God has come so that we would not fear Him...

Delivered December 24, 2016

Tonight we join with more than a billion of our sisters and brothers around the world in rehearsing and remembering one of the most important and most incredible moments in history: the night that God became one of us.

It is on this day that we celebrate one of the most important and one of the most mysterious realities of our faith: that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And from the earliest days the church has reflected on just how to articulate the power, the mystery, and the miracle that is the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

One of the primary questions that has arisen throughout the centuries is this: Why did Jesus come as a child to be born? Why not emerge from the desert like John the Baptist? Or just appear like Melchizedek? Why not rise to power like David?

While many wonderful answers have been given to this line of inquiry down through the centuries, there is one in particular that I want to reflect on as we gather tonight, and that is this:
Jesus comes to us in a way that we might come to him in love, not in fear.

At Sinai, the presence of God is too powerful, too overwhelming, and too loud to bear. The people ask God and ask Moses to speak amongst themselves and to have Moses relay the message. For the prophet Isaiah, being in the presence of the Lord leads him to declare his own demise and destruction. For Elijah on the mountain, the God who doesn't appear in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a whisper is too much for him to bear. He covers his face and moves away. The God who resides in the Holy of Holies, the unapproachable one, the one who says to Moses, "no one may see my face and live."

God revealed in this way is too much to bear. The response of those made in his image is an overwhelming sensation of fear and looming destruction.

This is why some of the greatest writers of the Christian faith have said that it was important and intentional that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the one who holds all the power, even over death, came to us as a helpless child. Fragile, vulnerable, mortal, and utterly dependent for everything.

God who has come to us as a helpless child is one to whom we can and do find ourselves drawn in awe, in love, and in hope. We know this to be true from our own experiences with the birth of a child. We do not encounter them with fear and trembling, but with wonder, oftentimes speechless, finding our hearts expanded beyond our previously imagined capacity to love another.

This is the God who has come into the world,
not to bring a message of deliverance,
     but to be a deliverer,
not to bring a message of salvation,
     but to be our salvation,  
not to tell us of a future hope,
     but to be the one who is our hope, 
and not to call us to be reconciled to God,
     but to be our redeemer.  

This child holds no fear for those in search of hope... of salvation... of deliverance. But for those who are in search of power... of self-assurance... and of the preservation of their own legacy, this child comes to them as a terrifying threat. This child does not come as one who stands to become a king, but has, from eternity, been the King of Kings. This child does not come as one who may usher in a time of peace of justice, but is in himself the Prince of Peace and the Righteousness of God.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century poet and theologian, calls us to the joy and hope of this day when he proclaims:

Now the day of mercy has shown forth! Let no one persecute his neighbor with revenge for the wrong he has caused him! The day of joy has arrived! Let no one be guilty of causing sorrow and grief to another person. This is a cloudless and bright day! Let anger be stilled for it disturbs peace and tranquility. This is the day in which God descended to sinners! Let the righteous man be ashamed to exalt himself over sinners. This is the day when the Lord of creation came to servants! Let the master of the house humble himself in similar love to his servants. This is the day on which the Wealthy One became poor for our sake! Let not the rich be ashamed to share their table with the poor.

Tonight around this table we celebrate the Word made flesh, the child born to the Virgin, in the town of David, who brings deliverance and hope for all the people, the Savior of the World, Jesus Christ. We celebrate by gathering in his name, in the presence of one another, to remember the new life made possible in his birth.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
      and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14, NRSV)

So tonight, come and celebrate at the Table of the Lord, for the one born to us as a child is here, as our host. He welcomes you with open arms to receive the Good News.

Come to the table. 

Freely We Have Received, Freely We Welcome...

For the last two weeks I have been haunted by the question of the disciples in John 9: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2) This kind of question, “Why did this happen to me?” or “What must they have done to end up like that?” are the kinds of questions that currently occupy much of my thinking. My academic work is about the intersection of trauma and human suffering with the ways in which the church speaks about God and how it lives its life in response to just how much suffering there is not only “out in the world" but in this room. And here is what I have learned thus far: The seemingly hard-hearted question that the disciples ask Jesus about the blind man is exactly the same question that too often we ask about others even now.

