Missional Table

One formerly unchurched person recently told me about his first experience with the Lord’s supper. He had grown up in the inner city where a gang was his family. Befriended by “good Samaritans” in a time of need, he attended “church” for the first time and sat on the second row with his new friend.

As you might imagine, he was perplexed by the “Lord’s supper.” He supposed that it was a snack of some kind. So he grabbed a whole piece of bread and casually ate it as he passed the plate. When the juice came, he drank several cups while holding the tray (much to the shock and consternation of the server) all the while thinking how minimal the refreshment was. When the contribution basket came to him, he refused to pay for such megar food and drink.

Humorous, yes—but sad as well. As an one unquainted with “church,” the supper—both in terms of its form and meaning—was totally alien to him. While we might be amazed at his total unfamiliarity with Christian rituals, the fault may lie more with the Christian tradition than him. Christianity has so ritualized the Lord’s Table that it has no functional or meaningful connection with tables in life. While we may still call it a “table,” its “tableness” has been lost. The Lord’s Supper has become the Lord’s snack. It is little wonder that the unchurch can see no significance in the practice other than some meaningless and isolated ritual.

The response of the “Church Growth” movement, epitomzed by Willow Creek’s removal of the supper from Sunday services in the 1990s, was to reduce the role of the Supper in worshipping assemblies. The unchurched simply cannot connect with the Lord’s Supper—and not only the unchurched, but many churched as well. The problem is not the supper or the unchurched, the problem is the supper’s present form and discontinuity with the table of Jesus in Scripture.

The Table in the Ministry of Jesus

The table ministry of Jesus is often ignored in framing our understanding of the Lord’s Supper. For some it seems too removed from the Last Supper and for others the Lord’s Supper is a highly formalized ritual unlike the tables of Jesus’ ministry. However, in the Gospel of Luke the Last Supper is linked with the other tables in the narrative by language and content. The Last Supper is one meal among many (Luke 22), but it is also the paradigmatic meal for understanding the rest of the meals. It is a climactic meal in a series of meals during the ministry of Jesus which is continued in post-resurrection meals with the disciples. Instead of the Last Supper standing aloof from these other meals, it gives fuller meaning to them. The Last Supper interprets and gives substance to the other meals as they are understood in the theological light of that Last Supper.

Luke is a narrator. He tells stories rather than writing didactic prose. Through the stories he inculcates the values which he wants his community to embrace. Each meal story reveals something about Jesus and his mission. In Luke 5:27-32 Jesus sits at table with sinners as a physican among the sick. In Luke 7:36-50 Jesus receives a sinful woman at the table of a Pharisee and declares her sins forgiven. In Luke 9:10-17 Jesus shows hospitality to 5000 people as he first calls his disciples to mission (“give them something to eat”) and then models before them his messianic mission. The disciples are called to service. The table has a missional dimension; it reflects the mission of God to commune with his people at table. In Luke 10:38-42 Jesus accepts women as his disciples. In Luke 11:37-54 Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they sit at table only in form, not in spirit. In Luke 14:1-24 Jesus notes that their table does not look like the kingdom of God, but it looks like themselves. In Luke 19:1-10 Jesus invites himself to table with the tax collector Zacchaeus and declares that salvation had come to his house. Luke 24 welcomes a stranger to the table in Emmaus (Luke 24:30-35) and commissions the disciples to bear witness to gospel among all nations (Luke 24:45-49). Just as the disciples offered hospitality to a stranger on the way, so the table is a place where the church welcomes strangers (aliens or “others”). The table has a missionary quality, especially in light of the fact that the disciples receive their call to missions at a table.

The table is a place where Jesus receives sinners and confronts the righteous. The table is the place where Jesus extends grace to seekers, but condemns the self-righteous. Jesus is willing to eat with “others” in order to invite them into the kingdom, but he points out the discontinuity between our tables of social, ethnic, gender, economic, religious status and the table in the kingdom of God. The last (sinners, poor, and humbled–the “others”) will be first in the kingdom of God, but the first (self-righetous, rich and proud–the “churched”) will be last and excluded from the kingdom of God (Luke 13:26-30).

