Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fencing the Table

My Presbytery today moved over to a completely different approach to handling our meetings. For the past several years, the National Capitol Presbytery has run meetings like, well, business meetings. We had an agenda. We used parliamentary procedure. There was debate and dissent and political maneuvering...and the meetings could go on and on and on. It wasn't something I tended to look forward to.

Today, the Presbytery meeting was part of the new model, meaning mostly worship. We gathered in small groups at tables. There was a lecture on Scripture, and then small group discussion, followed by a sermon, and more discussion, after which we shared Communion. It was actually sorta fun, and the discussions were both intellectually and spiritually engaging. The focus of the day was Mark 14, and as part of our conversations about the dynamics of the Christian communion meal, I bumped into something I can't quite recall having encountered before.

Meaning, I probably have encountered it, but I just don't remember. One of the great things about getting older is that I get to experience so many things again for the first time.

As we discussed the meaning of the Lord's Supper in the context of Mark and the other synoptic Gospels, I popped over to 1 Corinthians 11 to make sure that the Apostle Paul's perspective was included in our small group conversation. What whapped me upside the head about Paul's description of the communion meal was the very particular way he "fenced the table."

What "table-fencing" means, for thems of you who don't follow the in-group talk of Jesus people, is keeping out the folks who don't belong. The bread and grape juice that comprise the Lord's Supper are part of something sacred, so we need to boot the unworthy. It is, quite literally, excommunication.

Many churches set and enforce particular standards based on Paul's assertion that eating and drinking the Lord's Supper with the wrong attitude is "sinning against the body and blood of the Lord." People who run afoul of those standards are not welcome at the Lord's table. Keep 'em out! No Christ for You!

But if you get past our human love of sticking out our tongues at people we don't like, and actually read Paul, that isn't what he tells us to do at all. He never says, not ever, that our task is to judge others worthy or unworthy of the communion meal. What he says is this:
A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:28-31)
It is not "figure out who doesn't meet our standards." It's "take a hard look at ourselves, to see if we meet Christ's standards."

There's a huge, huge difference there.


  1. Hey Frater Dave,

    Though my home church is a United Church of Christ congregation in Charlottesville, I live way out in the country about equidistant from C-ville and Richmond. That allows me to worship with my church family on Sunday mornings and then in the evenings go to one of my second church homes in Richmond, St. Stephen's Episcopal.

    It has become increasingly important to my mental and spiritual health to hear these words each week; to reaffirm and be reaffirmed by them:

    This is the table, not of the Church, but of the Lord..
    It is made ready for those who love him.
    And for those who want to love him more.

    So, come, you who have much faith
    and you who have little,
    You who have been here often
    and you who have not been here long,
    You who have tried to follow
    and you who have failed.

    Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.

    It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.

    It's not that I don't think that Paul's warnings don't obtain, it's just that I don't think it is up to us to enforce the rules. We are guests at the Wedding Banquet and it is not the place of a guest to tell the Host or the Bridegroom who they can or cannot invite.

    My Pastor summed it up perfectly for me in the following sermon preached a few years ago on Christmas Eve.


    It was hearing this sermon that allowed the Spirit to open my eys that I might see, open my ears that I might hear and broke my heart so that my heart of stone could be replaced with a heart of flesh.

    Thanks for this reminder of God's Irresitable Grace and His abundant mercies.

    Yours in the Bond and Your Brother in Christ,


  2. Do you know this early sermon, by John Chrysostom (Golden-Mouth)? It's a great description of God's abundance and welcome: