Dining with Jesus

Sermon for Old First Presbyterian Church
August 29, 2004

Pamela Byers
Elder, First Presbyterian Church, San Francisco
Executive Director, Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

As we read the gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus just had no standards at all about whom he ate with. His utterly indiscriminate table fellowship, in a society with strict rules of precedence and protocol for dining, caused plenty of critical comment. People noticed and complained that he ate with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes – all sorts of unsuitable people!

In today’s gospel story, though, Jesus is at a proper dinner in a proper company – he’s having a Sabbath meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. The story is set up like a typical Greek symposium – with cultivated guests exchanging civilized conversation.

Jesus takes the opportunity, however, to comment provocatively on the behavior both of his fellow guests and of the host. First he notices how everyone’s moving their place cards around to sit closer to the head table. Don’t shove yourself forward like that, he says – you only risk embarrassing yourself.

Most scholars think that Luke probably added this particular bit of worldly wisdom to catch the attention of the gentiles who were his particular audience; but its punch-line is certainly a very common theme in Jesus’ teaching:

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (v.11)

It’s by no means only the Pharisees or the gentiles, of course, who jockey for position. All the gospels report the disciples arguing among themselves as to who is more important; the mother of James and John even comes to Jesus and asks to have her sons sit at his right and left hand in the Kingdom (Matt. 20: 24-28). In Luke’s recounting, the disciples are even arguing about “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” during the last supper! (Lk. 22: 24). Any of this sound familiar?

Getting back to this slightly awkward dinner party –
Jesus then turns his attention to the host, and perhaps not too graciously questions his guest list.

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (vv. 12-14)

Jesus is not here condemning normal socializing among family and friends. We know that he himself enjoyed dinners at the home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and at Peter’s home; and when he begins the Last Supper he tells his closest companions, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Lk. 22:14). Eating with friends is one of the joys of life; a “companion” after all is someone with whom you break bread.

But fellowship is not meant to be merely transactional, in which we collect and repay social debts. And extending hospitality or kindness just to our friends is no special merit. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Plain earlier in this gospel,

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Lk 6: 33)

Instead, Jesus tells those gathered at this dinner party,

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (v. 14)

— people who would never expect to be invited , people who could never repay the hospitality – people, by the way, who could really use a good dinner.

Jesus in his life and teaching carried into startling and radical reality the demands of the Covenantal law that underlies the whole Old Testament. When God tells the Israelites over and over again, “You will keep my law, and I will be your God, and you will be my people,” the Law God is talking about is fundamentally a law of redistributive justice. When the prophets warn Israel in the Old Testament, it is always because they are both “running after false gods” and failing to uphold the demands of justice. While everyone in that Covenant has a strictly defined place, everyone also has rights. For example, the Sabbath is not only for the landowners but also for the slaves – even for the farm animals.

Torah law very consistently commands care for those unable to care for themselves, especially those structurally without power – the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The connection is clear and direct: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:34).

Jesus’ whole life and ministry ask in effect, Why aren’t we doing this? The way of the world, under the Roman empire or the American empire, assumes that you get ahead by working hard, cultivating the right connections, accumulating money and position and power.

Very counter-intuitively, Jesus offers a whole other vision. “Blessed are you poor,” he said, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” (Lk 6:20-21) This can be true, his life shows, not just in a dreamed-of future, but right now, in a community of true sharing. When Jesus fed the five thousand, it was a preview of the eschatological banquet, in the Kingdom of God. However one interprets that miracle (and there are as many interpretations as interpreters), it all begins with the five loaves and two fish of one of those present.

The earliest Christians do seem to have practiced a radically communal lifestyle. Acts tells us that

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” (Acts 2: 44-47)

Scholar John Dominic Crossan suggests that this is how the early church managed to spread, against all likelihood, after its founding prophet had been killed. All very well to tell folks, he says, that Jesus had been raised from the dead – the Graeco-Roman world knew plenty of stories of gods and demigods who overcame normal human boundaries. But if Jesus claimed –as he did – that God’s reign of justice and community was already breaking in, the early church could show that in its own life(1)

Jesus went even further in his own activities and teaching, though. Besides the poor, he associated with all sorts of unsuitable people. He spoke at length to a Samaritan woman (John 4: 6-29); he let a prostitute anoint his feet (Luke 7: 36-50); he made himself ritually impure by touching lepers and even the dead (Mk 1: 40-45, Mk 5: 35-42, and parallels).

And he suggests in his surprising advice to the host that a generous dinner would include not only the poor but also “the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk 14: 13). These are the same folks invited in the more familiar parable of the Great Banquet that immediately follows this passage (see Lk 14: 21). These folks interestingly enough are specifically excluded from serving as priests in Mosaic law (Lev. 21: 17-23).

Just whom to include in the shared meal was an active issue for the first Christians. The book of Acts is full of their discussions about whether Jews and Gentiles could eat together. But both Peter and Paul came to realize and assert that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11). That decision by the early church, of course, allows us – who are not Jews – to be here today!

Getting it right – acting like a community that mirrors the love of God – wasn’t much easier for the early Christians than it is for us. Most of the letters in the New Testament were written by Paul or other apostles to local churches that were losing heart or setting up artificial barriers or squabbling among themselves.

This morning’s epistle reading was probably written to a community of believers in or near Rome, fifty years or so after the death of Jesus. These Christians are getting discouraged as they wait for Jesus’ expected return. The writer exhorts this community to persevere in following Jesus’ example.

“Let mutual love continue,” he tells them. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb. 13: 1-2)

The community they need to rebuild has at least two critical parts. The fellowship here translated as “mutual love” is philadelphia – love of brothers and sisters. The “hospitality to strangers” is philoxenia – love of outsiders. Both are essential to a Christian community. (2)

Hospitality is a core value for Jesus and for his church. It is also, I am glad to believe, a core value for this church. If you look at the back of your bulletin, you’ll see this statement. Let’s read it together:

“Old First Presbyterian Church is an inclusive community of faith united by trust in God and faith in Jesus Christ. We warmly welcome all who accept and respond to God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ and who desire to participate in the life and ministry of this church.”

The session adopted that statement, after lengthy study, ten years ago. It was part of a multi-year process by which we decided that we wanted to be sure gay and lesbian Christians would be fully welcome here. It’s very important to me for that reason, of course. But it also speaks to an even larger value.

In the world Jesus envisioned – the world we in the church are supposed to represent – everyone is invited and everyone is welcome. Just a few verses before our gospel reading for today are these words that we hear each time we celebrate communion:

“People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13: 29)

The function of our worship – indeed the function of the church – is to give some glimpse of the Kingdom or reign of God. We try to show in our life together what it would mean – what it does mean – if God is in charge in our lives. One of the things it means, it seems to me, is that we don’t get to choose who we hang out with. God does the inviting. And fortunately God’s imagination is much better than ours!

One of the great pleasures for me, sitting in choir every week, is seeing everyone come in and rejoicing in the varied and quirky bunch we are. All of us bring gifts to one another that we probably wouldn’t have imagined. In so much of our lives – in our businesses, our neighborhoods, our political clubs – we spend our time with people pretty much like ourselves. Old First – any church, I would hope – introduces us to people we might not otherwise know.

I always look forward to Visitors lunches because they are so full of surprises and blessings. The Indonesian newly-weds. The young lawyers just back from hitch-hiking around the world. The security guard returning to the church after decades away. The young woman studying to be a missionary in Cameroon, and the homeless man who startled us all by knowing its capital (Yaounde, if you want to know!) The foster mother of two young girls and the single man caring for his nephews during their parents’ messy divorce. The girl training for the trapeze and the man whose family ran circuses for years. The new member who joined because he fell in love with Calvin’s theology and the new member who, like the early Christians, came steeped in the Old Testament. The courageous men who pull themselves away from destructive life on the streets and put together a new life one day at a time.

It’s not obvious how most of us would meet in other circumstances. But in the church – as the church – we become family, because we are all adopted by God.

The Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee gives a big Thanksgiving dinner every year. They started it specifically for the gay and lesbian members whose original families don’t want them. Their church family says, Welcome. (You won’t be surprised to hear it’s a great dinner!) That’s also the impulse behind the Larkin Street Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners – offering a family celebration to people far from home. And behind our whole Welcome Ministry. Hospitality is what we in the church are or should be all about.

Saint Benedict lived in the 6th century and founded a monastic order whose monasteries and abbeys are still thriving today. Actually I visited one earlier this month. Benedict in his rule says, “A monastery is never without guests” and goes on to pose this challenge: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris, who has made several stays with the Benedictines, writes that “if it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a monastery. If it doesn’t, it is not.” (3)

That might also be a description of a real church. “If it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a church. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.”

Do you remember how Luke ends his gospel? After Easter, two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. Someone joins them on the road, and as they walk along they discuss the Scriptures and the recent events. The disciples talk about Jesus and tell the stranger that some folks even say he has risen from the dead. As evening draws near, they get to their home and invite the stranger in.

These disciples have been discussing the scripture with this man and testifying to Jesus’ life for some hours. But it is only when they themselves offer hospitality – when they themselves make the invitation and share the meal – that “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24: 13-31). (4) Jesus becomes real to us only as we ourselves live into the reality of his kingdom by offering hospitality to all who present themselves – as if to Christ himself.

Our epistle lesson ends,

“Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Heb 13: 15-16)

Living as Christ’s disciples includes not only “confessing his name” but also works of mercy and the sharing or fellowship – koinonia – that is Christian community. As we at Old First look ahead to the next stage in our life together, I hope these values will continue to infuse our church.

May it be so.

1. Crossan, Excavating Jesus; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001; pp 306-308.

2. Fred Craddock, New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XII; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998; p. 162.

3. Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; New York: Riverhead Books, 1998; pp. 263-264.

4. J.D. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998; p. xi.

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