Thank God for the Table

We Disciples are people of the table. Anytime we gather for worship, we gather around the table of Christ. That’s not to say that we aren’t people of the book who listen carefully for the word of God when Scripture is read. Nor is it to say that we aren’t people of the cross who see the mercy of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus. Nor is it to say that we aren’t people of the living word whom we follow and obey. Nor are we saying that other traditions within the church aren’t people of the table. Rather our particular Disciples witness among our brothers and sisters is that all of us are indeed people of the table. Our unity in Christ is not reflected in a book of confessions or a book of common prayer, a catechism or a list of fundamentals, a hymnal or a bishop. Our unity is embodied in our coming to the table where Christ is the host and the gift. Our unity is lived before it becomes a matter of belief and division and labor for reunification.

When Disciples are asked about our particular witness within the one church of Jesus Christ, we point to the table. More than by any particular doctrine or set of doctrines, we are people shaped by this meal we call the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Communion. And we proclaim the gospel of salvation in terms of God’s desire to heal our sinful divisions with the radical hospitality of God’s mercy. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Jesus’ opponents grumbled, and we gladly make their angry complaint our grateful confession.

World Communion Sunday was first celebrated by the Presbyterian Church in this country, but it was quickly adopted by other traditions and by the body which later became the National Council of Churches. World Communion Sunday is a special Sunday in many churches around the globe, but for us Disciples, it has become one of our high holidays. We remember and give thanks that the table is not ours, yet entirely for us; the table is not the church’s but God’s for all the world’s peoples. It is a table of reconciliation, set for us right on the lines that divide us from God and from one another, in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the first day.

We come to the table with thanksgiving for the ministry of Jesus Christ who restores and renews all of creation; with thanksgiving for the church’s witness in worship and service around the world. We come with deep gratitude for the tangible assurance of forgiveness the table represents; for the solemn proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes; for the joyful celebration of God’s new creation in the midst of the old; for the foretaste of the heavenly feast on earth. It’s World Communion Sunday and so we come to this moment primed to explore the fullness of joy and fellowship of eating at the welcome table. Until the gospel is read and we have heard Jesus’ “who among you” question and all that follows.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’” Do you cringe when you hear this question? I do. At one level Jesus is talking to the apostles, asking them to imagine themselves to be masters, slave-owners, small landowners who have just one slave to do all the work in the field and around the house. Is he also asking you and me to pretend for a moment that we are masters whose slave is coming in from a hot day of plowing or tending the sheep? Is he also asking you and me this rhetorical question whether we would say to our slave, “Come here, get some rest, get something to eat”? If that’s what’s going on here, he better be ready for me to say, “Well, yes, I think I would fix some dinner for the two of us and the rest of the household, and then we’d all sit down and eat and drink.” But Jesus insists that I stay in character, hard as that might be, and perhaps it wasn’t quite as hard in the first century when the entire economic, political, and social reality was organized around master/slave relationships. He insists that you and I stay in character and know that our role requires that we say to the slave, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.”

And then Jesus asks, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” You may want to say yes, but by now you know that you’re probably supposed to say no; you’re a slave owner, after all, and the slave only did what was expected. Perhaps you caught the end of that question where Jesus speaks of doing what was commanded. That’s the point where the whole thing flips.

You can stop trying to pretend you’re a slave owner, because now Jesus addresses you as a disciple who knows the commandments, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”

Now this short scene is nobody’s favorite Jesus story, but it’s part of his teaching whether I like it or not. It is good for us to think about our obligations as servants of God and what motives we have for doing what God commands. Do I expect to be recognized for doing what is my job as a disciple of Jesus? Will there be a disciples hall of fame in the kingdom? Do I expect God to be grateful? What does that even mean? Those are good, important questions to ask.

We have heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and we understand that God’s commandments call us to see the great chasms between us and to reach across them with kindness. We know that Jesus commands us to forgive again and again, it’s what disciples do. Fred Craddock says in his commentary,

There is no place or time, therefore, at which the disciple can say, “I have completed my service; now I want to be served.”[1]

Yes, we are called to serve, and our service is not a part-time job or a hobby, but an essential aspect of how we live our days in relationship with God and with one another. Service is not just something we do but at the heart of who we are; we are servants.

All the more important then, how we think about the master of all these servants. Is he a master like the slave-owner in the scene Jesus describes in his teaching? Is he one who sits and commands and waits to be waited on and waits for us to say, “We are worthless slaves”?

Worthless. In some of the early gospel manuscripts the word has been erased from the text, probably because the scribes who copied them understood that no one for whom Jesus died can be called worthless, no matter if it’s another person who does the calling or they themselves. Worthless doesn’t sound like lowly or humble which certainly belong in the gospel vocabulary. Worthless triggers echoes of replaceable, disposable, expandable, useless, throwaway. Worthless is a terrible word when used for a human being, or for anything else God has made, for that matter.

The master/slave relationship defined life in the Roman Empire in significant ways; it was so commonplace that it found its way into many of Jesus’ stories. It was a reality his audience was familiar with, but it wasn’t a reality he sanctioned.

Thank God for the table where the imagery of master and slave is shattered. Thank God for the table where the conventional arrangements of who eats first are overturned. Thank God for the table where the master and his servants gather, and the cross is not far, and they eat and drink together. “Who is greater?” the Master asks, “the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” We have all been taught well in the school of power and status, and we’re all ready to shout the right answer; it’s how the world works after all!

But Jesus speaks before we can repeat again the answer the masters of the world have taught us to give, and he says, “I am among you as one who serves.”

In the kingdom he proclaims and lives, there is no upstairs and downstairs. His kingdom isn’t an empire of masters and servants. His kingdom is one in which we learn how to serve one another by following the master who is among us as one who serves. The table is his and he invites the nations of the world to come from east and west, from north and south, to eat and drink in the kingdom of God, and the master, the Prince of Peace waits on us.


[1] Luke (Interpretation), p. 200