The Joyful Feast of the People of God
Luke 14:1, 7‑11, 15‑24
I am not the most well-mannered person. It’s not my mother’s fault, though. She did her best to teach me what she could. I remember going out in public as a child. I would run into a building first. Once inside, I would eventually realize that mother was not with me. She was standing outside by the door, waiting for me to open it for her. She never lectured. When I realized what I was supposed to do, I would open the door, and she would walk through and say, “Thank you.”
Good manners are important. There is a revival of interest in etiquette in this country, probably because we are all sick of hearing people’s personal cell phone conversations in restaurants and movie theaters. Remember Miss Manners? She still has a syndicated etiquette column. Her books have been wildly and unexpectedly successful best‑sellers. I love some of the titles: Miss Manner’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Painfully Proper Weddings, and Miss Manners Rescues Civilization!
Etiquette academies are springing up around America! One in Chicago charges $500 a day to teach the difference between a dessert and a salad fork. They also teach their students how not to eat spaghetti! Hint: Don’t get the end of a foot‑long noodle in your mouth, then suck it up with a loud smacking sound! For $175.00 you can even send your children to summer etiquette camp. And in Los Angeles, there’s a 24-week etiquette training course for street‑wise, high‑ earning rock stars and rap stars. These home boys and girls, straight from the “hood,” often need to negotiate million dollar contracts. They’ve discovered that they make more money when they behave appropriately, at least around record company execs. One recent graduate was a rhythm and blues star who used to amaze reporters by opening a beer bottle with her teeth. Her etiquette advisors told her not to.
So I thought, what about a sermon on manners: table manners, communion table manners? We talk to the kids about good manners all the time. How about a refresher on table manners as we begin to think about communion at TCC? What attitudes and behaviors do we need to bring to the Lord’s Supper? Now there are no clear guidelines in Scripture on the right way or wrong way to take communion. Different churches take communion in different ways. And that’s okay. Some have the Sacrament weekly, others monthly. A church I once served had communion only seven times a year. Some take communion at the altar rail, others receive it in the pews, some with wine, some with grape juice, some with wafers, some with loaves of bread, some with bread cubes.
I don’t think the details of Communion are critically important. But, our attitude is. Jesus dropped a few hints about attitudes in the fourteenth chapter of Luke. Jesus attended a dinner party put on by some people who didn’t like him. Jesus was so fascinating, even his enemies invited him to dinner -- although sometimes, as on this occasion, his enemies were also trying to trip him up. In this chapter, Jesus tells three stories about suppers. The first is the Parable of the Great Feast. A rich man invites lots of people to a feast. In those days, dinner parties were big events. They could go on for a week. No expense was spared.
The servants were sent out with invitations to the social event of the year. Yet excuses were all they brought back. Some of the excuses were lame. One man said he had just bought a piece of land. Now, he had to go see it. Don’t you think that’s suspicious? Who buys a piece of land without checking it out first? Another man said he had just bought ten new oxen and had to test them. Suspicious again: who would make an expensive purchase, like a car, without test-driving it first? A third man said he had to stay home with his new wife. Great idea, but totally out of character in that society. Sadly, in those days women were treated as possessions. It was the wife’s obligation to please her husband ‑ almost never the other way around.
Jesus’ listeners must have laughed on hearing those excuses. But, the host in the story didn’t laugh. He got understandably angry. No one likes to be taken for granted. Remember, the host in the story represents God. When Jesus first told the parable, the ones receiving the invitations were the Pharisees. They didn’t respond. Today, the ones receiving the invitations are us! We are each invited to be part of the joyful feast of the people of God, the Lord’s Supper. Do we recognize the wonder of that invitation? Do we accept it with joy?
I like the attitude of Thomas Merton and writer on receiving Communion. Merton was a Trappist monk who wrote that as he received the Sacrament for the first time as an adult, he thought to himself‑
Heaven was entirely mine... Christ, hidden in the small host, was giving himsey for me and to me, and with himself the entire Godhead and Trinity ... Christ was bom in me, his new Bethlehem, and sacrificed in me, his new Calvary, and risen in me... (God) called out to me from his own immense depths. (The Seven Story Mountain, Image Books, pp. 273‑274)
Thomas Merton sensed the wonder of God’s invitation to communion and received it joyfully. So should we. Gratitude is part of good table manners.
The next story is the Parable of Places at the Table. One of the guests at a wedding feast sits down boldly in the best place. The host comes along and tells the presumptuous guest to take a lower place. It’s a humiliating and embarrassing moment for the presumptuous guest. The point is: “Those who make too much of themselves will be humbled. But those who humble themselves before God and each other will be lifted up.” Good manners at the communion table also include not thinking too much of ourselves.
I like the story historians tell about the funeral of Charlemagne. Charlemagne was the greatest Christian ruler of the early Middle Ages. After his death, a mighty funeral procession left his castle for the cathedral. When the royal casket arrived with a lot of pomp and circumstance, it was met by the local bishop, who barred the cathedral door.
“Who comes?” the Bishop asked, as was the custom.
“Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire,” proclaimed the Emperor’s proud herald.
“I do not know him,” the Bishop replied. “Who comes?”
The herald, a bit shaken, replied, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”
“ I do not know him,” the Bishop said again. “Who comes?”
The herald, now completely crushed, responded, “Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”
To which the Bishop, Christ’s representative, responded, “Enter! Receive Christ’s gift of life!”
In God’s eyes, we’re all equally needy. Charlemagne, Mother Teresa, you and me. None of us will ever be “good enough” to force entrance into the presence of God. I’m reminded of the definition of “nervous” I once heard. Do you know what “nervous” is? “Nervous” is standing in line at the Pearly Gates behind Mother Teresa, and hearing Saint Peter say to Mother Teresa, “I’m sorry, dear, you haven’t done enough!” When we come to the Lord’s Table, we’re all sinners in need of salvation, beggars needing bread. We are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Maybe not literally poor, crippled, lame, and blind, but spiritually poor, crippled, lame, and blind. God graciously includes us as guests at God’s Table. Good communion table manners include coming to the table without thinking too much of ourselves.
Good communion table manners also include coming without looking down on any other guest, for all of us are God’s equally beloved guests. King George IV desired Communion and sent a servant to bring the Bishop of Winchester. When the servant arrived with the Bishop, the King was angry. He felt his servant had taken too long. The King scolded the man and fired him on the spot. Then the king turned to the Bishop for Communion. But the Bishop refused to give it to King George. He saw that the King was still angry. Realizing the Bishop was right, the King called for his servant, apologized, and restored the man’s job. Only then could Communion proceed. Part of good table manners is extending graciousness to the other guests. As we have been forgiven and welcomed by God, let us forgive and welcome each other.
When we take communion, we invite all to come and joyfully celebrate the feast which Christ himself has prepared for us. It’s even enjoyable when we mind our table manners.