This is why Jesus’ answer is so confrontational: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (9:3) What we shouldn’t presume here is that Jesus is suggesting that this man was born blind and that by “fixing him” or healing him that then God’s works will be revealed in him. God doesn't make mistakes. Jesus is not suggesting that this man was born blind so that God can show himself by “repairing” this man. This text was never about blindness per se, but about the ways that God reveals himself explicitly through the kinds of people that those in power presume are wicked sinners, or at the very least guilty by association. The religious elite, those with “spiritual authority”, presume that he is the way he is because of something sinful that he or his parents had done. Jesus is here to confront them (and us) with the reality that God chooses to reveal himself through the very people that often times we label as ungodly, unworthy, and unimportant. 

Sometimes those people, those whom we act as if they are ungodly, unworthy, or unimportant, are born that way, and no matter if they desire to change or if they are pressured to do so by the demands of others, it is simply who they are before God and the world. For those people we presume that it is something they have done that has made them to be "that way." For others, they deem themselves to be ungodly, unworthy, or unimportant because of something that has happened to them or because of guilt about something that happened to someone they love. No matter the source of this status that marks someone as an outsider, the result is the same: exclusion. Exclusion imposed from outside or a self-imposed exile, both of which cause pain, suffering, loneliness, trauma, and harm to the body of Christ.  


I confess to only recently having recently realized that this is the core message of the Apostle Paul in the text that I heard paraded week after week growing up as we prepared to participate as individuals who simultaneously took the bread and cup in what I call "communal privacy." (If you have ever passed golden trays in complete silence you know what I mean.) 

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-28, NIV)

I always heard this text to mean this:
The Lord’s Supper is important. We are here to remember.
This is a time to repent, reflect, and remember by yourself, alongside everyone else. 


It has always struck me as odd then that the rest of Paul’s instruction from 1 Corinthians 11 never seemed to read publicly: 

For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. (1 Corinthians 11:29-33, NIV)

In a world that is ordered by inclusion and exclusion, by those who are in and those who are out, by those who belong and those who confront our systems of inclusion and exclusion, this Christian practice of gathering around this table is seen by the world as a scandal. We are told that we must come in a way that is not “unworthy”, and what we learn is that "if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves” we would not exclude others or ourselves. We would recognize that our place at this table is an act of grace. Freely we have received, freely we welcome all. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26, NIV) This morning we confess that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. So as you come this morning to receive a sign of God’s inexhaustible love for you, share with your brothers and sisters the embrace of God that you have received. We receive the words of Jesus himself this morning: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37, NIV)

God Came Down...

In the ancient world there was only one place to go to find the gods. You had to go up. You went to the highest point in the city, or you walked up the stairs of a temple, or you looked to the heavens as a statue of the fearsome deity towered over you.

So imagine how hard it was for those earliest Christian communities who would at some point in the day find themselves literally in the shade of those places where the divine lived. 

It wasn't in temples that those earliest Christians met, but homes. Places of welcome and embrace were the living spaces of the church. Where many expected God to be found in a place of power and splendor he was instead found at a table. An ordinary, everyday table. Any table would do as long as it had a place for all to come. 

You see, unlike the gods that early Christianity grew among, the Son of God chose to make himself known to the poor, the unimportant, the undervalued. This shouldn't really surprise us. God has always been in the habit of showing hospitality to those who least expect it, to those whom the world thinks don't deserve it, to those who need it most. 

But this God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ isn't like the others who claim to be a god. He doesn't demand that people fall before him in fear. He doesn't reveal himself only to a chosen few, hiding behind mystery and uncertainty. Instead, in anticipation of the ultimate expression of hospitality, Jesus invites his disciples to a table that he had to borrow. Christ's act of hospitality is made possible by the hospitality of others. 

And so it works in the Christian life that hospitality is something that must first be received before it is able to be extended to others. We must accept the invitation of Jesus to join him at the table before we are able to extend this invitation to others. 

But too often we struggle with accepting the hospitality. We have told ourselves that we are not worthy, or not interested, or not available. Some are repulsed because they can only imagine a god who is large and terrifying and the simplicity and hospitality of the table come almost as an insult. "Surely God is not really like this" they might say. But in fact, this is exactly who God is… Jesus Christ, the Son of God, at a borrowed table sharing the basics of life. 

