02 April 2010

Table Fellowship

Luke 22: 7-23

Maundy Thursday / 1st April 2010

Table fellowship stands at the center of Luke’s gospel, at the core of his theology. Significant moments occur around a table, over a meal. The breaking of the bread, the sharing of a cup, something so ordinary, something, as they say in Britain, “dead common,” becomes an occasion for revelation and insight, for truth, for life. Early on, Christians knew there are things of God that can only be known around a table, because it was around the table with Jesus that they discovered something of God. It was on Easter evening Luke tells us in chapter 24, that Jesus was known among his disciples. They didn’t find him at the empty tomb, but on their way, on their journey to some other place, running away from the hurt and pain of Jerusalem. It wasn’t in Jerusalem but in Emmaus that the disciples encountered Jesus while they were sharing a simple meal. When Jesus as their guest breaks some bread, that simple gesture triggers a memory of a meal when he was the host. They had seen those hands before.

Why didn’t they recognize him from the start? We don’t know. That’s not Luke’s point; that’s not Luke’s question. It’s the breaking that matters. How many times before had the disciples had occasion to share a meal with Jesus, to watch him eat? The gesture in Emmaus prompts a memory. When was the last time we witnessed the Lord break bread and share a cup of blessing in this way? On the very night that we commemorate tonight, of course. For Luke, there’s something about the breaking that has profound theological significance.

Jesus, the one who was broken for us, is found in the broken places of our lives. Certainly not only there, but maybe especially there. The Passover meal, indeed, any ordinary meal is transformed into an occasion for encounter with the Risen Lord. He is known in the breaking. We are known by him in the breaking. We remember that he knows our brokenness, bears our grief and sorrow, and promises to be there too. This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God. It’s why table fellowship, Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper is more than a just a “memorial meal.” Tonight, we are not just remembering as in recollecting what took place long ago tonight, we are literally re-membering (member to member), reconnecting with him, even now participating in the presence of the same Lord who broke bread with his disciples then, his disciples now. And he is reaching out, connecting with us, participating in our lives. So we offer thanks.

Yet, there’s one dimension to table fellowship that’s easy for us to miss. Yes, Jesus is known in the breaking, broken for us. But we can’t forget that Jesus had a meal with and went searching for the very ones who broke him; his own disciples who betrayed him, denied him, abandoned him, who really let him down, the ones who could not stay awake to pray with him throughout the night. He eats with the one who will break and has broken him.

I can’t help but think of Psalm 23 here, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.” In Jesus’ time, in David’s time, one never shared a table, shared a meal with one’s enemies – only with ones friends. When former enemies share a table, that’s the sign of peace, the sign of reconciliation. For example, remember when Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995) and Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) famously shook hands on the White House lawn (13 September 1993), after signing the Declaration of Principle for Peace between Arabs and Israelis? The world thought for sure this remarkable hand-shake marked the beginning of a new day of concord. After the handshake, they went their separate ways. If it was really a sign of reconciliation, they would have shared a meal together – which they didn’t.

That Jesus seeks out the very ones who betrayed and broke him, pursues them not to condemn or to seek revenge against them, but only for the reason that he desired to dwell and live and share a meal with people he loved, this is an enormously profound expression of grace, of forgiveness. In this simple yet profound gesture we get a glimpse of what God is like. That Jesus could say at the Passover meal in an upper room, “Thanks to God,” even knowing his disciples will all scatter, even knowing that Judas will betray him, yet he can give thanks to God for the bread, for the cup, for the opportunity to share a meal with the very people (although sinful) he nevertheless loves, loves so much that he is willing to suffer and endure the humiliation of a cross – is amazing. His thanksgiving is the only response he gives to all the sin that broke him that night. (1) When he returns to meet his betrayers, it’s with forgiveness, with grace, with reconciliation.

The One who invites us to do this in remembrance of him sits at table with us as true friend. We come in our sin and our brokenness, all the ways we betray him, betray ourselves, betray one another both, which are also betrayals of him (to betray our neighbor, to betray ourselves, is to betray him). Jesus invites knowing all of this and yet he says, “Pull up a chair, my friend, allow me to serve you. Not as enemy, but friend. Here is bread. Here is wine. Receive grace. Receive forgiveness.” This is what it’s like to experience the kingdom of God. Early on, Christians knew there are things of God that can only be known around a table, because it was around a table with Jesus that they discovered something of God. Some things never change.


Image: Caravaggio (1571-1610), "Supper at Emmaus," (1601).

1. Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2001), “How could Jesus say thanks in that night and by means of proleptic [future] death? What does this mean about the human gesture of thanks, giving thanks from the bottom of a desperately unfolding experience of abandonment and suffering, to render the heart back even and precisely in this moment? What is overflowing here, what is wrung from the heart in helpless gratitude for a gift? Only the night stares in his eyes. And yet he gives thanks." (255).

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