Friday, July 16, 2010

Eucharistic Hospitality -- Oneness at an Open Table

In light of the conversation that is beginning to emerge here about worship, liturgy, and sacraments, I'm going to put up a series of posts that hopefully will continue the conversation.  As you consider these posts, I'd like to remind you to keep in mind the series of essays that Keith Watkins is beginning to post on worship for progressive churches.

I have already offered posts on "liturgical order and the nature of the church" and "becoming Christ's Body at the Table," both of which make use of material from Keith Watkins' Celebrate with Thanksgiving.   Now I'd like to take the discussion in a bit different direction and take a look at the idea of open table fellowship.  Many traditions hold that the eucharist is a sacred meal reserved for members, those who are baptized, or those who share their theology.  I do believe that the eucharistic meal is sacred and I do believe that we encounter the living Christ in the context of the meal, but I also believe that we should follow Jesus' precedent, and not close off our dining partners.  Jesus was known for eating with "sinners and tax collectors."  So, while the call for an open table is at odds with a lot of historical precedent, I believe that it is in line with the biblical testimony, especially with Jesus' own experience at the table.

Bonnie Thurston who is both a biblical scholar and a Disciple writes that "Jesus' willingness to share table fellowship with a variety of people was a way of demonstrating his love." Such actions had much more symbolic value and meaning than today, but I think it still has importance.
She writes further:

The table fellowship of the Lord's Supper was a visible manifestation of what the church, as preface to the kingdom, was to be. Here was enacted the original intention of the covenant as spelled out by the Torah, that Israel would be a community of equals under God. In the early church's thinking, the conventional barriers between people had been broken down by Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). To sit down together at their Lord's Table was to live out that fellowship, to express koinonia in spite of economic, social, and cultural differences. To partake in the Lord's Supper was to be at one with Christ in his sacrifice and to share by anticipation the fruits of his passion in the messianic meal in the kingdom. But it was also to be brought into wholeness with those who would come to share that final, eschatological banquet. At his table, the Lord's people were "remembered," brought together in a visible symbol of equality and oneness. [Bonnie Thurston, Spiritual Life in the Early Church, Fortress Press, 1993, pp. 49-50]
If there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ, then surely we can say the same today -- so that when we come to the table there is no longer Disciple or Catholic, Presbyterian or Baptist, Methodist or Episcopalian, Pentecostal or Lutheran.  Surely the table of Jesus can and should be a table of unity, a table where hospitality is shown to all. 

1 comment:

John said...

Bob,

Paul suggests that to participate without discerning the body was to take upon one's self guilt for the Lord's death. I have heard some suggest that spiritual calamity will happen to someone who ingests the elements without proper theological education about the mystery in which they are participating. I have heard many others suggest that those Christians who stand by and allow an improper person to ingest the elements have themselves sinned against the Lord.

Personally I reject these positions as motivated by superstition or a selfish (or self-involved) desire to exclude. Instead I hold an admittedly radical belief in the absolute openness of the Table.

Jesus dined with friends and enemies, with believers, seekers, and deniers. It could be argued that all of Jesus' meals were not intended to be sacramental, but who is to say? Is not the very presence of the Lord sacramental?

As for the risk of sacrilege or polluting the elements by pagan or impure contact - be serious! If the Lord is present do you really think that contact with the "unclean" is going to interfere with the Lord's work? And do you really want to have a debate about who is unclean or what constitutes impurity? More importantly, can the Lord be polluted? In fact isn't the reverse more likely to happen, that the Lord will come into the impure and pagan and cause a transformation to occur there? What is more likely to occur: that the impure will transform the Lord or that the Lord will transform the impure? In fact, I am convinced into the depths of my heart that the greater likelihood is that consumption of the elements can and does eventually have a transformative effect on these who most need transformation.

I cannot even pretend to argue the position of those who see calamity, physical or spiritual, for those who improperly consume the elements - even Paul claims too much. Who can we say FULLY discerns the body? Isn't it true that we only dimly perceive the truth. Is someone whose vision is worse than mine at greater spiritual risk? Who said my vision was better than someone else's. What arrogance! And what of those who see the elements as a mere remembrance - can they claim to perceive the body at all? Especially against those Christians who perceive the actual body and blood in the elements?

I am convinced that to exclude someone from the table is to undermine the very intentions and purposes of the whole sacramental experience. There is the sin.

John