The meal stories have theological meaning for Luke’s community, and they are stories that shaped meals in the early church. The table during Jesus’ ministry should shape the table in the church because the table of Jesus is the table of the kingdom. The table of Jesus’ ministry continues in the church when his disciples gather at table. Jesus’ table etiquette is kingdom etiquette, and Lord’s supper is the Lord’s kingdom table.

The table announces the presence of the kingdom. It announces that “today” salvation has come to the world as God communes with his people at table. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, and also to eat (commune, to be) with them. The Jubilee motif, articulated in Luke 4:16-19, not only invests the table with great joy, but it also calls the disciples of Jesus to embrace all those who are invited to his table. The table is inclusive and intentionally includes the poor, blind and oppressed; it intentionally reaches out to the “others”. The table reaches across all socio-economic, racial and gender barriers as it unites lost humanity at one table. Jesus modeled the invitation of all to the table as he welcomed Pharisee and tax collector, rich and poor, male and female. This inclusiveness testifies to the socio-ethical character of the table as a uniting moment in the kingdom of God.

The Table in the Church

The table in the contemporary church looks more like the “in-crowd” than it does the redeemed community of Revelation 7 or the ministry of Jesus. It is a gathering of the righteous, rather than a missional invitation to “others”. It is where the community gathers to take pride in its place at the kingdom table rather than a table which serves the poor, the weak, and the sinful. The table in the church looks more like a ritualized, formal Pharisaic table than it does the table of the messianic banquet. It is little wonder that the table in the church is not only misunderstood, but even despised by the unchurched and outsiders because the church’s table has become an “insider” phenomenon. The church’s table is intimidating, meaningless or irrelevant rather than inviting and comforting to the outsider.

That an unchurched person who visits some assemblies would have no idea of what is going on during the communion—in terms of both form and meaning—is an indictment that our language (“table”) does not fit our practice (when there is no table). That an unchurched person could misinterpret the communion bread and juice for a snack says more about the divorce of the supper from the preached Word and the divorce of the meal from our table language than it does about the naiveté of the unchurched. We call it a table, but it has no visible/communal table function, form or meaning.

The supper is a concrete proclamation of the Word, but it is exactly its concrete character (bread and wine—and as a meal!) which must be explained and applied. The supper needs to be joined with a preached Word from God so that not only the “alien” (the welcomed stranger among us) will appreciate its significance, but that the church will remember the work of God in Jesus Christ for them. The gospel should be proclaimed when the supper is served and the supper must proclaim the gospel as it embodies its meaning.

Jesus invited all to the table and sat with all. If the table embodies the gospel and bears witness to the gospel, then it should reflect the universal intent of the gospel. Just as our preaching invites all to faith, so the table should invite all to eat. The table, just as the ministry of the Word, offers grace and testifies that Jesus died for all. The table is a place where “others” can not only hear but experience the gracious message of the gospel through eating with the community of faith. All are invited to eat with Jesus. The community of faith receives “strangers” at its table. The table of the Lord should epitomize gospel hospitality.

In the same way, the church as a community invites all who would seek God to the table. It invites the sinner, the unchurched and the weak family member to the table to hear the gospel of grace. It invites all (except the rebellious, cf. 1 Corinthians 5) to learn the gospel through eating and drinking.

When the Lord’s Supper is conceived as a meal at a table, then the exclusion of seekers is incongruous with the genius of the meal. If the Lord’s Supper is a meal, then it would be a counter-testimony to exclude “others.” It would deny food to the hungry, both spiritually and physically.

As the embodiment of the gospel and reflective of the essential nature of the church, the table is missional. It is a shared meal that bears witness to the universal grace of the gospel. Just as the gospel invites all to come to Jesus, so all are invited to the table to hear about Jesus and experience the community of grace.

[Modified version of a piece originally published in New Wineskins (Sep/Oct 2002).]



13 Responses to “Missional Table”

  1.   Dwayne Phillips Says:

    Do you know the history of the “Lord’s Supper” or “communion” in the restoration movement?

    How did we come to the ceremony with the silver (or gold) trays passed about the benches?

    Where did we get the “only baptized people” take part?

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      There are several articles on my site that contain some history of the table in the Stone-Campbell Movement. You might look under the various pages at this site for information or click on the tabs “Lord’s Supper” or “Table” to see some of the articles.