The first step to becoming the hospitality of God in the world is to receive the hospitality of God at his table. Come and receive that you may go and embody the good news that the God of the universe does not live in temples made by human hands, but that he lives in his people, among his creation, and can be found in the stuff of everyday life, bread and drink. 

Come to the table.  

Who is welcome at the Table of the Lord?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have always struggled to answer the question: "Who is welcome at the Table of the Lord?" At times this question has been answered in a way that marginalized and alienated those who wanted more than anything to be the people of God. In other times the boundaries have been virtually nonexistent, transforming the table into little more than a potluck with little selection. But when we reflect on Scripture we see in the life of Jesus and the early church the following posture: Christ and his people meet everyone where they are, and then they call them to a life of radical transformation. 
 
Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (6:9-11, NRSV)

And this is what some of you used to be.” This is the power and the purpose of surrounding the table together. It has been said that it was not difficult for God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt but that he is still working on leading Egypt out of his people. And the same is true for us this morning.
 
Today, we gather around a table hosted by the Son of God, the sinless, resurrected One. And we take our place at the table with all those who have gone before us. But if we will remember when this table was first used we can reflect on the two seats of honor at that first Lord’s Supper. Seated on his left in the second place of honor was the disciple that is referred to in Scripture as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It does not surprise us for him to receive this honor. But the one in the seat of honor, the one to the right of Jesus, tells us something significant about the table which you and I will shortly surround. That seat was occupied by none other than Judas, the one who would a short time later betray Jesus in the Garden.
 
When the church has talked about the Lord’s Supper they often attached the word “sacrament” to what we are about to do. This term carries the idea that we are doing something symbolic that has real life consequences from our participation. In other words, we are invited to the table as we are, whether we are a John or Judas, but our expectation is that meeting with Jesus at his table is an event that cannot help but change us. And so we come today with joy that we are welcomed as we are, and with expectation that God is continuing to work on us, in us, and through us, for the sake of the world.
 
So come to the table.  

Let us then approach the throne...

When the early church met in secret to join in this meal together I often wonder what parts of the story of Jesus came rushing to their minds. As they huddled in the dark, damp catacombs beneath the city of Rome, perhaps near to the place where they had recently laid the body of a brother or sister who had lost their life for claiming a King other than Caesar what words of Jesus did they hear echo in their hearts and minds? 

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"? 

But one thing the early church knew with certainty, if God's people are to survive, they must do so by joining together at the table of the Lord. 

And so perhaps beneath the city of Rome they sung a song of David:

The Lord is my light and my salvation—    
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When the wicked advance against me
    to slander me,
it is my enemies and my foes
    who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
    my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
    even then I will be confident.
One thing I ask from the Lord,
    this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,

to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
    and to seek him in his temple.

Maybe you and I have forgotten that at the table of the Lord our fears and anxieties are not only allowed but welcomed. They are welcomed because the source by which we confront our fears and anxieties resides at that Table. We find the strength to admit these things in the hands of our brothers and sisters and in the love of the host of the Table, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We come to table with anxieties about finances, cancer, broken relationships, strained marriages, suffering in our own lives and in the world in which we live, poverty and hunger, human trafficking, and our insecurities and secrets that no one even knows. These are the things we bring with us to the Table. And perhaps today is the day that we come to the Table and admit that we carry these with us. That we admit that we ourselves and the world in which we live is not as it should be. That we admit that deep down, if we had the courage to admit it, we are afraid. 

What we will find at the table of the Lord is that this is the place for those burdens to be named, to be faced, and to be confronted. We will find that the Table of Jesus is the only place where fear can give way to hope, where anxiety can be changed into anticipation, where loneliness can be transformed in confidence that Jesus and his people are with us always. 

It is the place where we can say with the Apostle Paul: 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So this morning as we surround the table together may we find assurance that we are loved, that we are broken, that we are afraid, and that just as we are… we are welcome. 

So this morning we come at the invitation of the Hebrew writer: 

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. 
 

On our way to the Promised Land...

In the early days of the Restoration Movement there was a clear emphasis that perhaps has been forgotten in our time. The thing that they articulated time and again was that the most important thing that the community of believers did in their gathering was not to sing or even to hear the Word proclaimed but to gather around the table. Alexander Campbell went as far as to call the Lord's Supper The Christian Institution. 

