A Table Without Boundaries
A sermon based on Mark 6:17-29
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 29, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
At the end of a semester in seminary things can get a little tense. In our second year, with a week left to go, my class was looking at the text that Tom just read and we had to break into small groups during the class and then return at the end of the hour and do an oral report. When we got back for the oral report I was called on first. Sensing the tension in the air as I walked forward to give our group report I said to the professor in the back of the classroom that it took us a while to figure out a deeper meaning to the text because some of us thought it was just a story about two parents helping their child to get a-head.
When I first heard about the breakfast services at our church someone mentioned how novel they are. And sure enough, this is the first meal service I can remember being at in church. But you know what’s ironic? The Jesus movement and the early church had meals as a central part of their ministry. This table gathering is not unlike how it all began.
And this may sound odd, but, it all began as a protest movement. See First Century Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire and its locally appointed elite. The elite were few in number and controlled the wealth and power while the vast majority were very, very poor and considered nobodies and often even expendable.
The Biblical meal story of Herod’s Birthday Banquet depicts how the drastic inequality of the Roman Empire played out. It illustrates that under Roman rule the ruling elite were understood to have the power to imprison someone (John the Baptist) for criticizing their marriage and even execute him as a whimsical reward for a daughter’s entertaining dance.
Jesus was at one time a follower and probably a disciple of John. 1 John taught not just repentance, but resistance in hopes of an apocalyptic end to Rome’s rule. And John foresaw a Coming One who would wrest Israel from Rome with divine vengeance, and violence with chopping ax and burning fire (Matt 3:10). At some point Jesus parted company with John’s movement. Indeed, John’s execution itself “may have convinced Jesus of a different type of God– the non-violent God of a non-violent kingdom, a God of non-violent resistence to structural as well as individual evil” as John Dominic Crossan put it…. 2
Jesus’ break with John’s movement resulted in the rise of the non-violent resistance movement that Jesus founded. Jesus did not focus on the use of baptism nor preach a message of apocalyptic eschatology as John did. He chose instead to challenge the inequities of the Roman Empire in other ways including flipping an exclusive Greco-Roman meal tradition on its head. In Jesus’ day and age meals hosted by a patron were a way to maintain networks and loyalty with underlings, so-called “clients.” The banquet meal was an important social institution constructed around formalities.3
Except for wedding banquets these meals were usually only for male guests old enough and important enough to fall within the sphere of influence of someone sufficiently wealthy to afford to host such a meal. 4 The meal banquet was typically tended to by servants and when guests arrived they were brought to a dinning room where their feet were washed before they sat by social rank at an assigned couch where they would recline during the meal (with dogs beneath their feet to eat the scraps). 5
If you think about it, many of the meal traditions I’ve just mentioned can be found in New Testament discussions about invitations, exclusive guests, foot washing, hand washing, scraps for dogs, things like that. Herod’s Birthday Banquet is, I think, one of the best examples. Herod, the patron, is having a birthday banquet with his clients– elite “courtiers and officers and . . . leaders of Galilee.”
The only female at the party is the entertainer, Herod’s daughter, who has to come in to dance and go out to speak to her mother, Herod’s wife, who as a non-servant, non-entertainer, non-male is not allowed at the banquet. Inequality was part and parcel of the meal tradition. Consequently those on the margins – women, untouchables, poor and expendables – were not welcomed at the typical Greco-Roman banquet table.///
Jesus’ movement challenged the drastic inequalities of the Roman Empire as a whole, and included an emphasis on table practices.
At Jesus’ banquets cultural status and hierarchy were completely set aside. Jesus made his table open to all regardless of a person’s class or purity status. 6 It was a meal where outcasts and sinners were welcomed to break bread as equals with everyone else.
And Jesus further equalized the table by acting as host, guest, and servant, and setting aside rules. Brilliantly, Jesus took the exclusive table practices of his culture, replaced exclusivity with inclusivity and brought it to the poor and other outcasts so that they might eat, and build and belong to community. The promise of a meal certainly drew the hungry peasants in, and to those who were unclean Jesus cleverly granted clean status.
In the process Jesus provided experiences of a just God; for hungry peasants “food is about justice and justice is about God . . .” 7 For outcasts inclusion is about justice, and justice is about God. Jesus’ table practices created experiences of the Empire of God where all were equally loved and entitled to food and community, where justice, as well as food was served. At Jesus’ table the Roman Empire’s exclusionary oppression was invalidated and superceded through the presence and experience of the Empire of God where “God is a god who shares.” 8 Jesus’ table gave food, community and new clean status to outcasts, all really were invited. We can hear this in Jesus’ Heavenly Banquet story where he has the royal image of God instruct, “‘Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the . . . banquet” (Matt 22:9; Cf., Lk 14:23). Jesus’ table “is a table without controls, a table without boundaries. It represents a community in which all are welcomed, into which all may come.”9
Jesus’ table represents God’s Empire breaking in, an empire quite different from the earthly empires, at a table quite different from theirs too. At God’s table in the here and now “[n]o one is exempted. Everyone is invited. Women as well as men, prostitutes as well as Pharisees.”10 At Jesus table unmediated access to God, justice, community and food is available to anyone.
Jesus’ struggle against inequality included transformation of a common meal practice in a way that shattered boundaries and helped feed people and mediate God’s loving presence. In the end it cost Jesus, His body was broken and His blood was spilt over his loving inclusive ways and resistance movement. His followers remembered this and his meal practice. Jesus followers continued the meals and did not forget the great cost involved. We can hear it echoing in our two thousand year old communion practice.
See the Last Supper ritual has its very roots in Jesus’ God centered resistance movement, a movement that involved meals like this, where all are invited and welcome and equal. Where love abounds. That’s why communion in this faith community is open to absolutely everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a member or a non-member. It doesn’t matter if you are poor or rich, or an elite or outcast in the culture. It doesn’t even matter what you believe or don’t believe. If you want to partake you can.
. . . COMMUNION
I know it’s not the first of the month, but we thought we’d try and add communion to this meal service since it fits well with all we are doing. We’ll do communion a bit different, a little less formal. Loaves and juice will be brought to the tables and passed around by you all at your table. Please tear off a goodly size of bread hold it and wait for the juice and for everyone else to be served and then we will all mindfully partake together in silence.
And remember wherever you are on life’s journey you may eat the bread of life and drink the cup of blessing here at the Lord’s table.
We remember this morning that on the night Jesus was handed over to the authorities he gathered his disciples for one last meal. Jesus took bread and after giving thanks broke it and gave it to his followers saying “Take eat this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same manner he took the cup also saying to his followers “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink of it in remembrance of me.”
Please pray with me: God of forgiveness and love pour your Spirit into this bread and into this cup and into all who are gathered here today so that we might know your love and remember Christ’s call to love and to include all at the table and into our community.
The gifts of God for all the people of God. Come for all things are ready.
1. Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus a Revolutionary Biography, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1989), 151.
2. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, 287.
3.Smith, Dennis, The Greco-Roman Banquet: Defining a Common Meal Tradition, Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int’l, (1990), 13, 21.
4. Women might serve as entertainers and courtesans, but typically were not guests, except at wedding banquets. Smith, 35, 40, 42.
5.Ibid., 17, 27.
6. Ibid., 66-70.
7. Crossan, Birth of Christianity, 422.
8. Ibid., 430.
10. Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, 121.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2014 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED