This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 5th Sunday of Easter, 9 May 2004; it also happened to be Mother’s Day. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 11: 1 – 18, Revelation 21: 1 – 6 and John 13: 31 – 35.
I know this is a strange way to start a sermon but I thought I would first discuss the fine art of setting the table. Now this discussion will focus on the simplest possible setting of one fork, one knife, and one spoon. I am quite capable, to the surprise of many, of setting an elegant table though I have yet to do the complete setting of salad fork, dinner forks, dessert spoon and fork, dinner knife, soup spoon, and teaspoon. I mention this because my mother insisted that I know how to do it. But for today, a simple setting will work best.
In the simplest setting, the fork is placed on the left side of the plate with the knife and spoon placed on the right side. This will work for every setting at the table unless someone at your table is like my youngest brother. When we set the table for dinner in our house, we had to take into consideration that Tim, the youngest of the three Mitchell boys, was left-handed. For him, we placed the fork on the right side of the plate with the knife and spoon on the left side. And to avoid collisions and conflicts with my other brother, we set Tim at the right side of the table and Terry on the left side.
Now, not every family has the problem but it was necessary if dinner in the Mitchell household during the fifties and sixties was to be quiet and peaceful. For the benefit of all the mothers here today and for my own mother, I use the term "quiet and peaceful" loosely. The seating of people at the dinner table, the cutlery used and how the cutlery is placed are critical social concerns. But the question of who would even sit at the table was a far greater issue for Peter and the early disciples of the church. At the time of the reading from the book of Acts for today, the church was divided between those who had become Christians after first being Jews and those who had first been Gentiles. Those who had been Jewish felt that one needed to hold on to the Jewish traditions and Jewish law of their forebears before they could be Christian. They insisted that those who were not Jewish first must become Jewish before they could be Christian.
But at the same time Paul was preaching to the Gentiles and telling them that it was all right to become Christian without first converting to Judaism. This difference was not a small difference of opinion; it wasn’t even a polite discussion of the issues. It was a major division, as emphasized by the fact that Luke, the writer of Acts, wrote about Peter’s vision twice, and it threatened to tear apart the church before the church had really even started.
Luke found it necessary to repeat the story because Peter had broken basic Jewish tradition by entering the home of a Gentile Christian and eating dinner with him. For many Jews, Christian or otherwise, this was forbidden by Jewish laws. But the Levitical laws upon which this judgment was based were never intended to teach ostracism. In repeating the account of Peter’s vision, Luke was showing how God had set him free from bigotry.
But, even today, some two thousand years or so after this occurrence in the early days of the church, we are a community of believers whose thoughts about the laws of God threaten to divide and destroy the church. It almost seems as if we have forgotten Jesus’ own words to us, the message of the Gospel for today to love one another just as we were loved by Him and God the Father.
The New York Times yesterday noted that the delegates to the General Conference in Pittsburgh voted against a call to split the church. It seems that conservative delegates to the General Conference had brought a motion before the floor that would split the United Methodist Church into two separate denominations, based on the views of the members on the issue of homosexuality. Though this motion was overwhelmingly defeated, those who brought the motion before the floor have said that they will spend the next few years meeting with disaffected congregations and will probably seek to form a newer and more conservative branch of Methodism. (The New York Times, May 8, 2004)
But even this single issue is but one reason why people do not come to church. They see in the church an organization that excludes people for any number of reasons. Even after forty years, the 10 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is still considered the most segregated hour in this country. It seems that despite all of our intellect, all of our claiming that we are God’s servants, we are not always willing to accept other people’s ideas. It is not to say that we should accept clearly evil or wrong ideas but we should realize that other people have ideas as well. Many of the today’s problems stem from an unwillingness of some to accept the notion that other people have ideas about God and Christ that may differ from our own ideas.
Perhaps instead of judging the worthiness of those who are different, we should look at our own lives and the opportunities that are presented to us each day. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who was killed by those opposed to his work with the poor and underclass, the ongoing process of conversion is itself the meaning of church: "One cannot be part of this church without being faithful to [Jesus'] manner of passing from death to life, without a sincere movement of conversion and of fidelity to the Lord." Both the disciples and Romero had to rethink their preconceived notions about what – and who – makes the church. (Adapted from "Living the Word", Sojourners, May 2004.)