We understood something that the church throughout history has known well. This meal does more than remind us of the life and work of Jesus, it nourishes us for the life of faith. The Table is rooted deeply in the central stories of the Old Testament. And it is from these stories that we understand that the Table of the Lord serves to sustain us in our faith in memory, reflection, and anticipation. 

This table bears the echoes of the Passover meal in which the people of Israel were sustained for the beginning of their exodus from slavery in Egypt. It was a meal that prepared them for their journey with God where they would become his people. In the same way this meal serves to prepare our hearts for God's continuing work of leading us out from our slavery to the ways of the world.

This table bears the echoes of the Manna in the wilderness in which the people of Israel were nourished for their journey to the Promised Land. We too come to this table today to receive strength and grace for our continued wandering in the wilderness as we are led by the Spirit on our way to the world that God has promised. We are sustained as we experience the redemption of our lives and as we await the redemption of the world. 

And finally, this table bears the echoes of the Messianic Banquet in which all of God's people throughout time will join together in the presence of Almighty God in a world in which death, suffering, and hunger no longer exist. Where every hint of evil has been removed, where Egypt is but a memory, and where Manna is no longer necessary because we find ourselves at the Table of the King. 

And so we come today in the middle of our journey. Some of us have been walking towards the Promised Land for a long time and we need to be sustained. Some of us find ourselves still trapped in Egypt, and come to the table this morning in expectation of our deliverance. We all find ourselves longing for a world in which God reigns supreme, in which evil is no more, and where we see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit face-to-face. 

And so we come to the table today not because it is our tradition, but because it is indispensable to our survival as the people of God. Come and be nourished. Join your fellow wanderers in looking to Christ and seek him together. 

Come and be filled. 

As it is at the table, so it should be in the world...

For the early Christians this table was a place of hope and expectation. It was a place where the People of God met together in anticipation of the coming future where God would redeem the entire creation. 

And so we find that this table, this meal, and the expectation and hope that it represents shows up at important times and places in the life of believers. 

We find Christians gathering around the table to celebrate the baptism and new life of a brother or sister. 

We find them joining at the table during a marriage that is rooted in the bond of Christ and His church.

We find them coming to the table on the first day of the week in anticipation of the coming days of the neat future.

We find them coming around the table at the loss of a loved one in anticipation of the day when death is defeated and life has triumphed. 

For the church throughout history it has not been enough to simply say, "We remember." Memory shapes us as a people, but it quickly fades away. 

So the church has said, "We remember, we receive, and we await." We remember what was done by another for us, we receive his gift of grace and mercy in the midst of our brokenness, and we await the day when memory and grace for the moment are no longer needed. 

Or as the early church said. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."

So we come today asking God to help us to have great expectations of the future. To learn how to grasp the depths of the redemption that he has promised. To see the ways in which his redemptive work has already begun. To remember his love for us Incarnate in his Son Jesus Christ.

And so we gather asking God to help us live out this idea: "As it will be, so it should become in the world."

Come to the table.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again...

"Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
 
These are the words which our brothers and sisters throughout the world will proclaim as they gather around the Table of the Lord this day. "Thanks be to God." will be the words on their lips as they receive the bread and the cup as a reminder of what God in Christ has done for them. 
 
For some this morning, this holy moment is a burst of light in a dark world. For our brothers and sisters in Syria it is a time of great fear and anxiety about the future. For our brothers and sisters in many parts of the world it is an expectation of the day when things that are inescapable in their own lives will be redeemed by God. Where there will be no more hunger or poverty or AIDS or malaria or genocide or martyrdom or war. 
 
For some of us there is the longing for the day when there is no more suffering, no broken relationships, no cancer, no abuse of power or of the powerless, no senseless tragedy, no more tears, and no more war. 
 
We, like many in the world, long for our deliverance. For our EXODUS from exile. For the arrival of our Savior who will triumph over the powers of darkness and bring light and hope and healing and peace to our broken world. 
 
But we admit that this exile is still here. It is still happening. 
 
"Christ HAS died, Christ IS risen, Christ WILL come again."
 
And so we find ourselves this morning eager to be set free.
 
Free from the things that enslave us, from the cycles of death and grief and loss and suffering that seem unavoidable.
 
And this is where we find the power of the Table of the Lord. It is a table that is open to all who will come. It is a table that shows up in the most unlikely of places. It is a table that breaks into the world in anticipation of our Exodus.
 
