Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
11 October 2020
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The Table of the Lord
The Table is at the centre of our faith. It is great symbol of who we are and how we become who we are. This is not so for all Christians at the present time, but it certainly has been so for most Christians through most of time during the past 2,000 years.
It is not our prayers or our songs or our sacred texts which make us unique, but the simple meal we share together around the Table of the Lord.
As we break the bread and bless the cup, we participate in an ancient spiritual practice that goes all the way back to Paul and beyond him to the followers of Jesus himself. To the last supper and beyond, to the everyday meals of Jesus with his circle of friends.
The Altar Table is the holiest object inside the Cathedral, and we treat it with immense reverence.
Tables are friendly places. We know them well. We find them in our homes, in the parks, in the restaurants, and in our churches …
They are places of gathering, storytelling, celebration, reflection, meaning, hope …
Around these tables we form communities and we tell the stories which make us who we are.
We have special rituals and taboos around food.
Our table friends are our closest friends and to betray a table friend is a shameful act.
This seems to hold true from the schoolyard to the family kitchen to the parliamentary dining room.
In the Bible it is no surprise to find that the feast of the Lord, the supper of the Lord, is a powerful symbol of blessing for Jews as well as Christians.
At our religious tables we have a taste of what is to come.
But it can all go awry, and many a family meal has been a time for arguments and conflict. Indeed, we have such a story in today’s Gospel and to a lesser extent in the OT reading as well.
Matthew and the feast
This gospel found its final form about 40 years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the meantime Christians and Jews have been drifting further apart and the hostility between them has been increasing. It is a sad and tragic story. I am sure Jesus weeps.
As Matthew tells a traditional story from Jesus about the wedding feast it takes on a decidedly anti-Jerusalem spin.
He is living in a world where powerful men can do what they like with their women and their slaves, a world where powerful men attack anyone who oppose them or criticise them.
I am trying to describe life almost 2,000 years ago but it probably sounds a lot like life in the USA at this time, or China, or Iran or Russia or a whole lot of other countries where nothing much has really changed in all that time since Matthew.
What started as an inclusive story offering hope has become—at the hands of Matthew—a story of privilege and power, a story of pain and revenge.
Oddly enough, that has happened to the church as well.
And we see it happen so often in personal relationships.
Reading Matthew’s story of the wedding feast today
So the question for today is:
How do we read this text so that it affirms love not power, inclusion rather than exclusion, forgiveness rather than revenge?
We wrestle with the text, and we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church through such a passage. We tune our hearts for the word of the Lord. Straining to hear …
Except for those precious times of direct personal religious experiences, our faith depends on other people and sometimes they distort the message as it comes through to us. They do not mean to do this. It is simply natural and inevitable.
Meanwhile, we are living in a different reality from even just 50 years ago so that even the same message will now mean different things to us …
So to misquote a dear friend and mentor, Marcus Borg, we need to “hear this story again for the first time … “
Matthew himself has taken a simpler and more generous version of the story told by Jesus, and given it a particular “spin” as we would say.
We can see what has happened because we have two much simpler versions in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Thomas, and all three versions seem to derive from a very primitive collection of sayings which scholars call “Q”; for the German word, Quelle (source).
The International Q Project is an international group of religion scholars which has been working on the question of Gospel sources for many years. They have closely examined all the extant versions of shared material and even suggested what the original form may have been.
Their version of the Great Feast story sounds more like Luke than Mathew and goes like this:
The Parable of the Invited Dinner Guests
Q 14: 16-18, 19-20, 21, 23
16 A certain person prepared a large‚ dinner, and invited many‚ 17 And he sent his slave at the time of the dinner‚ to say to the invited: Come, for it is now ready. 18 «One declined because of his» farm. 19 «Another declined because of his business.» 20 … 21 «And the slave, <on coming, said> these things to his master.» Then the householder, enraged, said to his slave: 23 Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.
As Matthew decides to use that story in his gospel, he reads it through the lens of his community’s experience during the decades since Easter. Perhaps this was already how people in Matthew’s church were telling this Jesus story to one another? A simple story about God’s generosity has been turned into a symbolic story about their experiences as Jewish followers of Jesus:
• Jesus has invited people to the great feast
• The disciples went out to invite their fellow Jews
• Their mission was unsuccessful
• Jesus or God sends the Romans to destroy Jerusalem
• Now the disciples are going to the Gentiles
• There has been a huge response
• But guests need to keep the rules!
Frankly, that is not Jesus even though it has been attributed to him for almost 2,000 years.
As followers of Jesus, we do not call down divine wrath on those who oppose us or see things differently.
Instead, we choose to follow the dream that Jesus himself lived: forming and sustaining diverse communities of people who would normally not get on all that well together, but who—under the yoke of Christ—can become, in our better moments, people of compassion rather than vengeance, people of hope rather than despair, people who forgive rather hold a grudge.
We catch that vision when we gather at the Table of Jesus.
At this table we discover that we have become a community of grace.
We are the body of Christ for we all share the one bread.
The Spirit of Jesus is within us because we all bless the one cup.
As we come to that table we share the sign of peace, even in a COVID-safe manner.
I am grateful to Matthew from reminding me of the need to stay true to the original vision of Jesus, and to set aside our natural instinct to hold a grudge and seek revenge.