Sunday, June 17, 2007

Table Manners

Sermon Texts: Luke 7:36-8:3
Galatians 2: 11-21

Lately, Lara and I have been trying to develop a sense of table manners with Wesley. He has moved from sitting in a high chair to sitting on one of our barstools pulled up to the table during dinner time. We haven’t quite gotten to the “no elbows on the table,” and “no chewing with your mouth open” rules. Instead we are focusing more on “no chewing up your cheese and then spitting it out on the floor,” and “no standing in your chair.” I’m sure we have a long road ahead of us!
We human beings spend a lot of time trying to cultivate a sense of appropriateness and taboos at the table. Perhaps we have an innate sense of the sacredness of this time of fellowship around a meal.
Jesus’ table customs would have looked quite strange to us. In his culture, the tables were very low to the ground so that one would usually eat while reclining with your feet facing away from the table. Perhaps that changes the picture in your mind of the gospel story we heard today.
Also in Jesus’ time, and in the era and culture of the early church, it was customary for Jews to segregate themselves during meal times. It was not written in Torah, but it was a cultural norm that was commented on by Jewish and Roman historians of the time. Jews segregated themselves from Gentiles while eating, and they did so largely because they were afraid of losing their dietary identity that had been set down in the Law. This is something that Paul came to detest, and writes quite passionately about in today’s passage from Galatians.
I am reminded of the common high school lay out of table hierarchy that existed when I was in school: athletic people over here, preps over here, “goat-ropers” over here, skaters over there, band nerds over here, etc. etc.
In this letter, Paul is taking his fellow missionaries to task for failing to abide by the truth of the Gospel. He has witnessed Peter fellowshipping with the Gentiles at a common table during mealtimes, but when James and his “party” come to town, Peter and even Barnabas “draw back” from the Gentiles and refuse to fraternize with them because James’s bunch is very vocal about Gentiles needing to conform to Jewish cultural mores to follow Christ. Mind you, the Gentile “God-fearers” in Antioch had already most likely adopted Jewish customs and dietary prohibitions (because Paul doesn’t mention that as being a problem)—Peter and the other apostles were simply drawing back from the Gentiles because he was a Jew and they were Gentiles.
Paul describes this mass withdrawal from the one table as “hypocrisy” (hypokrisis, v. 13). The Greek word does not have quite the same connotation of malicious duplicity that is present in the English. In Greek, the (hypokrites) is an actor, someone who wears a mask and plays a role. Thus hypokrisis is the act of playing out a scripted role. Paul's point is that Peter and the other Jewish Christians at Antioch are caught up in playing a part that does not represent their own considered convictions; they are caving in to external pressure, carrying out someone else's agenda. This is another way of expressing the charge of people pleasing.
Paul was standing up for a pretty unpopular side of the argument among his fellow missionaries. But he insisted that the truth of the Gospel was not fused with Jewish cultural identity. Love and fellowship outweighed any commitments to cultural preservation. Imagine how the Love of Christ was communicated to the Gentiles when the Jewish missionaries who brought the message of this new life in Christ abandoned the cultural practices the Gentiles expected of them to instead have direct and full fellowship with them!
When we get mission and evangelism right, this is what happens. For a period in our history, mission work meant cultural conversion. Most likely because we practiced and still practice a cultural religion, we for some time thought that showing Christ to Africa meant making the Africans more like Americans. We thought Christianity was the wrapping paper on the true gift of American styles of dress and taste, American taboos and language.
What Paul was doing back in the first generation of Christianity was the radical freeing of the Good News from the cultural identity that he had known and loved his entire life. What he wanted the Jerusalem church to know was that when we give the Gospel to people of other cultures, we should be prepared to take some of them into us. We should celebrate the skate-park ministries, the online porn-site ministries, the African churches that end up looking and feeling so different from our own expression of faith. Those who sit at the table with people who hold very different values and customs than our own should be celebrated instead of suspected.
What are the examples of Christians’ weariness to have table fellowship with Gentiles are there today? Our unease to go into the bars and the clubs and look to build authentic felloship? Our denominational predjudices? Our inhospitality with those who some in our community feel are “abnormal?” If we fail to show the love of Christ to those on the margins because we are afraid of what others in our church may associate us with, then we are containing the love of Christ. We are keeping a lid on it.