We gather around it to reflect on what God has done. To recall the ways in which the Son of God gave his life for us, while we were still his enemies. To recall the ways in which God has sought to redeem the good world that he made and the people that he formed in his very image. To recall the ways in which the Spirit of God teaches us and transforms us more into the image of Jesus our Lord.
 
This table is small. It is the gathering place in the sight of God for a few hundred people who today are longing for their deliverance. As we come this morning we join with those around the world and throughout history who have come in anticipation of God’s redemption of the entire creation.
 
So as we come together, take some time to speak to one another. To share the ways in which you long for God to deliver you and the world in which we live. Draw strength and hope from one another in the truth that “Christ HAS died, Christ IS risen, and Christ WILL come again.”
 
May this table become our source of hope and expectation in the coming deliverance of our Lord and King.
 

Elevated to the Table...

It must have been awkward that first Sunday morning when that one entered the assembly in Ephesus or Corinth or Antioch. 

You know the one, the one that doesn't fit in, that represents everything opposite from the people in the fledgling little church just trying to hang on to their lives. 

I wonder what it was like the first week that slave and master actually finally ate at the same table. Or what it was like when the Roman soldier who months earlier had rounded up members of the church showed up, hoping to be welcomed to the table of the Lord. Or what it was like for the Jew who for the first time shared a table with an unclean Gentile. Or when a man shared a table with a woman and her child. 

The table in the early church had to be, more often than not, a strange place. For what other place in all creation do people transcend the barriers that so deeply carve up the world in which we live? Where else will you find the poor and the rich, the sick and the healthy, the holy and sinful, the slave and the owner, the powerful and the powerless, together? 

In a world that works so hard to clearly define where all people are, at all times, with respect to everyone else…

Who has the latest and the greatest, what are they wearing, where are they vacationing, what about their romantic life, how you too can become like him or her…

But remember, these promises silently affirm… they are here (above) and you are there (below).

You are not them, and though you may wish to be, we are all not equal.

But at this table, something inexplicable happens. 

We might hope that the celebrity, the rich, the powerful, the healthy, the popular, and the important might be brought down to live with the rest of us. That the field might be leveled, that for a moment we are all the same. For a moment we are together, although we all know that in moments the separation will be tangible again. We hope that for a moment, that those people who are there (above) will join us here (below). 

But this movement, of the high and mighty (above) to join the common people here below is a myth, a joke, a lie. God has something very different in mind. 

You see, in a world filled with jealousy, envy, coveting, hatred, and suffering… this table transforms it all. 

The playing field is not leveled to those of us below.

All who gather at the table are elevated to a place that none of us can earn… children of God. We are invited to sit at the table of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. We are given the seat of honor at the table of the one who has conquered death and the grave and who, through us, is reconciling the world to himself. 

And so we are learning that this table that we gather around doesn't "level the playing field", it does something so much greater… it trivializes the things that separate us. So come and learn what this means, we are the people of God and we refuse to be defined by a lesser system as to our value and mission in the world. The old world is passing away, the new has come. Come and take your place at the table of the King for you have been found worthy and welcome. 

We come for our deliverance...

Paul reminds us:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any good works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. (Titus 3:3-8a, NRSV)

We have come to a season in the life of this church that has been a long time in coming. We gather this morning to take yet another step into the rebirth that we believe God is leading us into. And so it is appropriate that we gather this morning at the place at which we learn the meaning of our having been reborn and renewed. This is the place where we are enabled to remember where we were and who we were before the "goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared." We also gather at this table because we confess that the renewal and rebirth for which we long and work is a gift from God. We are unable to become the community of believers that God wants us to be on our own. 

So today we approach the table in a time of thanksgiving and of need. We come thanking God for our deliverance from the powers that used to enslave us. That we are no longer slaves to sin, but now slaves to righteousness who are continuing to be transformed. We come expectant of the future of our life together. That we have come far, in both joy and pain, and that we ask God to lead us as a pillar of cloud by day and, by night, a fire that all may see. We ask that God may heal old wounds and give us grace for the journey before us. 

Let us pray. 

