Come to the Table

Bible_and_Lord's_Cup_and_Bread

By John Snyder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In my day (and often evening!) work, I am a collegiate minister with graduate student and faculty groups. Perhaps many of my best memories are those of gathering around tables and sharing good food together. Often it is food prepared by many different people, and often from many different countries. And it is often accompanied by fascinating conversation ranging from public policy to dark matter to Jane Austin to the latest episode of Game of Thrones. A number of those at our tables come from countries where, even more than ours, serving food is the way we say “welcome.”

We often consider the cross one of the most central symbols of Christianity, focusing as it does on the work of Christ by which our salvation was accomplished for all trust and follow him. While I do not want to replace this as the central symbol of Christian faith, I do want to propose that the table is an important symbolic object.

It represents God’s seeking and welcoming of his people. There is a strange and wonderful scene in Exodus 24 where Moses takes Aaron and a group of 70 elders up Mt. Sinai. The rest wait at a distance while Moses builds an altar, offers sacrifices, reads the Book of the Covenant, which they all agree to obey. They are sprinkled with blood and then invited to dine with God:

“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (vv. 9-11, NIV)

Many of us learned Psalm 23 as children. It concludes with these lines:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. (vv. 5-6)

God’s comfort in the valley of death and the presence of enemies (including, one must suppose, the ultimate enemy of death) is a table where one is honored as a guest with an anointed forehead and an overflowing cup, and the assurance the abiding welcome in the house of the one who has set this table.

While churches have various beliefs and practices around the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the common element is that we gather around either real or ritual tables and partake of bread and wine (or grape juice) that represent or even in some way become the body and blood of Christ. We are reminded that we are nourished in Christ, and come close to both God and each other around this table. The wealthy, the widow, and the impoverished partake together.

I’m reminded of a folk hymn we sang years ago, “God and Man at Table are Sat Down” (words and music by Robert J. Stamps). It begins:

O, welcome all ye noble saints of old 
As now before your very eyes unfold 
The wonders all so long ago foretold. 
God and man at table are sat down.

The fourth verse reminds us that the welcome of God to the table extends to all humanity.

Beggars, lame, and harlots also here; 
Repentant publicans are drawing near. 
Wayward sons come home without a fear. 
God and man at table are sat down.

It concludes with the wonder at the heart of this time

Here He gives Himself to us as bread.
Here as wine we drink the blood He shed.
Born to die, we eat and live instead,
God and man at table are sat down;
God and man at table are sat down.

All this anticipates the great and everlasting table of the feast when Christ and his bride are united. Growing up, I went to a number of weddings of friends from eastern European and Italian backgrounds, with mountains of food, drinks that freely flowed, and dancing and celebration that went the whole night long. One wedding took over the whole foyer of the performing arts center in my home town, and we danced the tarantella up and down the steps. I have a sense that this great day is something like that only far, far better! John writes in The Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
 Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9).

I am persuaded that all our gatherings around tables to eat and enjoy the company of each other are fundamental to our existence not simply because we need the nourishment of food and community, but also as anticipations of the great table to which God invites us.

One quality of God’s table is that he graciously welcomes all without distinction. Tables at their best are places of welcome, where distinctions of national origin, gender, economic status, or success in life matter not at all. Good tables include and embrace rather than exclude, unless, like the elder son in the parable of the prodigal, one excludes oneself and refuses the invitation to come.

Tomorrow, I will reflect on the question of who is not at our tables and how the logic of our joyous community and common Lord challenges us to keep making room at our tables for those who are not there.

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