Sunday, October 5, 2014

God's Family Table (Matthew 26:20-35)

20 That evening he took his place at the table with the twelve disciples. 21 As they were eating he said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me.”

22 Deeply saddened, each one said to him, “I’m not the one, am I, Lord?”

23 He replied, “The one who will betray me is the one who dips his hand with me into this bowl. 24  The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

25 Now Judas, who would betray him, replied, “It’s not me, is it, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered, “You said it.”

26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” 27 He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. 28  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven. 29  I tell you, I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way with you in my Father’s kingdom.” 30 Then, after singing songs of praise, they went to the Mount of Olives.

31 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Tonight you will all fall away because of me. This is because it is written, I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions. 32  But after I’m raised up, I’ll go before you to Galilee.”

33 Peter replied, “If everyone else stumbles because of you, I’ll never stumble.”

34 Jesus said to him, “I assure you that, before the rooster crows tonight, you will deny me three times.”

35 Peter said, “Even if I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.” All the disciples said the same thing.


The children were gathered together in an interfaith learning group, to learn more about each other’s religious heritage.  For the first session, they were each asked to bring something from home that symbolized something important about their faith.  They went around the room; “I’m Catholic, and this is a rosary.”  “I’m Jewish, and this is a star of David.”  “I’m Buddhist, and this is a Lotus flower.”  “I’m Methodist, and this is a casserole dish.”


We joke, and yet the reality is that when the people of God share a meal together, we draw closer to God as we draw closer to one another.  Sharing food together is as much a part of our faith as attending worship or reading the Bible or tithing or acts of service and mission.  Whether we are out to eat, in someone’s home, in the fellowship hall, or having a cup of coffee together between services, when we eat together, we are drawn together.  At the table, something wonderful always happens, and nowhere is that truer than around the table of our Lord.  May we pray.


Think of the times your own family has gathered around the table.  No doubt you will think of holidays and birthdays and anniversaries and special occasions.  I always think of Thanksgiving Dinner at my Grandma’s house – with my aunts and uncles and cousins – half in the dining room at the adult table, half in the kitchen at the kid table.  I think of the joy and celebration – everyone excited to see each other and catch up, telling stories, cracking jokes, all talking at the same time such that I learned quickly that to take a breath in the middle of a story was to be left out of the conversation for the next 20 minutes.


I think about the mashed potatoes being passed to my Uncle John, and when he was finished, and my Grandma looking over and saying, “John, pass your plate” because there were more on his plate than left in the bowl.


I think about the dinners we’ve hosted in our home, how some of the traditions are the same as I remember from growing up, and yet some are different.  Every family has their own traditions and ways of celebrating around the table.  The details may vary from place to place, but other things are universal: togetherness, celebration, and love.


That can be true around God’s family table, as well.  The traditions and details of Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist) can vary from place to place.  The meal is often approached with questions and confusion – Who can receive Communion?  How old should someone be to receive Communion?  What if I feel unworthy?  What if I don’t understand it?  What if a non-believer receives it?  How often should we have it?  What’s the best method to receive it?  Wine or juice?  Standing or kneeling?  Common cup or shot glasses?  Wafers or bread?  Leavened or unleavened bread?


It’s easy to get lost in the details, and lose sight of the main thing: Holy Communion is a place where God promises to meet us and give us grace, to draw us closer to Christ and one another, to give us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.  It’s God’s Family Table – where we share in God’s love and grace in a real and tangible way.


In the United Methodist tradition, our practice is to have an open table – because this is a place to experience God’s love and grace, and we don’t want to deny anyone that opportunity.  God’s presence and grace are so real and tangible in the bread and wine that John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, went so far as to call Communion “a converting ordinance,” meaning that even an unbeliever could be brought to faith in Christ through the powerful grace of Communion.


For that reason, everyone is welcome at God’s family table.  Children, members of other churches and denominations, people who are not part of any church, those who are sitting in a church for the first time in their lives today, saints and sinners – all are welcome!


The table is not ours, it’s God’s!  We are not the host of the meal; Jesus is!  Jesus came for all, his grace is for all, and his grace is available at this table, which is why all are welcome at this table.


That makes some folks uncomfortable.  I’ve been asked by very well-meaning folks, “Pastor, what if unworthy people receive Communion?”


Well, how did Jesus handle it?  The scripture we read a few moments ago is Matthew’s account of what we commonly refer to as “The Last Supper.”  It is Jesus’ final meal with his closest followers and friends, a Passover celebration on the eve of his execution.  As you look around the table of those first disciples, realize that none of them was worthy of their place at the table with Jesus.  Judas, of course, is the one we single out.  Judas, the betrayer, the one who sold Jesus out for a few measly coins, Judas, the bad apple in an otherwise good bunch.


But friends, there was plenty of sin to go around the table that night.  The disciples had argued about who would get the most important, honorable place.  They had all refused to serve each other.  They had false expectations about him, even at that late hour.  They would fall asleep when Jesus told them to pray.  Peter would deny ever knowing him.  The others would abandon him and run for their own lives.  None of the disciples is any prize.  Not just Judas, but there is enough sin to go all the way around the table.


