In just a few weeks, many of you will be heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. When I was a kid that’s what we actually had to do to get my grandparents’ house. We traveled through the backwoods of western Pennsylvania and over a rusty and rickety steel bridge to finally arrive at their little farmhouse and burst in to smell the aroma of roasted turkey and the best stuffing on the planet.
Grandma always set out the good china for Thanksgiving, just like she did for Sunday supper most weeks. Her table was a wonder. Old creaky dining room chairs surrounded it as well as an assortment of others that folded out quickly in case of extra company. Various serving utensils, bowls, and platters filled ever space not taken up by someone’s dinner. On holidays grandma made what she called her “special drink,” which tasted exotic and sophisticated when served in a glass goblet that matched the place setting. Actually, I found out later, it was just cranberry juice and ginger ale—but to an 8 year-old it was as fine as any wine one could imagine.
That table had seen some 60 Thanksgivings and thousands of meals over the years. It was at that table that I ate Captain Crunch for breakfast (which I wasn’t allowed to have at home) and ate bacon with my grandpap like a real farmer. It was in those chairs by the table that I got skinned knees patched and kissed, where I listened to old stories about people long dead, and where we mourned the passing of both grandparents a few years later. That table, in many ways, was the center of my young life.
You probably have some table stories as well. It’s interesting that in most homes we have a lot of rooms for people to sit in and entertain themselves, but invariably everyone always gravitates toward the table. When we moved to our current home we spent a lot of time picking out furniture, but the one piece of furniture that my wife Jennifer cared about the most was the table. Having grown up in a large family, she knew that the table is the most valuable place in the house.
Some recent studies have confirmed this. The statistics reveal that when families eat together regularly it dramatically lowers the rate of obesity in children. In fact, kids who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol later in life; they eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat at the table with family less often. Turns out that we gravitate to the table for a reason. It’s really the center of life and health for the family.
Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus also saw the table as the most important piece of furniture in the house? It’s tough to read the Gospels on an empty stomach because it seems that Jesus is always pausing to eat a meal with someone. He ate with despised tax collectors and other assorted sinners as well as dining with the religious elite. He was clearly a popular guest at any table and his dinner conversations were always interesting and occasionally provocative. Even some of his stories were about tables—stories about inviting everyone and setting up extra places where people could enjoy the food and the special drink.
And then there’s the fact that when Jesus wanted to give his disciples an ongoing way of remembering him, he didn’t give them something to memorize, a theology to ponder, or some mantra to repeat. He gave them a meal.
That’s why, like at home, the centerpiece of many of our worship spaces is the table. It’s here that we gather as the family of Jesus for Sunday dinner. The good china is laid out, the white linen cloths washed and bleached to a gleaming shine. Extra places are set for visitors. Everyone is welcome.
A couple of years ago we went to having communion every week in each of our three worship services, which is unusual among those in the 21st century Wesleyan tribe. I came to realize, through a lot of prayer and study, that if my preaching was the primary focus and means of grace my people were getting every week, then I could not possibly feed them enough, no matter how “good” the sermon might be. If our preaching is the main focus, we can unwittingly create a church full of religious consumers of the Word instead of inviting people to respond to it and receive the grace God offers in a tangible way. We can wind up spending a lot of time talking about Jesus, but very little time giving people an opportunity to experience him in person. Jesus gave us the meal; the early church practiced it whenever they gathered; so why should we not offer it as often as possible?
Indeed, this was John Wesley’s primary reason for pushing the early Methodists to weekly communion. In his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion he puts it like this:
“It is the duty of every Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper as often as he can. The first reason why it is the duty of every Christian so to do is because it is a plain command of Christ.”
Why do we do this so often? Because Jesus said so!
Wesley, like those in the early Christian church, believed that communion is a vitally important means of grace. He goes on to say that this grace “confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them. As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty and leads us on to perfection. If, therefore, we have any regard for the plain command of Christ, if we desire the pardon of our sins, if we wish for strength to believe, to love and obey God, the we should neglect no opportunity of receiving the Lord’s Supper.”
If daily meals are important not only for our nourishment but also our fellowship with family, then regular communion is vital for our spiritual nourishment and our cohesiveness and love as the family of the church, the family of Christ. If regular family meals prevent obesity, substance abuse, truancy, and bad grades in children, then regular communion can prevent consumerism, narcissism, absenteeism, racism, sexism, and bad theology in the children of God!
Here at the table we’re reminded that we’re all sinners saved by God’s grace alone. Here at the table we discover not a list of things we have to do but rather we are confronted again and again with what God has already done. Here at the table we discover that no matter what race or gender, no matter whether we’re rich or poor, no matter if we’re full of faith or barely hanging on, that there’s a place for us. Jesus is the host and we are his guests. There’s always more room at the table.
It’s been said that there are three sentences that every human being wants and needs to hear the most in order to live a full and abundant life:
I love you.
You are forgiven.
I heard all three of those sentences at the table at grandma’s house. But even more, we hear them in the liturgy of the table. We hear how much God loves us. We hear that we are forgiven. And we are invited to dinner again, no matter how far away we’ve strayed.
We not only hear the Word of God, we can touch it and taste it. We come with a hunger and thirst to receive he special meal and the special drink, which reveal to us the fact that Christ has prepared the table. It’s a means by which God conveys his grace and love to us. We can take it into ourselves and convert it into energy for spreading it to others. We proclaim the Lord’s death for us and we go to embody his life for the world.
Preachers, it’s time to set the table!