      The passing of trays is common among many denominational traditions, particularly among free church Protestants. It became very common when many when to individual cups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among Churches of Christ, it was common for everyone to stand when they received the trays and partake of communion standing.

      The historic position of the Christian tradition (beginning with the Didache in the early second century) is that only the baptized should eat the Lord’s Supper. The Stone-Campbell Movement followed that same understanding which is common across all denominations–from Catholic to Orthodox to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Baptist. My position is a decidely minority one.

  2.   Bobby Cohoon Says:

    Good observations and points. I would add that I have been in a few churches where it was the ”
    coldest” meal I have ever seen. And, if you were a person just starting a journey you would have no clue as to what was going on.

  3.   randall Says:

    JMH,
    Thanks again for a thought provoking discussion. You present your case well. I would imagine that some (many?) may consider it provocative as it varies so much from the traditional understanding of almost all Christian fellowships, as you pointed out above. No only does it vary, it is also quite an indictment of how the supper has been done in church.
    I wonder how you might deal with texts that speak of eating in an unworthy manner. I don’t doubt I may have only a traditional Protestant view there as well.
    Peace,
    Randall

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      I comment on “eating unworthily” in my book “Come to the Table.” Essentially, it is a communal instruction to not eat in such a way that denies the gospel, that is, don’t eat by excluding the poor or dividing the body. Eat in a way that is worthy of the gospel, that is consistent with and a witness to the gospel.

      Thanks for your comments and kindness, Randall.

  4.   Robert Says:

    JMH,
    I spoke on this subject in church yesterday as we are chronologically covering the events of Jesus leading up to Easter. I was covering the Last Supper, which I called “The Lost Supper,” explaining how the communion of the table has been lost in the traditional pattern, and that the very institution of the Lord’s Supper was a full meal (“the Passover”). Our church has many good scholars and the message was well received (this is a church of Christ). I’ve have found that people do have open minds on this and that it is not a taboo subject, though I’m sure that our family’s Guardians of the Truth (i.e. tradition) once aroused would not be so hospitable. Your work is excellent and inspirational to many on this topic.

  5.   benwiles Says:

    Intriguing thoughts on the Lord’s Supper. Permit me to think along with you for a moment.

    I wonder how far the Passover model can be taken. Passover was, after all, exclusively for the Israelites; circumcision was in this case a precondition of table fellowship. Luke, like the other synoptic writers, portrays this last Passover as an intimate gathering of Jesus’ closest followers, not a “Feeding of the 5000″-type moment of manna in the wilderness for all comers. Perhaps couching the Supper within the “exclusivity” of Passover was intentional?

    Of course, it is also the table at which, according to John, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. I wish there were a way to picture that concept of servant leadership in our (CoC) commemorations.

    As for the outsider, I just don’t know. The Supper, like the Passover, is meant to be a commemoration of a shared experience, one which the outsider (by definition) has not shared. Perhaps a “why is this night different from all other nights” moment might help.

    Like I said, I don’t know. We may even come to different conclusions. But I appreciate the fact that you asked the question — it desperately needed asking — and that you allowed me to think with you for a moment.

  6. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Ben, I appreciate your engagement. I don’t mind disagreement; my position is certainly a minority one.

    I would suggest that Passover is only one type of the Supper. We might also include covenant meals, fellowhsip offerings, etc. Aliens were invited to eat in Israel where circumsion was more about ritual cleanliness.

    Reading Luke’s narrative, I think he intentionally connects the feeding of 5000 with the Supper. Perhaps it is part of Luke’s purpose to reduce or counter the exclusivity. Eating in the kingdom of God has an inclusive sense in Luke (e.g., Luke 14). This is where the narrative reading is very important. Jesus’ last supper was a Passover meal but it was also part of a string of meals with his disciples rather than isolated from the other meals. In other words, I would suggest that the Last Supper was not sui generis nor the only type/model of the Lord’s Supper itself.

    Nevertheless, I recognize that your points have strength. My opinion is that the narrative plot must contextualize the Last Supper in Luke. It was with his disciples, but some of his teaching was with his disciples only as well. That does not mean it was intended to stay that way but only that at that moment it was appropriate to be with his closest disciples before his death.