Christ’s love is free grace, and if we attempt to yoke it to all kinds of rules and regulations, then we are standing in the corner with Simon the Pharisee scoffing at how Jesus is tenderly responding to the harlot. Or we are drawing back from the table of fellowship with Peter and Barnabas and we should hear Paul’s anger being directed our way.
Crucified with Christ, it is Christ who lives in me! Who am I to limit the love of Christ, through my own unwillingness to love and have fellowship with all of God’s people? Paul is describing the experience of having his former life-world terminated and entering a new sphere of reality where he is no longer in charge. This is not merely a matter of having his sins forgiven (indeed, Paul never mentions “forgiveness” in this letter); instead, it is a matter of being transformed for service. Paul finds himself—to his own great surprise—the instrument of Christ's reconciling love, the agent of Christ's mission to a world of Gentiles whom he previously regarded as unclean “dogs.”
“It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Having died to his old identity, and to the Law that shaped that identity, Paul lives in the mysterious power of the risen Christ. This means that all his values and practices are reshaped in accordance with the identity of the crucified one. The character of that identity is sketched by the latter part of v. 20: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith—that is, by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” The hallmarks of this new identity are love and self-giving, rather than circumcision and Law observance. All of this has obvious implications for the debate over table fellowship with Gentiles.
These hallmarks of Christ are also on display in the Gospel passage from Luke. Jesus commends the woman for her faith and display of honor and love. Jesus is able to look deeper into her identity than the judgmental Simon, who scoffs that Jesus must not be who he had at first thought.
Simon, forming his spiritual worldview out of a legalistic attention to issues of “outsider” and “insider,” looks down on the woman because of her reputation and the damage it brings to his own stature. Jesus, forming his spiritual worldview out of a prophetic reversal of “outsider” and “insider” sees the act of devotion as an expression of the woman’s gratitude and faith. He holds her up as fulfilling a higher law: hospitality. It is in the fellowship that Christ becomes alive and real, not in the observance of all the rules and laws. Christ forgives, he loves sinners.
Wherever we see Christians trying to rebuild walls of separation in the church, walls that separate people along ethnic or cultural lines, we can be sure that the integrity of the gospel is being violated, and, like Paul, we should feel compelled to speak out against such practices. Paul goes on to say in the next chapter of Galatians that we should refrain from making distinctions among ourselves and segregating ourselves from one another because “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we withdraw from fellowship with someone or some particular group of people because of our cultural norms, we are missing this opportunity to know Christ so much more deeply.
One of the most remarkable stories of this kind from recent history emerged from the bloody conflict in Rwanda, where in 1994 members of the Hutu tribe carried out mass murders of the Tutsi tribe. At the town of Ruhanga, fifteen kilometers outside Kigali, a group of 13,500 Christians had gathered for refuge. They were of various denominations: Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. According to the account of a witness to the scene, “When the militias came, they ordered the Hutus and Tutsis to separate themselves by tribe.
The people refused and declared that they were all one in Christ, and for that they were all killed,” gunned down en masse and dumped into mass graves. It is a disturbing story, but it is also a compelling witness to the power of the gospel to overcome ethnic division. Paul would have regarded these Rwandan martyrs as faithful witnesses to the truth of the gospel. Having been “crucified with Christ,” they preferred to die rather than to deny the grace of God that had made them one in Christ.A very poignant truth that I have heard over the years and have just been waiting and waiting to express to you is that when a new person joins this family of faith with vows of membership, we become a brand new body of Christ. Instead of viewing that new person as being “grafted on” to the existing body, we must instead see how that new person’s gifts and graces change the whole body into something new. This is a struggle that was being faced by the early church. The Jerusalem church, led by James the brother of Jesus, saw the Gentiles as “grafted on.” Paul saw the inclusion of the Gentiles as being reformative. God was doing a new thing, and this meant something to his own relationship with God. With joy, Paul celebrated a new understanding of a relationship that was even deeper than he had at first imagined.

1 comment:

  1. a powerful, very well thought out and (probably) delivered sermon! I admire your strength!!!!!!!!!!!!