Who Is Not At Our Table?

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Photo by Whitney Greenwell, [CC0] via Pexels

Yesterday, I wrote about the table as an important symbol of the realities Christians enjoy in Christ–God’s gracious welcome to intimate relationship both with him, and with each other as communities nourished by Christ. For many of us, we can think of sweet experiences of table fellowship, where we know and are known and share life together offering everything from emotional support to material help to helping each other see Christ more clearly.

The question is whether it is fitting, and in keeping with God’s intention for the table, to keep these good things to ourselves. It reminds me of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7 who are living just outside the city gates while Arameans beseige Samaria in order to capture Elisha, the prophet. The city is delivered when the Lord causes them to hear the sound of chariots, horses and an approaching army, causing them to flee and fear. But the people hiding behind the gates do not know this. The lepers discover the flight when they decide to risk death to plead for food from the Arameans and discover no one there. They find tents full of food, clothing, and treasure that they accumulate until they conclude that this is too good to keep to themselves but ought to be shared with the rest of the city.

Truth is that we often don’t want our others to come to our table, for fear that we might lose the intimacy we enjoy. To welcome others to our tables will change everything, we fear. And of course we are right. To welcome others to our table, and particularly those not like us will take us out of our comfort zone. Yet just like cardio exercises strengthen our hearts, so also the hard work of welcoming the stranger will strengthen our capacities to love with the heart of God. Learning to love those different from us (and really that is just about anyone) reminds us that we were once strangers both to God and his people.

When we unintentionally, or sometimes intentionally fail to welcome the other to our table, particularly those who differ in some way the world reckons difference–race, economic status, or even church denomination–we deny the power of the saving work of Jesus. In Galatians 2, when Peter was with Paul in Antioch, he joined in table fellowship with Gentile believers until a group of Jews associated with James came from Jerusalem. Peter, the other Jews with him, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas stepped back. Paul harshly rebukes Peter publicly, not for a social faux pas, but because “they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The great scandal of naming the name of Christ while advocating racial supremacy of one race, or simply justifying segregated tables, and other arrangements is that we hollow out the gospel message of its power to bring together people across these divides.

So a question I encourage the communities I work with to wrestle with regularly is that of who is not at our tables? In the world I work in, this can include those from ethnic minorities, academic departments that are not represented in our group, particular national groups represented on our campus but not among us. It might include those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans-gendered. It might include people from Muslim countries studying in the U.S.

It might be that our first step is not inviting them to our tables, but rather spending some time at theirs. I can’t think of a time in scripture when Jesus turns down an invitation to someone’s table–tax collectors, “sinners,” and teachers of the law and Pharisees, unattached women like Mary and Martha, and others. Once, Jesus even invited himself to the home of the most notorious tax collector in town–Zacchaeus. To accept hospitality, to be the guest and not in control, to be the one on the outside coming in both prepares us to be better, more sensitive hosts, and may open the hearts of our hosts.

Another step is that of making room at our tables. If we have just enough chairs for those who always come, it is awkward if our guests are left standing. Or maybe our tables are crowded and we need to add tables (and make sure to mix up who sits at them!). The physical instances of this are the most easily remedied. The structural and cultural ones may be harder. If we only sing Hillsongs, and only in English, what does this say to those from other countries and backgrounds? Does our conversation divide the world into “us” and “them,” or reflect our conviction that Jesus is making one new humanity. Greg Coles, in Single, Gay, Christian speaks of how weird it can be as a celibate, gay man to be in a church context where people are unaware of his sexual identity and listen to them talk about the “LGBT community” as a “them” that lives a certain way, has a certain agenda, unaware that someone who would identify as gay, but doesn’t fit any of these stereotypes and loves Jesus, is right in front of them. I could multiply examples of this kind of talk about “the Black community,” “the Muslim community,” the “Asian community,” or even “English majors”! I’ve even been guilty of them!

Perhaps my greatest challenge is simply, how intentional and persistent will I be in this effort? After a dinner with some Pharisees where Jesus is treated rather shabbily, he tells the parable of the great banquet, where a host sends his servants to notify his previously invited guests that the dinner is ready. A number of them snub him for a number of lame reasons. But he doesn’t give up or content himself with those who came. He sends his servants out onto the town streets to invite anyone they encounter. And when that doesn’t fill up his tables, he sends them out to do another round of invitations in the countryside (Luke 14:15-24). I love that the master and his servants keep inviting until he has a full house. Will I love the Master, and people well enough to keep inviting until the Master’s house is full?

It all begins with the question of “who is not at our table?”

Come to the Table

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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.