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 
Who led your people out of Egypt in power, 
Who made an everlasting covenant with your people, 
Who became like us and lived among us, 
Who has conquered sin and death and the grave, 
Who has ascended to heaven and who will return to redeem all things, 

We stand before you today in gratitude and need, 
Would you change us, would you shape us, would you guide us, 
Would you make us your people in this place in this time, 
For the glory of your name and the sake of the world. 

We ask you to renew us, to transform us, and to go with us. 
We bless you for this table that you have prepared, 
May we see your face in our brothers and sisters this morning. 

Amen. 

Exposed at the Table...

The Apostle Paul confesses:

"So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25a, NIV)

You and I find ourselves in the middle of a war. While for many of our brothers and sisters around the world this war is also filled with literal violence and bloodshed, for us the battle is most often unseen, unnamed, and secret. The battle in which you and I are engaged is real, and it is more than simply a battle for our heart. There are real casualties and real consequences, the choices we make can literally reshape the world. And yet for most of us, we come together acting as if this battle isn’t ongoing or as if Christ has already won the battle. 

But if we learn anything about the Table from Scripture it is this:

The Table is the place where we learn who we really are, and it is the place where we invited to become all that God has for us to be. 

The Table was the place where Judas knew who he had become,

Where the disciples learned that they were still concerned with prestige and power (“who was the greatest”) instead of with the Prince of Peace,

Where the Corinthians learned that in their assembly it still mattered if you were rich or poor, man or woman.

For us the Table exposes our hearts and lives to one another. 

What it exposes, and how it exposes vary, but the reality is that when we gather to remember the One who gave his life that we might be reconciled to God, we are given a chance to see ourselves and our brothers and sisters for who we really are. 

We are the broken, the hurting, the struggling, the jaded, the wandering, the lonely, the silent, secret, somber Children of God. 

We are a people at war. We find that our hearts are pulled in a thousand directions, and that the things we don’t want to do… those are the very things we do.

We are people with secrets, with failures, with fears and insecurities that would devastate us if they ever became public. Many of us hold on to things that if they were ever exposed at this table, we would not gather around it among these people again. 

And the Word made flesh knows all of this. He knows your secrets, your hidden shame, your fear of being found out. 

And this is why he bids you, no, why he begs you, to come to the Table. 

Because you see this is a war that we cannot survive alone. No one can live through this battle for our hearts and for the world by themselves. Not even the Son of God was able to live and love and serve and heal and give his life without the love and nurture and strength of others. 

So coming to the Table is not God’s way to expose us in order to lead to shame, but to the breaking of chains, to the release of the captives, and to the confidence that “he who began a good work in [you] will carry it onto completion.”

So this morning you are invited to the Table to see yourself as you are, and to become all that God has made you to be. 

Thanks be to God...

The Apostle Paul in our text for this morning has some words for us that many find troubling. He writes:

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:6-11, NIV)

This text is difficult for us for two reasons: (1) It is Paul’s words, that are repeated throughout his writings, that we will all answer for the things we have done. This gives us pause for we all know exactly what we have done. (2) Paul suggests that the way in which we receive eternal life is by seeking the glory, honor, and immortality that comes from God alone.

This text and the larger argument that Paul will make are an important window in the world of our lives. Paul recognizes and articulates what we know all too well. We are people who are at war with ourselves. Paul describes this in that well-known passage later in Romans:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24, NIV)

We are people who live our daily lives in a tug of war, a mixture of allegiances, and desire to follow the way of Jesus and to go our own way. We seek glory, honor, and immortality every day of our lives. The question becomes who’s glory, honor, and immortality?

Paul describes himself as a prisoner to this war within himself. It is a battle that he cannot escape, a victory that he cannot win completely, and a war that he desperately wishes to leave behind. 

His answer?

Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25a, NIV)

You and I find ourselves this morning as a community of people who seek the glory, honor, immortality, and peace from the One who gave his life that we may live. But we also must confess this morning that too often we seek those very things for ourselves: our glory, our honor, our immortality, and our peace. And in the end, when our hearts are laid bare, and our lives seen for what they really are, we will find that it is only through Christ that we have been enabled to find and receive the glory, honor, immortality, and peace that we so desperately desire.

