May 21, 2017 Sermon
“One Table or Two?”
1st Scripture Reading – Galatians 1:13-17
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me,[e] so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
2nd Scripture Reading – Galatians 2:11-21
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”[c]
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified[d] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.[e]And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,[f] and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,[g] who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification[h] comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
“One Table or Two?”
I remember the Board Meeting of St. Charles Christian Church very clearly, even though it took place about eight years ago. The chairs of the fellowship hall were arranged in a great big circle so that every member of the Board could see every other member. And we engaged in discussions about a great many topics. But one discussion, one topic, stood out. It stood out because it was a topic brought up by one board member or another just about every year in the early springtime, as the wedding season approached.
Ever since the congregation had moved its building from an aging residential neighborhood off I-70 in St. Charles to its location in a rapidly growing new urbanist development 5-10 miles to the north, the congregation had experienced a revival of its wedding ministry. People came from all over the St. Louis metropolitan area to get married in New Town St. Charles, and the congregation offered one of the prettiest venues and the lowest cost in New Town. BUT, there was one thing holding the wedding ministry back…the congregation would not, under ANY circumstances, allow alcohol to be brought into its building.
And so every year, one board member or another brought the issue to the Board, asking the Board to consider allowing a champagne toast at wedding receptions. What stood out at this particular gathering of the Board to debate a well-worn issue was the response of the recently appointed Board Chair, a longtime member of the congregation who had been away for a few years for business but who had returned and had an opportunity to participate in this discussion for the first time since I began serving the congregation. After hearing what others had to say, I thought the issue might pass…since the great majority of comments were in favor of allowing champagne wedding toasts. Until the Board Chair spoke. He said that he agreed that the Bible did not prohibit drinking alcoholic beverages, certainly not a toast at a wedding; he even cited this being the event of Jesus’ first miracle as told by the apostle and gospel-writer John. He said that he, himself, enjoyed an alcoholic beverage from time to time…and so to say that alcohol is against the rules for Christians would be hypocritical. However, he expressed concern at how the move would be perceived within the greater St. Charles community. He had friends who attended the regular Friday lenten fish fries at the local Catholic Church, where beer and wine were served. Apparently, his friends drank beer while eating their fish – along with our Board Chair – and then complained about the Catholic church offering beer for sale after partaking of that very same beer. The Board Chair concluded by saying he didn’t think God had a problem with a champagne toast in the church building, but at the same time he didn’t want people in the community saying negative things about the congregation. For him, it came down to how the congregation would be perceived by others in Christ’s greater Church who thought drinking alcohol was a sin. The motion failed.
You’re probably wondering why I’m sharing this story to begin my sermon. Am I about to present a motion to the Board of our congregation to allow the service of alcoholic beverages in our fellowship hall? No, not at all.
Rather, I’m hoping that the story reminds you of someone’s actions in our reading for today – the person identified as Cephas, which is simply another name for the Apostle Peter.
Did you notice Paul’s accusation against Peter. Paul says that Peter used to sit at the table and eat with Gentiles. (Keep in mind, Paul’s talking about Gentile CHRISTIANS, aka followers of Jesus, just like the Jewish Christians were followers of Jesus.) Apparently, the dispute we talked about last week, the dispute recorded in Acts 15 that was so big it was addressed by the Jerusalem Council, the dispute about whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could be counted among the followers of Jesus, was raging like a storm at the time Paul wrote this letter to the church in Galatia…and at the time Paul confronted Peter. Paul opposed Peter because Peter believed in his heart that it was ok for Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians, Peter felt Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus were One in Christ…but, then, when some Christians who were part of the circumcision faction confronted Peter on the subject, Peter backed down. Paul accused Peter of trying to APPEASE some folks instead of standing up for what Peter believed was good, right, and just, what Peter felt like God wanted. And what did God want, at least according to Peter and Paul? For all followers of Jesus to be ONE, for all followers of Jesus to be able to gather around one table and share a meal…instead of dividing themselves according to differing beliefs about one issue or another.
Why did Paul and Peter believe this? According to Paul, it’s because we are saved by Jesus’ action, not our own action. And if Christ is the one who saves, and we all accept what Christ offers, then we are all ONE in Christ.
Sounds pretty good, right? Sounds like sound Christian theology, right?
Except…then…why do we – Christ’s universal Church – allow ourselves to become so divided?
In my estimation, even though Paul made his case to the church in Galatia writing about Jesus versus the law, what Paul was really getting at is that the Church…is…one, and so the church should be united in the ONE thing we should agree on – which is our confession that Jesus is the Christ. When it comes to being Christians, NOTHING else matters. When it comes to who’s in the Church and who’s out, nothing else matters. When it comes to whether or not we can sit around a table with each other, nothing else matters.
This table thing, it probably doesn’t sound like such a big deal to you, to us. We live in a different time, a different place, and we have a VERY different culture. We live in a society in which we’re encouraged to sit down at a table and share a meal with…ANYBODY.
There is a great burger joint in Fort Worth, Texas, a place called Kincaids, a place that so many patrons declare has the best burgers in Texas…which is saying something. When you order a burger at Kincaids and decide to eat-in, you can’t go to a little table with 2, 4, or 6 chairs to eat at with just your family or close friends. At Kincaids, there are just a few long tables with long bench seats. At Kincaids, you eat next to whoever else arrived right before you and right after you. The same is true for my favorite barbecue place in Texas, a place called Rudy’s in Leon Springs, just northwest of San Antonio. There aren’t individual tables, just great big long picnic tables where everyone sits down and eats together like they’re at a great big backyard barbecue.
