One Blood, One Spirit
Pentecost XIX (O. T. 26); September 30, 2018
John 17:20-23 with Mark 8:1-9
This is the last week in our series "A Place at the Table;" today's theme is "Extending the Table," and the part of the communion prayer that we focus on is the second idea in the prayer for the Holy Spirit: we pray for the Holy Spirit to make us one. There is one loaf and one body; one Lord; and we pray that the Holy Spirit will make us one in ministry and in witness. That is how this Table extends: it extends throughout the world.
Last week we did something new in extending this Table: our deacons and ruling elders took the communion we shared Sunday morning to homebound members on Sunday afternoon. Seven teams took communion to fourteen of our folks. This is an exciting new ministry of our Church and will be a regular part of our care for our people, extending the Table to those who are physically unable to be present with us on the Lord's Day. We will do this again in December. I express the Church's appreciation to Deacon Carol Nelson for doing the heavy lifting, the organizing of this ministry, and to the many who have been trained and volunteered to participate in this ministry.
But for the rest of this sermon I want to come back to the idea of extending the Table around the world; specifically, that the Holy Spirit extends this Table across all the boundaries that we set up around it. You heard Andy read the story of the feeding of the 4,000; last Sunday we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44). On a surface reading, the two stories sound almost identical, even to the details of how Jesus handled the bread and the fish. The only obvious difference is in numbers: he fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish and had twelve baskets of leftovers; he fed 4,000 with seven loaves and "a few" fish and had seven baskets of leftovers.
But there is a deeper, more important difference, that you notice only if you're reading the whole story as Mark intended it to be read: today's story happens in the Decapolis, which is Gentile territory. In the story we read last week, Jesus fed 5,000 Jews; in this week's story, he fed 4,000 Gentiles. Oh, in case you didn't know: "Gentile" means someone who is not a Jew, not part of the Chosen People. Jesus is the Messiah for the Jews; he's supposed to be looking after Jewish people. But here he is, in Gentile territory, and thousands of people that he's not supposed to associate with have spent three days listening to him teach, and he feeds them just as he fed his own people.
The Table crosses boundaries. Build a wall on the border and the Table of the Lord reaches through that wall. I saw a story that showed that literally: a priest celebrating Mass at the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana, passing the consecrated host through the fence. He was defying the law to do so, of course, but the Table of the Lord crosses boundaries. Whatever boundaries we create – nation, race, language, gender orientation, economic class – and the Table of the Lord bursts through. The Table crosses boundaries.
So we chose to read today a portion of the prayer Jesus made the night he was arrested, in which he prays for his people. The portion we chose is when he prays that God will make us all one: not the whole world, necessarily, but the people of Christ, "that they may become completely one." As I said, we pray that when we come to the communion table, pray that the Holy Spirit may make us all one. Jesus says a lot of pithy things about that unity in his prayer: that our unity is the result of being in him, that our unity comes from having the glory that God gave him, and that our unity is the sign to the world that Jesus truly is the Messiah. Do you notice what he doesn't say in his prayer? He doesn't say what programs you and I are supposed to enact in order to make that unity happen. Jesus prays for our unity; we pray for our unity.
So here is the picture for you to have, the picture that comes straight from the imagination of God: a simple, round Table, where all are equal, spread across boundaries of nation, race, class, gender identity, and every other division that has nothing to do with faith in Christ. And what does God demand of us to make that happen? Well, look again at the Scripture. For the four thousand to be fed, what did the disciples have to do? Get out of the way and let Jesus do it. For God to make us one, what do we need to do? Get out of the way and receive Christ's glory. For some things, it's good for us to adopt the old Nike motto of "Just do it." But for this? Our motto is, "Let God do it."
Because there is a powerful resistance in us to prevent God from making us one. That resistance is the tribalism of our human nature. Tribes have gotten bigger over the years: from clans to cities to ethnic groups to nation-states, but we still claim our tribes and prefer our tribes. Conflict and war are normal for human beings: we support our own tribe. But, people of God, when we receive the Holy Spirit that sets up a conflict within us, a tug of war between two opposing sides. Tug: we are pulled by our human nature toward tribalism; tug: we are pulled by the Holy Spirit toward unity. Tug, tug; tribalism, unity.
I don't see that we need studies and programs to live out our unity nearly so much as we need to surrender to the Holy Spirit and let God do it. The barriers to unity are within us, they are created by our human nature. Surrender to the Holy Spirit; God will extend the Table and make us one as God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is One.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master