So we come to the table this morning as people with divided allegiances, ever-shifting priorities, and temptations and patterns of life that harm instead of heal, that frustrate the work of God in our lives instead of cultivating it, that make us feel wretched and awful instead of saints and precious children of God. And this is why we are here: because we need the work of God in our lives to help us become all that God desires for us and of us. And because we readily admit that we cannot do it alone, and that we should not do it alone. This is a battle that must be fought with the help of the Lord Jesus and his body. Some come together, receive what you need, and seek the glory, honor, immortality, and peace that are to be found at the Table of the Lord.

Come to the table. 

Christ has no body...

Ritual has always had the power to help a community delineate its identity. In the celebration of the Passover, even centuries after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites would gather around the table and say, "We were slaves in Egypt." Engrained into the very nature of ritual is the identification and reinforcement of boundaries as identity markers. This is inevitably how all communities function. It is not necessarily to identify itself as antagonistic to another group or community, but it is to express that they are in a fact distinct.

The practice that we have come to in our gathering is no different. We do this because of who we are, and we are who we are because this is one of the things that we do. This table affirms that we are in a community of people who recognize that we are dependent upon the mercy and grace of God.

For a long time this table has been used as an opportunity for the exclusion of others. It has been an identity marker which has functioned to clearly show who is "in" and who is " out." And while it is true that for many people, that this table has little or no meaning, it is not the case that this table functions as a form of exclusion.

This is what is distinct about Christian practices. While maintaining a distinction between the community of believers and the place where the church finds itself, Christian practices, and especially the table, serve not to reinforce walls between the church and the world, but to function as gateways, entrances, and invitations. This table does not function to exclude, but to welcome. It doesn't seek to condemn but to call for transformation. And it doesn't seek to affirm merely it's coming salvation, but to live for the sake of the world.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), the sixteenth century mystic describes it poetically in this way:

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks,
Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks,
compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We are God's work in the world. You are his missionary people, called to lives of love and service for the sake of others. If God is at work in the world, and he most certainly is, he desires to manifest himself in this world through you. And this table is the place where we acknowledge and seek grace for the awesome responsibility and commission we have been given.

Christ has no body on earth but yours.

You Prepare for Me a Table...

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

This iconic psalm has captured the imagination of God’s people for thousands of years. For the People of God, both Jewish and Christian, this image, God as the benevolent shepherd, is an image of comfort and peace and faith.

But often times the focus of our reading of this Psalm is rooted in its admission that God cares for us, and this is certainly true. But the real power of this psalm is that it affirms this:

The God whom we serve is not immune to pain, to struggle, or to evil. He knows the ways in which we struggle and fear and suffer and worry and tire.

We find out that the Good Shepherd is not only aware of such realities, but even more still that he is present in the midst of them.

And so we return to perhaps the least memorable line of this psalm:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

God prepares a table for us in the presence of those who come against us. He anoints us to affirm, in the presence of our enemies, our identity in Him, and the cup he pours for us cannot hold all he has provided.
The table of the Lord has been prepared for us this day in the presence of our enemies, in the presence of a world that serves values and priorities that are foreign to the Kingdom of God, and he does so not only for our provision but for the transformation of those who oppose us. It is here at this table that our identity is affirmed again as those anointed by God in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we have come to take of a cup that will never run empty and which has enough for all, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus poured out for all creation.

So as you come this morning to the table which the Lord has prepared for us, may you be aware of both the enemies who surround you, and of the people of God with whom you gather this morning. 

May we come in the confidence that God has prepared this table for us and for the whole world, that we are loved, and that no matter the valley or the mountain we find ourselves upon, it is there that God has prepared his table for us.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow [us] all the days of [our] li[ves]: and [we] will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

O God who has led us out of Egypt,
who walks with us in the wilderness of this life,
who forgives our trespasses and sins,
who provides for us in ways too innumerable to count,
we come to the table you have prepared for us this morning.

May we find strength and nourishment for this day and the days to come.
May we be reminded that your table is spread in the world and for the world.
May we come today looking to you as the shepherd of our souls and find rest,
for you are our Shepherd, and with you all will be well.


In the name of the Good Shepherd we thank you.
Amen. 
 

Table as Resistance...

The text this morning from the Gospel of Mark speaks of both the sending out of the Twelve by Christ to proclaim the reign of God and the inevitable opposition that comes from that very message. He calls them to a posture of total dependance upon God and upon those who are receptive to the proclamation of the disciples. Hospitality is to be received, and if withheld, the disciples were to move on, to “shake the dust off their feet” and continue with their mission. 

