Stay at the Table: Building Community the Way Jesus Did

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There is a moment in the Gospels, the biographies of Jesus, when Christ pulled together his small community—­the disciples—­around a table. Picture da Vinci’s The Last Supper (no, not the food-­fight parody version).

Jesus had been pouring himself into relationship with these twelve guys for three years. They likely barbecued around campfires, high-­fived each other when they caught fish, told stories of their wild childhood memories. I can picture Peter, after knocking down a few roasted tilapia, saying, “Guys, I’ve got to tell you about the time when I went sheep-­tipping with my buddies. The sheep just ‘bah-­bah-­bahed’ until we had to sprint through the fields to get away from the shepherds; it was epic!” Jesus replies with a solemn, blank stare. That’s how it went down in my imagination, at least.

Beyond the regular ups and downs of hanging out, they saw Jesus perform miracles and even experienced a few themselves. They were immersed in Jesus’ teaching and way of life. And now, Jesus brought them to this special meal.

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What happened around that table? Well, they talk about betrayal. One of them, who is secretly plotting to defect and turn Jesus over to face a death sentence for a few pieces of silver, adamantly denies Jesus’ insistence that he would become a deserter. After that incident, the disciples argue about who is the greatest among them, positioning themselves to get the upper hand. Obsessed with power, fear, and stubbornness, they probably went on to argue about who was going to pay the bill and who would get the donkey from the donkey valet!

This was Jesus’ “church” at the time, and what a bloody mess it was (as my British friends like to call it)!

Here’s the hinge: what does Jesus choose to do in the midst of the imperfect mess? Does he throw up his hands and storm out? While walking out the door, does he figuratively stomp his Messiah feet and say something like, “You guys were supposed to be better than this; you’re Christians!” (Actually, the term “Christian” didn’t even exist yet.) Does he stuff his feelings, slip out the back door, then just disappear from the community? Does he give up on this group and try to find a new and improved version?

No. As one author has said, Jesus stays at the table (see Parker J. Palmer, On Staying at the Table: A Spirituality of Community). He breaks bread and drinks wine with his guys. He keeps building into them and walking forward with them. He understands they were no longer in Eden and not yet in the New Jerusalem. They were living in the second garden of both-­and, of now and not yet. And because of Jesus’ persistence and the legacy of that messy, early community, billions of lives are now swept up into the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the presence of the Spirit.

Biblical community is broken community. Biblical community never fully measures up, but it is also powerful, beautiful, and purposeful beyond measure. We can discover and share that power, beauty, and purpose in our lives if we stay at the table as Christ did. Yes, there are times and reasons for necessary endings and new seasons of transition, but too many of us make those decisions too quickly and too easily, with little effort at staying. In Christ’s case, painful conflict, bitter pride, and even gut-­wrenching betrayal were at his table, but he stayed.

We grow when we stay at the table.

How Do We Stay at the Table?

The apostle Paul also knew what it meant to stay at the table. Among the churches he founded throughout the Mediterranean region was the church in Corinth. If the city was known for its sinful ways, the church was no better: full of incestuous affairs, lawsuits, divorces, idolatry, huge egos, doctrinal infighting, sexual impurity, and even people getting drunk at communion! How did Paul respond to all this? He didn’t just walk away. He stayed engaged with this church and called them to something more—­the kind of transformation through the Spirit that puts to death such behavior.

It was to that incomplete community that he penned this reminder in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind  . . . it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. It always hopes, always perseveres” (emphasis added). These words were not originally meant for weddings; they were directed to everyday life in a church.

If we want to grow in love, for our own spiritual sake and the sake of others, then we too must patiently persevere. We must stay at the table, even when disillusionment sets in. But how do we do this?

Here’s the backward first step to staying at the table and flourishing in the second garden. Realize you have bad breath too.

There’s nothing worse than being around a close talker and inhaling the fumes of his triple-­garlic, horseradish, chipotle pesto aioli avocado toast. Every few words seem to begin with the deadly letter “h.” “Hi, how are you doing? How’s the weather? Have you been to that new restaurant on Hampshire Avenue? Holy smokes, the halibut is heavenly.” There aren’t enough mints in your pocket that you can kindly offer him to calm that smelly storm.

The problem is, I’ve been that guy and I’ve never known it; maybe you have been too. We can’t really smell our own bad breath and we rarely realize the effect we have on others, spreading our own dragon air. This is true of our broken behavioral impact on Christian community as well.

Jesus puts it like this.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
—­Matthew 7:3–5

Yeah, that feels a little abrasive, but those are Jesus’ words, not mine. Jesus was speaking to a group of religious folks who were trying to clean up everyone else instead of themselves. Modern translation: “Realize you have bad breath and focus on your own Listerine moment first; then you can kindly help others in small ways with their issues.”