    Thanks for stepping out there with a point. They, no doubt, resonate with many besides yourself.

  7.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    GODS INTENT FOR HIS KINGDOM didn’t change did it ?
    might be just what we (as part of the creation) precieve,from scripture,yes,as the covenent of grace is brought about through the family of god’s choice.
    men saw God showing the way to the new new cov.and the fathers witness by the prophets exorting the kingdom to do his good.A ballanced scale,takeing care of the poor ,widows,and fatherless ect…
    kindness and mercy.
    as the feasts became meaningless to god through a hardened hart,god ramps up the seed of promise by faith.
    does isril stop with the new cov, no just a name change for the meals and the intent of god the father is realised through the new life of faith after juses offers the old life through the eturnial spirit and is raised to life everlasting and righteousness of faith, vindicated in that life eturnial to the glory of GOD.
    what seperates us from the realization of that reality is nothing but our doubt because of the life of flesh.
    the covanent has changed the showdow is removed by the light of truth.
    our meals do have a common thread to me and the thread is god transcends through the spirit of our lord’s new kingdom contenually fellowshiping with us.

    my brother i do hole hartedly agree with you
    GOD LIKES US FELLOWSHIPING WITH HIM IN HIS SON’S PHISICAL KINGDOM WHEN EVER WE CHOOSE TO TO SHARE THE COMMON MEAL OF THE GOSPEL OF peace
    tradition ba hum bug :-)

    blessings

  8. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Yes, I do think there is a common thread with an increasing implementation of the divine universal intent. Thus, all are invited.

  9.   Paul Castleman Says:

    JMH–I have some questions. I know you may not have all the answers, but I have thoroughly enjoyed your book, “Come to the Table”. It has changed my viewpoint drastically. What I am most impressed by is your scriptural basis for all your thoughts. My problem is basic. Our congregation is suffering from the “solemn, individualistic” Supper instead of a communal and joyous occasion. My problem is how do I preach this type of stuff to my congregation. I know I will feel heat for it from some “traditionalists”, but I would much rather be biblical about all this! Again, I agree with everything you have said in your book. I have decided to use your book as a resource and decided my first 3 sermons would base themselves on the following passages…1) Exodus 24, 2)Luke 22, The Last Supper, 3)1 Corinthians 10 and 11…Please advise…send me an email at the above and I look forward to some more conversations with you if you are available…
    In Love through Him

    • Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      My advice is that you do not attempt to implement any changes, but rather sow the seeds of thinking about the subject by emphazing (1) the presence of God in the moment (thus, you do revere and sanctify this moment–it is not trivial to you…which is what scares many people when you start thinking more communally) and (2) emphazing the communal nature of the event as table (the fellowship). Hold the horizontal and vertical together. You want to change thinking before you change practice, in my opinion.

      Ex 24 is a good place to start…emphasizing the fellowship offering and that they “saw God’.
      Luke 22 is a good text, of course. I emphasize the servant character of the table–we serve each other.
      1 Cor 10 & 11 is alot for one sermon. I would suggest making it two. In ch. 10, emphasizing the altar/table distinction and the unity of the vertical and horizontal. Ch. 11 emphasizes the horizontal, and the judgment God has against taking the supper in an unworthy manner (that is, a way that ignores community and undermines the gospel).

      You might look at my blog post on my book. I did not continue the series, but I think it will be helpful to think about some of these ideas.

  10.   pastor David mugisha Says:

    Dear servant of God greetings in the name of our lord jesus christ. am pastor David mugisha asenior pastor and afounder of Agape christian center ministries kaliro uganda Kampala .

    The church is now 12 years younger but i have been amissionary to eastern uganda for more than 14 years ,

    When i came across your webstise i was touched of how God is using you around the world , please your ministry has got an impact to us and we would like to make arelationship with you in ministry here in uganda .

    we are still renting in school where any time we move out because the owner does not want the church to stay there any more, we are caring for 50 ophans whose perents died of the deadly deases called aids.we are holding agospel crusade each month depending on how God has provided in different areas of uganda.

    we need more prayers and relationship in ministry please.

    stay in touch

    thanks

    pr David mugisha

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