Practices for the Church on Mission – The Lord’s Table

In his book Seven Practices for the Church on Mission, seminary professor and pastor David Fitch examines the importance of the practice of Communion for the church – not only as an internal experience, but its implications for how we carry the Gospel into our everyday world.

It’s a short book, deliberately written to be easily accessible — in fact, I read through it in a day at the airport on vacation.  But I think he’s on to something, giving us a reminder of core practices: things we all can do and apply to both church and everyday life, as well as a set of lenses to look at those practices with new eyes.

Quickly – those three lenses are the circle, the dotted circle and the half-circle.

The blue circle represents the immediate Christian community – our sisters and brothers who share a commitment to Jesus and to one another.

The dotted circle represents how we open that circle to others as they are — how that circle expands and opens to welcome others in with hospitality.  It may represent things we do at a church building that those outside the church are invited to, or things in our homes or meetings, events or missions we are a part of that we invite others to.  It is a space where we consider how to genuinely welcome others as they are.

The third ‘half’ circle is where we meet others in the world as guests, as partners.  It’s the space where we aren’t in charge, aren’t providing everything needed.  We look for the work of the Holy Spirit around us, we carry with us the presence and message of Christ (as a treasure in the clay jars of our lives) — and we simply look for ways to join what God is already doing.

With those lenses in mind, it opens up new ways to consider the practice of the Lord’s Table, the first of the seven he writes about.

Paradoxically all too often what is meant to gather us together in Communion with God and one another has been one of the things that divides Christians of various traditions.

Instead of re-hashing arguments about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial feasts, or issues of how often do we have to do this, is it ok to use grape juice or do we have to use wine, who gets to serve, etc…   Fitch points us to honestly, more fundamental issues:

How are we recognizing and naming the presence of Christ when we gather to eat in his name?

How does that recognition of Jesus’ presence at the table with us call us to examine ourselves and our relationships not only with God but with one another (1 Corinthians 11:27ff) and submit ourselves to God and one another in mutual love (Ephesians 5:21).

When we are among other Christians, the practice of the Lord’s Table in the context of worship invites us to reflect on what we are doing in light of what Jesus has done: not only affecting our vertical relationship with God, but the horizontal relationships with our other believers.  Are we going through the motions?  Do we have ruptured relationships with others in our community that we haven’t done our part to seek reconciliation in?  Are we paying attention to the real presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit here and now?

In the second circle, we’re invited to think of the Lord’s Table beyond just the worship service context and into the meals we share with family and friends.  What does it mean to recognize Jesus’ presence here?  How do we ‘hold sacred space’ around the table we invite others to without making it weird?

Part of it is simply our own recognition and treating these meals as encounters where Jesus is present.  When we do that, and how we do that, is what we mean by ‘holding space’ and recognizing the presence of Christ in the moment, without expecting that non-believers will view it the same way.  So, following the pattern of Jesus, who consistently ‘gave thanks’ for the food being served, we express gratitude, hospitality, and take the time to create opportunities for genuine conversation that starts out with more of a focus on listening than speaking.  There will be enough opportunities to speak and share our experience, perspective and faith — but it needs to emerge from a genuine valuing of the other person, not just waiting till it is our turn to talk.

And finally, we are invited to consider the half-circle; where we meet people and experience their hospitality, or eat side by side with one another.

I think of so many of our feeding programs where we are invited to generously give to others (and that’s good!) and yet how few opportunities we have to actually eat with and listen to one another.  And fewer still, the opportunities to be served by those we might think actually need our help.  Remember that when Jesus sent out the disciples, he specifically called them to rely on the hospitality and welcome of others, not a call to mooching or taking advantage of people, but creating opportunities for mutuality.

Sometimes we get focused on how we can help, or naming the hurts in “the world” around us — and again, that’s good — but how can we also look for signs of God at work.

As I type this, I’m having a texting conversation with a person in Wisconsin who is a living example of this.  She is a believer who doesn’t have much by worldly standards, but works hard and is incredibly generous.

One of my cherished memories is of meals shared in the parking lot of a local library in Wisconsin, where what started as making some sandwiches to share with people experiencing homelessness became a sort of community potluck where everyone was invited to bring what they had, share it, and eat together.  Many times, this person would bring things she had prepared from food she had received from a local food pantry, to share with others.  And often, it seemed, that food would show up right as we ran out of other food and there were still people who needed to eat.  Sometimes we focus on other people’s pain to the exclusion of noticing what they want to give or contribute — because while we all have needs, we also have a need for meaning, to be able to help, and be part of community.

The meal table is a great place to start.  How can we recognize it as the Lord’s Table when we gather?