The Fruit of Self-Awareness

When we redirect our evaluation energy toward ourselves, a few tectonic shifts occur.

First, we see the reality that we are part of the problem within this Christian community. Some of the problems exist because we brought them into the church. Sometimes what we don’t like in others is really their reaction to what they see in us. For example, when people act defensive, it can often be a result of something offensive we’ve said or done. We look at their defensiveness with disdain, but we may have played a part in stirring it up.

Second, we begin to learn this mantra that took me many years to acknowledge: if you spot it you got it. Often when our frustrations toward others are triggered, it’s because we see a trait in them we admittedly despise in ourselves. Have you ever had conversations in your own head like the ones I’ve had? “I really don’t like being around John. It only took me one conversation with him to see how judgmental and dismissive of others he is. He jumps to quick conclusions about them and doesn’t even try to understand what’s going on in their lives. Yuck. I’m going to stay away from him!”

Did you see it? I created the same negative spin about John in my head for which I was judging him. I spotted what I didn’t like in him because underneath the surface I do the same thing and don’t like it about myself. We need this kind of self-­awareness with others, so we can develop the humility required for community.

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Third, when you realize the only Christian you can control is yourself, you’ll begin to see a powerful pattern emerge. The more Christlike your own humble “my plank first” self-­examination, the more people will want to be with you and be influenced by you. Your “plank-­work” will inspire and assist them in removing what’s broken in their lives. This builds the health of your Christian community through a holistic cycle of everyone focusing on their own growth and then everyone growing together.

This only happens, however, if you don’t bail. You need to be willing to stay at the table, not condemning but working together toward transformation in love.

Finally, once you have looked at yourself in the mirror first, now you are able to put on Jesus’ glasses when looking at others. Remember in the first section of this book the verse I suggested you never ever forget? You have it memorized for the rest of your life, right?

I’ll help you out again just in case:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—­and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God . . .
—­Ephesians 2:8

Now read that verse and insert the name of a person at church who frustrates you.

For it is by grace that ________________ has been saved, through faith . . . it is the gift of God.

In Christ, he or she, no matter the behavior, has received exactly what we have received: grace from God. Sometimes I can receive this grace for myself, but when triggered by others’ humanity, I have difficulty applying the same grace to them. Here’s a summary account from the life of Christ that both challenges me and teaches me toward this end:

A wealthy man once ran up to Jesus. He was successful, but materialism had clearly crept into his soul. His priorities were off. He was hoarding for himself when others around him were in need. His demeanor was arrogant and boastful, very sure of himself. Know anyone like this? It would probably get under your skin like it would mine.
Listen to how Jesus reacted: “[he] looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21).

Read that one more time.

Jesus—­looked—­at—­him—­and—­loved—­him.

Notice that it doesn’t say, “Jesus looked at him and was disgusted by the impurity in his heart,” or “Jesus looked at him and thought, ‘Get me away from this guy!’ ”

No, Jesus looked at the man and loved him, seeing the world through the lens of grace. And then Jesus gently called him to a hard truth. He knew the idol in this man’s heart, and he asked the man to give it up and follow him.

The invitation is the same today. We are called to see those around us through the lens of love and grace. And in community, we are invited to deal with our own idols, our own mess, and sometimes to gently invite others to root out their own idols as well. This doesn’t happen through condemnation but through shared invitation.

When we step into the murky waters of Christian community, Christ asks you and me to see beyond the ick and see hearts that were once just little boys or girls infected by this angry, destructive world; to see persons who tried to figure out how to survive their situation and took on some baggage along the way. They are beautiful beneath all that. They are made in the reflection of God. They are hurting, and they are loved deeply by Christ.

This is an excerpt from Craig Springer’s new book, How to Follow Jesus: A Practical Guide to Growing Your Faith (Zondervan + Seedbed). In How to Follow Jesus, Craig Springer, executive director of Alpha USA, one of America’s most effective evangelism movements, explodes numerous myths surrounding the Christian faith that create unnecessary obstacles to growth, including: illustrating that sin and temptation are not the greatest threat to a flourishing faith, forgiveness means going through rather than around our feelings, and how disappointment in the church may be the essential step in growing a foundation for life-changing community.

This book is perfect for:

  • Newcomers classes
  • Discipleship classes
  • Individuals beginning their faith journey

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Craig Springer is the Executive Director of Alpha USA, a program that runs in over 6,500 churches across every major denomination and 500 prisons throughout the country. He has been a leader and pastor in several large churches across the US. Craig and his wife, Sarah, also spent a number of years church planting in Prague, Czech Republic.

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