If the places at God’s family table were awarded based on who is worthy, then Jesus would have eaten that meal alone.  Jesus took his place at the table among those who would betray, deny, and desert him.  Even those closest to Jesus would let him down and disappoint him, and yet he expressed how much he wanted to eat that meal with them.


It’s particularly remarkable considering that in Middle Eastern culture, both in Jesus’ day and in ours, eating together is considered one of the most intimate thing you can do with someone else.  It is a way of signifying solidarity, unity, connection with another person.  To invite someone to your table and to share a meal with them is to bestow upon them a great honor.  With the peace talks that are on and off between Israel and Palestine, I can guarantee you that any time food is served, the Palestinians and Israelis will not eat together.  Eating together says, “We’re on the same page, we respect you, we honor you.”


That’s some real food for thought.  The saying goes, “You’re known by the company you keep.”  In the Scriptures, you’ll find Jesus keeping company, eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and every manner of sinner, every outcast, every social misfit, every disreputable character you could imagine.  Jesus doesn’t end up sitting with them by accident; he invites them to his table, he invites himself to their tables, even up to the last, he desires to eat a meal with people who would let him down in the biggest ways imaginable.


What if unworthy people receive Communion?  Who cares?  So what if they do?  It would be no different than that night Jesus was betrayed and gave himself for us.  Forgive my simple mind, but unworthy people at God’s family table – wouldn’t that be exactly what Jesus wanted?


Across the world and regardless of cultural context, the family table is a place where relationships are strengthened as bodies are fed.  It’s a place where love is as real as the food on the table.


If you can understand that, then you can understand the significance of what happens in Holy Communion - where God’s love and grace are as real as the food on the table.


We come to this table because we need God’s grace, not because we already have it figured out.  Wherever we are on our spiritual journey – just starting out, well along the path, not sure – we all need food for the journey, which is why we all need to come to this table.  Grace is the main course served here – it looks and tastes like bread and wine, but it’s the gracious and loving presence of Christ that’s being served in abundance at this table.


I don’t know about you, but I need all the grace I can get.  I am hungry for the presence of Christ in my life.  That’s why I make sure to receive Communion every opportunity I have.  Every time this meal is available, we, as the people of God are invited to receive it in faith that Christ is really present, and that grace is being served.


Sometimes I hear people say they don’t want to have Communion too often because “then it won’t be as special.”  Let me ask you this: how much of God’s grace is too much of God’s grace?  John Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to celebrate “constant communion,” meaning, if it’s available, you go and receive – in order to receive the grace available.  Wesley was known to receive Communion several times a week.  Methodist laypeople were known to travel many miles in awful weather to get to a Communion service, anymore, we have trouble getting you to come out if it starts to drizzle a bit!


If you’re a lifelong Methodist, you may remember “quarterly Communion,” basically celebrating Communion about four times a year.  That tradition dates back to the frontier days, when Methodist preachers were circuit-riders.  Ordained Methodist clergy were few and far between, and so they covered a great deal of territory.  The preacher, the circuit rider, would come through about once a quarter, and would celebrate Communion on that visit.  Once a quarter doesn’t seem very often, but it was as often as the laypeople had access to an ordained person who could celebrate Communion – they were having Communion as frequently as possible.


Now that most United Methodist congregations are led by an ordained clergyperson, many congregations are taking seriously the command to have Communion as often as possible, moving toward more frequent celebrations of Communion – monthly, in most cases, and even weekly in some places.  Some are asking, “Isn’t that too much?” and again I answer, “How much of God’s grace is too much?”


Friends, Communion is not special because it only comes around every once in awhile.  It was never intended to be a rare treat; it’s supposed to be daily bread.  What makes it special is the presence of Christ and the gift of grace.  Communion is celebrated weekly in our sanctuary on Wednesdays at 5:30.  If you’re hungry and thirsty for more of God’s presence, then be here.


God’s grace is abundant and there’s always plenty to go around.  No doubt you notice what big pieces of bread I break off for you when you come to receive Communion.  Some of you think “it’s too much,” but again I ask, “How much of God’s grace is too much?”  Friends, I give you those big pieces intentionally.  This is a feast of grace, not a meager meal.  God gives grace in abundance; who are we to be stingy with what God has given abundantly?


That big piece of bread is a significant reminder of the abundance of God’s grace, even if you have to chew on it for more than one bite, I want you to take that time chewing to think about just how good and generous God is, and knowing that in the economy of God’s kingdom, there is always plenty to go around.  When someone complains about the bread being too big, too much, you just look them right in the eye and say, “And how much of God’s grace is too much?”


Jesus desires to eat this meal with us.  I am so honored that Jesus thinks enough of me, loves me enough, to invite me to his table.  Jesus takes his place at a table packed with all sorts of unworthy people.  Take a look at the table; it may look like bread and wine up there, but the main course is an abundance of God’s love and grace.


Are you hungry for some grace?  I hope so; dinner is served.

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