This text serves both to disorient and to warn us. It is disorienting because we typically prepare for our “mission,” for our “going” with preparation which will  in turn require little or no hospitality or sacrifice from those we are engaging. It also serves to disorient us because we shy away from encounters for which we are woefully unprepared and where must rely solely on the provision of God. 

It warns us that we ought to listen closely to the content of our message and of our lives if we find that opposition is weak or nonexistent. We ought to pay attention if we never have to “dust off our feet”. Is it possible then that our message has been compromised? Is it possible that our message is no longer the proclamation of the in-breaking reign of God?

We are called to become the kind of people that “hunger and thirst for righteousness”, who are “peacemakers”, and “those who mourn” for the state of the world. 

This posture, this life that confronts, is described well by Pope Benedict in a reflection on the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn…” He reflects:

The mourning of which the Lord speaks is nonconformity with evil; it is a way of resisting models of behavior that the individual is pressured to accept because “everyone does it.” The world cannot tolerate this kind of resistance; it demands conformity. It considers this mourning to be an accusation directed against the numbing of consciences. And so it is. That is why those who mourn suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness. Those who mourn are promised comfort; those who are persecuted are promised the Kingdom of God—the same promise that is made to the poor in spirit. The two promises are closely related. The Kingdom of God—standing under the protection of God’s power, secure in his love—that is true comfort. 

And so we come to the Table this morning as an act of resistance. As a proclamation that the way things are in the world is not as it should be. As a demonstration of the transformative power of God in a broken and painful world. As a testimony that God has reconciled us to one another, and in that reconciliation has brought us to himself. And now, together, as one new humanity, we serve as agents of reconciliation and redemption, as ambassadors of a coming Kingdom and a returning King, of faith, hope, and love. 

Come to the Table.

A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation...

"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10, NIV)

Filled with imagery spanning the breadth of Scripture, Peter describes the depth of the vocation that has been given to us, the people of God.

We are chosen. Not to the exclusion of the world, but for the sake of the world. 

We are a royal priesthood. Not by the ancestry of our parents, but by the new birth into the Kingdom of God. 

We are a holy nation. Not one rooted in time or place or culture, but made up of "every nation, tribe, and tongue" (Revelation 7:9) where in Christ there is no longer "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female". (Galatians 3:28)

We are God's special possession. Not as those who are more important than others, but as those who are learning and inviting the whole world to see themselves as God sees them: precious children of God. 

We exist "that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light." Not to be successful, or happy, or to fulfill the American dream but to declare: "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands." (Acts 17:24) And that this God who is the giver of all life has begun, in keeping with his promises throughout history, to redeem the good world that he has made in the work of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We declare that at one time we were captive to the darkness unable to "see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4:4) We declare that we are an Exodus people, learning what it means to become what God has already called us to be, his people.

But we often fail to remember Peter's final words: "Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." We are too often tempted to come to this table as if we have arrived. As if we already are everything that God has called us to be. That at this table there are no struggles, no doubts, no fears, no secrets, no darkness within our hearts that wars with the work of God in our lives. We come, smile, greet one another, and receive the body and blood of our Lord. 

But be mindful of the word with which Peter ends this identifying text. The climax, the final element that marks us out as the people of God, for the sake of the world is not perfection, holiness, humility, righteousness, power, success, faith, hope, or love. It is mercy

It is mercy for the hurting and the broken, 
it is mercy for the hopeless and the tired, 
it is mercy for those who are afraid to be who they are among others who too are afraid to admit who they are, 
it is mercy for those who sometimes doubt if God is really at work in the world because he feels so distant, 
it is mercy for those who know the good they ought to do and don't,
it is mercy for those who are learning to be, albeit sometimes reluctantly, what it means to be priests who mediate God to a broken world, 
it is mercy for you for whatever you need. 

And it is here, at the Table where the Lord promises to meet us, that we may come and find this mercy. Where we may find the strength and the courage and the power to embrace the call of the One who has redeemed us from the darkness in order that we may invite the whole world into the redeeming work of God. 

May you come to the Table of the Lord this morning and find in the eyes and hands and words of your brothers and sisters, and in the body and blood of our Lord, the mercy and grace and strength and courage and peace and love to be who you already are: the people of God.

"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV)