A Place at Jesus' Table
Pentecost XVI (O. T. 23); September 9, 2018
My colleague told me a story that has aspects that really bothered me at the time, and still bother me today, but I'm telling that part of my head to shut up and listen for a deeper point. He said that one Sunday they were having communion in his church and they had a guest speaker who happened to be Jewish. My colleague invited this guest to take communion with them and he did. Afterward, the Jewish man expressed his gratitude for including him in the communion with Jesus, saying, "I've always wanted to have dinner with that man!"
He knew something many of us have not learned: communion is, among other things, dinner with Jesus. At the same time, communion is one of the most Jewish things we do in the Church. It displays themes that are central to the Jewish Bible: hospitality, food and drink, equality, and above all remembering the work of God. Our worship series this month focuses on communion, and will help us all understand a little more about why we do what we do.
One piece of Jewish background for our communion is the Passover. When Jesus inaugurated our communion observance, it was during a Passover celebration. Passover is a Jewish festival of freedom, of freedom from slavery; it begins by remembering God's actions to free God's people from slavery in Egypt. And our Jewish ancestors had a number of ways of reminding themselves of God's work. If you have Jewish friends or neighbors, you may have seen a small box or sign by the door of their house, or if you have come to my office here in the church you have seen one on the door frame to my office. This is called a mezuzah and it contains a quotation from the Torah: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and more. Jewish people touch the mezuzah as they enter and leave their homes, to remind themselves that the Lord is their God.
But the Worship Design Group and I chose for our first reading today a different piece of Torah, a different story from the Exodus: the giving of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:13-21). The people complained that God and Moses were not doing right by them, so God answered by giving them manna. There was enough every day, but no extra. The giving of manna reminds us that those who trust in God will have enough, but God's provision is for everyone to have enough, not for some to have too much and others to have too little. And so our communion prayer always begins by remembering that God is our Creator: that God has given us life, and God has given us bread and wine, and God has given us Jesus Christ, and God has given us each other. The Jewish people were commanded to keep some manna in a jar in the Tabernacle so they would always be reminded of the gifts of God (Exodus 16:33).
When we set the Table for communion, we set it with the gifts of God. If we are honest with ourselves, when we set the dinner table at home, we also set it with the gifts of God. The other day I harvested some cauliflower from my garden and we had it for dinner last evening. Sure, I planted and tended and harvested the cauliflower. But did I make the soil it grew in? Did I make it rain? Did I cause the sun to shine? No matter how much you and I think that we provide for ourselves, when we are honest we know that all good gifts come from heaven above.
So we set the Table with the gifts of God and we come to the Table, giving thanks to God for creation. But who gets to come to the Table? Who is invited? That is a theme we will explore this entire month: who has a place at the Table. For today I feel called to make just one point about the places at the Table: the chief place belongs to Jesus himself.
When Jesus said, "I go and prepare a place for you," we usually think of a bedroom in God's mansion, or perhaps a small mansion of our own. We usually read these words at a funeral, and think about our beloved deceased resting in peace in God's house, or perhaps enjoying the company of loved ones gone before in their own mansion. That's fine. But when the Worship Design Group and I were talking about this month's theme, "A Place at the Table," it hit me: the Bible's images for the heavenly kingdom are not separate rooms or mansions, primarily, but mostly dinner parties, wedding receptions. The place Jesus prepares for us, it seems to me, is a place at his banquet table. I love having dinner with friends; one of my favorite things about being a pastor is when the people of the church invite me to dinner in their homes. Imagine the glory of dinner with Jesus and all his people at the heavenly banquet table.
Well, I have thrown a lot of images and a lot of ideas at you this morning; this was what my preaching professor would have called a "shotgun sermon:" it sort of splattered all over the Sanctuary. Here's the main thing for you to take with you: when you are invited to this Table, you are invited to dinner with Jesus. A place at the Table is a place at Jesus' Table.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master