Y’all, Kincaids and Rudy’s are metaphors for our society, for our great big melting pot of a country, where everyone gathers together and dines with whoever happens to be there. Which is GREAT. But which WAS NOT the case back in the time of Jesus. Especially for God’s people. In Jesus’ time, God’s people the Jews only ate with other Jews, other circumcised people, other people who followed the Jewish laws and were part of the family of God. According to my research, to eat with someone was considered an act of what is called “intimate relating,” and most Jews felt it was forbidden to do this kind of thing with Gentiles. WE hardly think of eating with someone as intimately relating, but this has not always been the case.
SO…let’s use this notion of “intimate relating” as our standard. If eating at a table with someone constitutes “intimate relating”, should we be able to say with confidence that we would, that we SHOULD, eat at the table with all others who seek to follow Christ?
Y’all, that’s what this is about. It’s about whether we metaphorically – sometimes even literally – eat at ONE table with other Christians or whether we demand that there be not ONE table but 2, 4, 8, 64, or even a million different tables…and only Christians who are like-minded in EVERY way can dine together.
To be sure, there are a great many DIVISIONS within Christianity. The great variety of Christian denominations is the direct result of DIVISION, and look around at all the different denominations:
- Lutherans – and there’s even more than ONE kind of Lutheranism, a quick online search reveals more than 50 DIFFERENT kinds of Lutherans;
- Baptists – which we tend to think of as including groups like the Southern Baptists and American Baptists, but a quick online search reveals more than 100 different subdivisions with the group of Christians called Baptists;
- Anabaptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Millerites, and So MANY OTHERS, each and everyone containing a great number of what are known as sub-denominations; y;all, I’ve just begun scratching the SURFACE of protestant denominations; and, believe me, there are a great many Christians outside of what we call protestantism;
And, you might wonder, WHY are there so many different denominations and sub-denominations? WHY are there so many divisions within the CHURCH?
The simple answer is “difference in belief”. You might recall that the Stone-Campbell Movement, also known as the Restoration Movement, that was the pre-cursor for our own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), formed in response to these divisions. The founders and early leaders of this movement had some history with division – they had been tossed out of denomination after denomination for what they considered to be relatively small, insignificant disagreements in belief about God. And, recognizing the pain of division with Christ’s Church, they sought to UNITE Christians around a very small set of what they called ESSENTIALS, the things they felt anyone MUST believe and do to be counted as a follower of Jesus.
I hope you see how that very notion, a notion I agree with and a notion that binds me to this denomination, I hope you can see how that very notion exposes the problem of division and, in its own way, contributes to the problem. By identifying the various things that divide Christians, the things that cause some Christians to suggest others are not true Christians, the founders of the Restoration Movement exposed the problem of division. AND, in their suggestion of the 6 ESSENTIALS to be called Christian, they unwittingly created further cause for division. In my studies of what happened following this attempt by the movement’s founders, I discovered that not everyone AGREED with the essentials chosen by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell. Some people wanted a LARGER list of essentials. Others wanted a SMALLER list. Still others wanted a DIFFERENT list altogether. The notion was noble…and brilliant…and a great START to dealing with the issue Paul identified in his letter to the church in Galatia. Yet, in the aftermath of this quest for unity, the Church discovered MORE, not less, division. Even the Restoration Movement, itself, divided into at least three pieces.
Which brings me back to the question of tables, of how many tables, we must have in Christ’s Church. Can we enjoy the intimacy of sharing a meal with EVERYONE who calls herself or himself Christian at one table, or must we have a multitude of tables?
Even though we Disciples of Christ are no stranger to division (we are, after all, one of several remnants after divisions within the Restoration Movement), even though we are no stranger to division, we have decided as a denomination that Christ’s Table should, MUST, remain ONE. In at least this ONE way, in this one most critical moment in worship, we must express our unity with all others who dare follow Jesus. And so we proclaim the communion table as JESUS’ table, and we say each week that ANYONE who seeks to follow Jesus is invited to and welcome at THIS table. When your pastor says those words, I hope you hear something more, as well. I hope you hear the echo of Paul’s words to the church in Galatia, the echo of “[we] have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer [us] who live, but it is Christ who lives in [us].” Christ lives in ALL of us…not just “us” in this room, but “us” who follow Jesus as the Christ. If Christ lives in all of us, in some way, in some form, we ARE, we MUST BE, one. And so when you hear the pastor invite EVERYONE to the table, I hope you hear a reminder that all followers of Jesus are not simply invited to PARTAKE at the TABLE, but they are invited to the intimacy of relationship that is part of being “one in Christ.”
Y’all, we might disagree about some things from time to time. Indeed, we DO disagree about some things from time to time. But, as followers of Jesus the Christ, we absolutely, positively, MUST be able to set those disagreements aside and live and breathe and follow God together as ONE.
Which brings me back to that Board meeting on a Saturday morning in St. Charles Christian Church. We ALSO need to remember what our oneness is about. It’s not our oneness in a desire to have everybody outside these walls like us, or even a oneness in having everybody INSIDE these walls like us. It’s not a oneness in thought about every topic under the sun. It’s not a oneness in what type of music we prefer or what television shows and movies we enjoy watching. It’s not even a oneness in belief ABOUT Jesus. Rather, it’s a oneness in doing everything we can to follow Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For US, everything else should come a distant second to THAT. For us, the sum of everything we disagree upon should pale in comparison to our strength of resolve to FOLLOW JESUS. And this one thing upon which we agree, it should BIND us together, not loosely, but intimately, so that we can dine together, so that we can truly live together as one. Amen.