Monday Morning in the Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon
(15th Sunday after Pentecost, Sept 1, 2013)
D. Jay Koyle
It would be easy to esteem Jesus’ words this Sunday as a reprise of shrewd social etiquette from some ancient Hebrew Emily Post (Proverbs 25.6-7). In fact, however, today’s outtake from Luke’s first symphonic masterpiece is a brilliant development of themes introduced in the Gospel’s Exposition, themes that will climax in its Recapitulation, the Passion and Resurrection narratives.
Staged in the home of a leading Pharisee, the meal we witness today is the third recorded on route to Jerusalem, to the appointment Jesus must keep at Calvary. (The first was in 10.38-42, the second in 11.37-54). While most translations miss it, verse one actually refers to our Lord’s passage to this ultimate destination, saying literally, “and it happened in his going.” Luke links this episode, then, to the fulfillment of Jesus’ life and mission. The scene is no diversion from his movement toward the Cross; it is integral to the journey.
Jesus speaks with great clarity to both would-be guests and hosts. To the former he advises taking the lowest place upon arrival at a banquet. His counsel to the latter is that they address their festive invitations to those who have no means of returning the favor. Each exhortation echoes themes sounded consistently throughout the third Gospel.
Luke makes it clear that in his birth and baptism, in his table fellowship and in his death, the Son of God identifies with those who are considered outcasts, those relegated to the fringe of society (2.7; 3.21; 5.29; 7.39; 9.16; 13.29; 15.2; 19.5; 23.33). Indeed from Mary’s song of praise in the opening bars of Luke (1.46-55) to Jesus’ homecoming homily in the congregation at Nazareth (4.18-21), from the reorienting Sermon on the Plain (6.20-26) to table turning talk of true greatness (9.46-48; 22.24-30), this motif is sounded repeatedly.
Jesus not only speaks of this reality; he embodies it. For Luke, table fellowship with Jesus is nothing less than the revelation of the coming and near Reign of God.
In the eyes of the third evangelist, the table activity of the Lord continues in the life and mission of the Spirit-filled church. It is at table that the Risen Christ is recognized in the midst of believers (24.28-32). In table fellowship, Christ promises the gift of the Spirit and commissions his followers for mission (Acts 1.4-8). As Jews and Gentiles are gathered around the table, the church fulfills its mission and the breadth of God’s Reign is realized in its midst (Acts 11.1-18).
It would seem that today’s second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews reinforces the revelations of the Lukan table. The text speaks of the mutuality of love between believers. This phenomenon is meant to spill out and embrace the stranger, something Christine Pohl names as a “spiritual obligation” and a “dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity.” (Welcoming the Stranger. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999)
Undoubtedly such hospitality may be the most profound theological statement and the greatest gift the church can ever offer. Sociologist Rodney Stark sketches the rise of Christianity from a tiny Jewish sect to a dominant force in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Most new religious movements fade away, he explains, because they quickly become closed networks. Christianity’s rise was due to love and service on the part of Christians. The church rolls swelled in number due to risky service not only to one another, but also to anyone in need. (The Rise of Christianity, New York: HarperCollins, 1997.)
With such rich texts, the preacher can readily herald the welcoming God at work in today’s world, and the church’s participation in this work.
For example, today Christians of varying perspectives tend to limit the discussion of “Eucharistic hospitality” to whether those not baptized should receive explicit invitation to fully participate at the liturgical table. This reinforces our tendency to see Eucharist as only something we receive rather than something that we do and something we are.
This Sunday, it would be timely to consider the church itself as the table of hospitality God sets in the world. The Eucharist is missional, after all, not because it can be employed as a tool of connecting with seekers. Eucharist is missional because it is the action in which the church ritually discovers and deepens its profound identification with the One who is God’s hospitality made flesh and his ongoing work of gathering into the Kingdom.
Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada). This reflection is based on a commentary published previously in Preaching: Word & Witness.