This Fellow Welcomes Sinners

The film begins with somber scenes from Depression-era, small-town Texas. Somewhere, a congregation is singing “Blessed Assurance,” and as the hymn ends, we see a family at the dinner table saying grace – mom, dad, and their two children. The peace of the Spalding family’s Sunday supper won’t last though.

Mr. Spalding is the sheriff, and he is called to talk some sense into Wiley, a young man who had a couple of drinks too many and is down by the train tracks playing with a gun. Soon, both men are dead: Sheriff Spalding is accidentally shot, and Wiley, who is black, is lynched.

The name of the film is Places in the Heart and it tells the story of Edna Spalding’s struggle to not lose her farm and keep her family together. Times are hard, and lovelessness and prejudice battle relentlessly against decency and friendship: Edna’s brother-in-law, Wayne is unfaithful to Margaret, her sister and best friend. Mr. Denby, the banker, shows no mercy as the date of her mortgage payment draws near and foreclosure looms on the horizon. A group of Klansmen is barely prevented from killing Moze, the black man who has helped her bring in a good crop of cotton. The film depicts a world in the grip of sin, that ungodly power that threatens to destroy whatever love creates and builds.

In the final scene, it is Sunday again and a congregation is gathered for worship. The preacher rises to read the lesson from 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient; love is kind, love is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude. Love never ends.” We watch Margaret quietly putting her hand in Wayne’s, and we see forgiveness at work against unfaithfulness. They celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and Wayne passes the bread and the tray of cups to his wife. The bread and wine continue from hand to hand through the congregation to Mr. Denby, the banker and to Moze, and to some men whose faces we don’t recognize – perhaps because in previous scenes they kept them hidden behind white hoods – and finally to Edna Spalding. She turnes and serves her husband, the sheriff, who is now seated beside her, and he then serves Wiley. “Peace of God,” they say, “Peace of God.” And all is well.

There is hope for us because the love of God is stronger than sin. God’s faithfulness and mercy restore the sabbath peace, and all is well.

At the table of the Lord
we celebrate with thanksgiving
the saving acts and presence of Christ.

We call it the Lord’s Supper, Mass, Holy Communion, Eucharist, or the breaking of the bread, but the first thing we affirm as Disciples is that the table is the Lord’s, not our’s. The supper is the Lord’s, not the church’s. Christ is the host, and we are all guests. Christ is the gift, and we are all beggars. That may well be the hardest thing for us to remember.

When it comes to tables, we have rules. Not just rules about where to put the napkin and what fork to use for the salad. We have family rules about who gets to sit at the dining room table and who has to eat in the kitchen. We have “good society” rules about whom to invite to the dinner party and how to graciously decline an invitation from the wrong kind of people. We have house rules about who gets to eat first and who has to wait. The rich man feasts with his friends, and Lazarus sits outside with the dogs – we know the rules.

Food is much more than just the stuff we need to fuel our bodies. Food is our chance to choose our company. Sharing food is about belonging, about power and privilege. At the table of the Lord, it is Jesus who chooses his company. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries noticed what they considered a significant lack of judgment on his part in choosing the people he ate with.

Jesus was notorious for his table manners. He knew the food rules of his culture; he knew the laws of ritual purity as well as the laws of social status. He didn’t ignore these rules, he broke and obliterated them. He was indeed very careful in choosing the people he ate with, and the absence of judgment some people noticed was intentional.

Jesus proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near,” and he healed the sick, cast out demons, fed the hungry, and forgave sins. Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s sovereign reign, and wherever he went, it arrived. Eating with people he befriended them and they tasted the grace of God. Breaking bread with sinners, Jesus ended their exclusion from the company of the righteous and they became members of the household of God. Eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus demonstrated “in his own person what acceptance by the merciful God and the forgiveness of sins means: it means being invited to the great festal supper in the kingdom of God. Forgiveness of sins, and eating and drinking in the kingdom of God are two sides of the same thing.”[1]

Not all who witnessed his actions were happy. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they grumbled.[2] From their lips, it was an expression of pious outrage, but even in their anger they proclaimed the hope of our salvation: Jesus Christ welcomes sinners and eats with them.

On the night before he died, Jesus had a meal with his disciples, one more link in a chain of meals connecting his ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem. During that meal he did what the host was expected to do: he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends. It was the common way of beginning a dinner. But then he said the words identifying himself with the bread, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”[3]

At the end of the meal he raised the cup and gave thanks to God; it was the common way of ending a dinner. But then he gave it to the disciples and said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[4]

He had a meal with his friends – Judas who would betray him, Peter who would deny him, and the others who would abandon him and flee.[5] That night, knowing that the disciples would not come through, Jesus made the supper at his table the visible, tangible, and edible sign of reconciliation. Foreseeing their fear, their helplessness, and their lostness – and we know that their fear is ours, that we are just as helpless and lost as they were; we know that neither friendship nor discipleship are dependable – foreseeing their despair over their failure, he gave them, he gave us the gift of communion with him.

When we break the bread and share the cup in remembrance of his birth, his words and deeds, his death and resurrection, he is with us to strengthen and encourage us, to help us up and to help us through, and to send us anew on our mission of witness and service.

He is also with us to open our eyes. Some have read the gospels and concluded that it was the Jews who are responsible for Jesus’ death. Others read the same gospels and concluded that it was the Romans who are responsible for Jesus’ death. We ask, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” but we need to ask, “Who wasn’t there when we crucified our Lord?” As those who, as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, proclaim the Lord’s death, we know that we are all responsible.[6] We can’t point fingers at Judas and Peter, Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, the priests and elders and soldiers and the crowd, because we are them. It was religion, law, politics, and public opinion that worked hand in hand to get rid of him. Sin corrupts our institutions and our best intentions, and we can do our worst when we think we are only doing what is right.

At the table we look at bread and wine, representing God’s gifts of creation and human culture, but we also see creation’s brokenness and the human destruction of relationship to God. We come face to face with God’s peace and human violence. We celebrate with open eyes, knowing that we are sinners, the saving acts and presence of Christ: God does not abandon us to the destructiveness of sin, the destructiveness of our wanting to be human without God. In communion with Christ we are delivered from the night of God-forsakenness and from the triumph of sin and death.

At the table, the past becomes present but no longer to imprison us in the memory of our failures and our broken promises, but to free us with the knowledge of God’s mercy. The future also becomes present, the sabbath of fulfillment and complete joy lights up the present moment, drives away the shadows of fear and doubt, and we are ready once again to be God’s people in the world.

At the table of the Lord we receive and proclaim God’s unconditional acceptance of human beings who have fallen under the power of sin, and in Christ’s name we invite the whole world to this celebration of what it is to become – one reconciled humanity in God’s new creation.
Times are hard, lovelessness and selfishness battle as mercilessly as ever against neighborliness and friendship. But the Supper is a living memory of God’s power to create and redeem, and among those who gather and serve each other in the name of Christ it announces the new day.

“Peace of God,” they say, “Peace of God.”

And there’s a seat at the table for every last one of us.

[1] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 115
[2] Luke 15:2
[3] Luke 22:19
[4] Matthew 26:27-28
[5] See Welker, What Happens in Holy Communion, p. 71
[6] See 1 Corinthians 11:26