Saturday, August 15, 2015

Eucharist, Boundaries, and the Open Table

I would say that a majority of progressive/liberal leaning Mainline Protestant churches practice an open table of some sort. We're long past the day when denominational differences preclude coming to the Table. For many congregations the invitation may be given to all baptized Christians or perhaps simply Christians in general. Others of us, believe that the Table is open to all, drawing the circle of inclusion as wide as possible. It's not that we don't take the Table seriously, we simply believe that it is inappropriate to bar people from the Table.  We may do this as an expression of hospitality (or simply out of a desire to be nice), but do we have a theology of the Open Table?  That is a question that I am pursuing with some earnestness with members of the congregation (we're working on a worship  vitality grant application that seeks to link our Table practices with our Missional calling). 

As part of my reading for this effort I have been reading Dennis Smith's book From Symposium to Eucharist (Fortress Press, 2003). Smith argues that the Christian Eucharist is not simply a recreation of the Passover meal, but is an expression of the Greco-Roman banquet. I've not finished the book, but I think that Smith may be on to something.  I will be writing about this with some regularity in the near future, and I begin with this quotation in which Smith points to the work of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas concerning banquets and boundaries.

As Mary Douglas notes, the defining of boundaries is primary to the social code of banquets. That is to say, whom one dines with defines one's placement in a larger set of social networks. Because of the clear boundary-defining symbolism of table fellowship in the ancient world, banquets became a significant feature of various identifiable social groups. The social code of the banquet represents a confirmation and ritualization of the boundaries that exist in a social situation.
[Dennis E. Smith. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World(Kindle Locations 154-156). Kindle Edition.]
Boundaries come in many forms -- many of them social in nature. This seems to be one of the issues at Corinth, where Paul is dealing with the way the Lord's Supper is being shared. There appear to be issues of wealth and social stratification there. At Antioch it might be more religious. In any case, boundaries are set. This is not unusual. It is part of the deal. It would appear however that both Jesus and Paul set out to undermine the normal boundary markers. On the other hand, as time went on, in the Christian community, boundaries were set up. People could be "excommunicated," which meant that they were excluded from the Table. 

So here's a question for us -- is it appropriate for Jesus followers to set up boundary markers? What is the theological foundation for doing so? Is it age (what age can children take communion?) Is it belief? If boundaries are set, who gets to set them? Did Jesus set them?  Yes, what is our theology of the Table?

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