When we come to the communion table in the United Methodist Church, we are reminded that it is an open table. This means that anyone who is a member of any church, be it a United Methodist Church or otherwise, may celebrate communion with us. The only requirement for coming to this table is that one comes with a open heart, confessing of their sins, and receptive to the power of the Holy Spirit. There was some discussion at General Conference about closing the table in the United Methodist Church but I do not think anything came about from that thought.
And I hope that it doesn’t; because to do so would to take away the very essence of what the Gospel message is about and it is to say to some that they are not welcome in this or any other church. I certainly hope that we never close the table in the United Methodist Church; for to so would send a message of exclusion when openness is needed.
I do not know what your experiences with other denominations are but I have come close to being denied communion on two occasions. The first occurred when I was in college; the second just after I started my preaching career.
When I was in college, I would attend the Roman Catholic services at the Newman Center. I knew the campus priest through other church contacts and the services were very informal. This allowed me the "thrill" of attending church wearing blue jeans. Now, I must admit that I am wholly uncomfortable doing so now but college was a time of breaking away from the old and moving towards the new.
I asked the priest if he would give me communion. He replied that he would not, because I was not Roman Catholic. I also think that he knew that I was testing him and communion is not a test between you and the minister. He was right to say that he would deny me communion because my reasons for coming to the table were not the proper ones.
The second time was in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. The Missouri Synod closes the table to only the members of that church; Lutherans from other churches and others must get permission from the Lutheran minister before coming to the altar rail. In this particular church, the minister had students home from college pulled out of the line because they had not gotten permission before hand. Since I knew the rules and wanted to observe communion, I met with this minister before hand to get permission. Because he knew of my background, his questions went beyond the normal questions asked of others.
Here he was testing me in a manner that would not have been done to others. I knew the answers he wanted to hear and I was reluctantly granted permission. But I said that I would never go back to that church on a communion Sunday because the spirit for receiving communion was not there.
But, having described those instances where I would have been denied communion, I have to confess there have been times when I would have denied communion to someone else. Several years ago, a member of the congregation that I was also a member of was working against those who sought to save and revitalize the church. In one sense, it was a matter of power. For the revitalization of the church would ultimately strip this individual of the power they had gathered over the years. In the confession that is a part of the communion ritual, we speak of opening our hearts and confessing our sins. I could not see how, in light of this person’s actions, how they could come to the table or why they should be allowed to come to the table. But I was reminded that such decisions were not up to me nor anyone else in the church; if this person wished to have communion and not confess their sins or come to the table with an open heart, so be it. Judgment will be made but it will done by an authority more powerful than I.
Communion means three things to me. First, it is the essential reminder in my life that Christ died for my sins, even before I was ever on this earth. He died for my sins so that I would be free. It is a reminder that communion is a community event.
There is no way that one can have communion singularly. It has to be done in some sort of community, even if the community is only you and the minister.
I do not know the circumstances that put Thomas G. Pettepiece in jail but he wrote
Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.
There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion — without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: "We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet." Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. "We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine," I told them, "but we will act as though we had."
"This meal in which we take part," I said, "reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class."
I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our moths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. "Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us."
We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: "You people have something special, which I would like to have." The father of the dead girl came up to me and said: "Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road." (From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece)
It was the celebration of the community of believers in the most trying of times that brought solace and hope to one and the promise of a better life to another. I don’t think that such results could have been achieved without the community of believers.
The third thing that communion means to me is expressed by John in his words from the Book of Revelations. Christ represents a new beginning; no longer will the old ways hold meaning. In Christ, we have the promise of eternal life; in Christ, our fears are relieved. But the promises of the new beginning can only be true if we hold to the true meaning of the Gospel.
And the true meaning of the Gospel is to have this table open. You may feel that you are not worthy of coming to the communion table today but that is the one reason you should come. The poet Gary Holthaus wrote,
"The good news is tonight I am going to create a sustaining community among you. It will not depend on your always being faithful or perfect or good, or right, powerful, or unblemished or pure.
It will not depend on your holding an advanced degree or your wealth, your skin color, sexual orientation, gender, or religion.
It depends on two things: your willingness to share and your memory of me. (Adapted from "The Sustaining Community" by Gary Holthaus, in Connections, September 2002.)
We did not set this table; rather Christ set it. He, through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection invites us to set at His table. Through his baptism, death on the cross, and resurrection brings to us a new world, free from pain and death through sin. We leave this table a forgiven and risen people, empowered to take the Gospel into the world, to share with others what we have gained today. Christ invites us and asks us to have others sit with us. Who will sit at your table?