reality. By the finished act of Jesus Christ, we now can sit at the banquet table of God where we finally can realize our created purpose, to enjoy the presence of God forever and ever. At the wedding feast of the Lamb, every division is healed and every distinction is irrelevant. This is a Table for all the world, a table of justice, mercy and joy. This is a Table for all, and what starts at the Table doesn’t end at the Table. It shapes everything else.

Tomorrow: Living the Values of the Table

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