A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Place at the Table, Part Four
July 21, 2016
This week we conclude our series on “A Place at the Table” that emerged from last month’s General Assembly. We have considered how our leadership table is being enlarged, the challenge of broadening our membership table, and the missionary call to bring others to the Lord’s table. Finally, we need to ask ourselves – are we really up for this?
Our natural inclination is to gravitate to the company of people like us. I’m told that there is a “Steeler Nation” bar in every major city in the country, as well as a number of cities abroad. We love to be with people who share our deepest commitments, whether it be sports teams, hobbies, politics, economics, or theology. We feel vindicated when everyone around us shares our own preferences and convictions.
In order to assure that our table feels as comfortable as possible, we create rules – whether official or unspoken – to minimize conflict in the inner sanctums of our most cherished institutions. Troublesome reporters, not to mention counter-demonstrators, are barred from some political rallies. People who violate unwritten dress codes may as well never approach the narthex, let alone enter the sanctuary of some churches. Clubs and fraternal organizations control membership by establishing particular social, demographic, and economic hurdles. We feel best about ourselves and our society when we surround ourselves with people who look, think, and act like we do.
To broaden the table is to open ourselves to struggle. Sitting beside people who think or look or act differently from us makes us uncomfortable at first, which all too easily leads us to become defensive and argumentative. Why risk such discomfort and trouble? Why deny ourselves the peace and pleasure of restricting our table to those who are like us?
“Jesus” is the answer, of course. He refused to honor the table boundaries of his world, touching all manner of people considered “unclean,” socializing with sinners and Pharisees and Samaritans alike, welcoming children and women to sit at his feet as disciples (unthinkable in his culture), assuring criminals of heaven’s mercy, and the list goes on. Of course, the thanks he earned was getting himself killed.
When Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven is drawing near, he tore down not only money-changer tables and temple curtain-barriers, but every political and religious system that is defined and maintained by separating who’s “in” from who’s “out.” He reminded the people of his place and time of the wideness of God’s mercy, a wideness that had been there all along, but had been forgotten and eventually denied by those who ought of all people to know better.
The early Christian church believed that every member of the body is needed for the health of the whole. It discovered that God gives the church everything it needs to be a true signpost to the kingdom of heaven, by gifting the church with a full panoply of members with differing abilities, pedigrees, styles, and priorities. This is the work of God’s Spirit. We align ourselves with God’s work when we welcome fully at the table all those who place their hope and trust in Jesus.
While this teaching about the variety of spiritual gifts is present from Acts to Revelation, it is most fully developed in the books of Romans and Corinthians. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the churches in Rome and Corinth were noteworthy for both their vitality and their struggles – the vast variety of people that God brought together in those churches may well have been the source of both their great spiritual power and their human divisiveness alike.
When we open our church table to be as wide as our Lord’s Table, we open ourselves to a journey that is sure to be bumpy. We will jostle one another. We will disagree. We will have differing priorities. Genuine unfettered welcome is the hard way. But it is the necessary way, if we seek to exhibit the kingdom of heaven in how we live together on earth. It is how we put our feet to our prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Imagine the church as a true signpost of the kingdom in which people stream from all points on the geographical and demographic map to sit together at the Lord’s Table. (Luke 13:29) Imagine! In the wonderful translation of J.B. Phillips, Paul declares that “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the children of God coming into their own.” (Romans 8:19) To put it another way, the world yearns for us to be true to the kingdom of God that we proclaim. Are we up to it?
For the sake of God’s reign,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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