A Table of Hope

When Jesus came to give light, life, and hope to the world, he did not found a school or library. When he came on the search-and-rescue mission the full deity had authorized for our sakes, he did not preach sermons on obtuse theological abstractions. When he looked into the sad faces and hollow eyes of dishonest businessmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and tarnished streetwalkers, he did not thunder heaven's anathemas. Instead, he invited people to his table.

William Willimon, the marvelous Methodist preacher who is the chaplain at Duke University, put it this way:

Thank goodness, Jesus did not proclaim his kingdom by preaching abstract words like "reconciliation," "liberation," "atonement." For the sake of us poor animals, he ate and drank with sinners. He invited all to the table. He was among them as a deacon (waiter, butler, servant) rather than a master. He proclaimed the Kingdom by forming his kingdom around a table.[1]
John Mark Hicks has been presenting some of the most biblically literate material on the Lord's Supper that will ever be your privilege to hear. It has thrilled most of us, aggravated a few of us, and challenged all of us. Next Sunday evening, we are hoping to have every person in this church and any of our friends who would care to join us around tables in our homes. We won't be getting together to tailgate, but to fellowship.

One of the themes Myra and I expect to affirm at the table in our house is hope. Christ's table is a place of expectation. The communion he shares with us inspires confident anticipation. The Lord's Supper is a table of hope. Why, I'm thankful that the "disgraceful" (to his enemies!) charge they made against Jesus was true: "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2; cf. Mark 2:15-17; Matt. 11:19). That he welcomes us to his table still is the ground of all our hope. Please look at a text with me now that shows the power of Jesus at the table.

Jesus Reveals Himself at the Table

Our text is from the Gospel of Luke. It is what we have come to call Easter Sunday. Jesus has been raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit earlier in the day, and there have been frenzied, confused sightings and reports of him. In this story, which is unique to Luke, divine presence and human freedom intersect to produce faith. It begins with a "chance meeting" between two disciples and the risen Christ.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him" (Luke 24:18-24).
How fascinating! Two men only one of whom (i.e., Cleopas) is named and about whom we know absolutely nothing else are walking along with Jesus. They tell him about his life and career. But they don't recognize him! Luke says that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." That seems to me a clever way of saying even more than he actually says. Their blindness was more than a matter of their being caught off guard by him or some change in his appearance. Jesus never forced himself on anyone and he wasn't about to start here. He would let them recognize him slowly, gradually, at a pace they could bear. He allows us to come to faith the same way.

Cleopas almost preached the gospel to Jesus. He told about the death, burial, and reported-but-as-yet-unverified-to-his-satisfaction resurrection. Thus the story would have been left incomplete unless Jesus added the sure word of the resurrection. And it is significant that he gave them that sure word by means of two things: (1) exposition of Scripture and (2) self-disclosure in the Lord's Supper.

Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:25-31).
Do you doubt this is what we call the Lord's Supper? I think a strong case would have to be made against seeing it that way in order to discount the natural language of the text. Listen to the sequence: "When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them" (v.30). Sounds like Luke's language from chapter 22. More than that, it looks like the story Luke had told earlier in that Jesus went into someone else's home, sat down at their table with their food, and proceeded to be the host. He took the bread. He blessed it. He broke it. He gave it to them. This looks very much like the beginning of the fulfillment of his promise to eat this supper with new and fuller meaning in the kingdom of God to me.

Transformed by the Table

Now notice how the story ends. What was the mood of Cleopas and his friend when Jesus came upon them and interrupted their conversation about the events of the past few days in Jerusalem? "They stood still," Luke said, "looking sad" (v.17b). And what was their mood after he has made himself known at the table? They were transformed into passionate encouragers of their fellow-disciples.

They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:32-35).
"Having been turned from sadness and despair by having been at table with Christ they now recognized," Fred Craddock says of these two men, "their excitement moves them naturally toward their brothers and sisters who have been trapped in the same hopelessness."[2] Before they would be ready to receive the Spirit's empowerment on Pentecost and preach to unbelievers, they needed the shared witness of the other believers about Christ. Peter needed to hear their confirmation that Jesus was alive. They needed to hear his. And the women's. And others that would be forthcoming.

The place where those stories would be told, retold, and celebrated would often be a table. But now that table any table would do would always be the Lord's. The bread would be the same bread they had eaten for lunch; the wine would be the same they had bought for a wedding feast or for guests coming to their house. Both would be consecrated to God through prayer. And in the hallowed eating and drinking, people would remember Christ and would remember who they were. People brought to the table with them would overhear and be touched by the same story their children, their neighbors, strangers in their midst. Eating together would eventually make many of them family spiritual family to one another.

Conclusion

When one truly understands what the Lord's Supper is, he or she is able to move away from the ritualized, privatized, and too-often trivialized event experienced as the Lord's Supper to that point in life. We no longer worry about who can eat or who must be excluded. Everyone is welcome! We no longer worry about who officiates or serves. Everyone officiates and everyone serves, for we are a table filled with priests and servants!

Gathered at the table in his name, Jesus still reveals himself and makes his transforming power felt in the Lord's Supper. In a communal event of re-membering the body of Christ, we acknowledge our need for one another. Contrary to the privatized, introspective, and penitential devotion that has come to be the near-universal norm for Christians, the original intent of this meal was to connect us with one another in a meaningful way.

Our individual prayers and prayer books, individual wafers and communion glasses suggest that someone is hoping to have a meal without having a meal: Me and Jesus without any messy leftovers or other people to worry about. Private devotion to Jesus is used to escape the church's inability to form a community of faith in Jesus. Far from confirming the irrelevance of the Eucharist to our human needs for community and communion, our history of aggressive attempts to defuse it is testimony to its threatening power. We only avoid that which would change us. We know we cannot sit down at this table, partake of this food with this host, and depart as we have come.[3]
As surely as Christ proclaimed the kingdom of God by calling people to sit at table with him twenty centuries ago, he does so still. Just as he called sinners and sad persons to the table and revealed himself, he does so still. Precisely because he knew the spiritual life could not be lived as private salvation and instead called them to a community meal, he does so still. And just as he gave hope to all who ate and drank with him them, he does so still. So come to his table with us now. Eat. And live!
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[1] William Willimon, The Service of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), p. 128.
[2] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 289.
[3] Willimon, Service of God, pp. 132-133.

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