Community Dinner

 

Andrej_Rublëv_001

Exod. 12:1-4, 11-14; John 13:1–17

This week, I was proud to read and then share on social media an article published by The Business Journal titled, “’Live New Wilmington’ Unites Town with Events.” I was proud, of course, because all of the people quoted or mentioned in the article are members of this congregation: Katanya Cathcart, Wendy Farmerie, and Nicole Hunter. Of the various “First Friday” events mentioned in the article, perhaps the most novel one is the Community Dinner that takes place on Market Street. Or maybe I should say it happens in Market Street, since the giant banquet table that is spread out for any and all to come and enjoy literally stretches right down the centerline of Market Street, which is closed to traffic for the event. As Katanya explains in the article:

“We shut down a big section of Market Street and it really gives it a different ambience. People, for whatever reason, think it’s really fun to sit at a table in the middle of the street,” Cathcart says with a laugh. “They think it’s this brilliant thing.”

In those events, Cathcart and Hunter saw the area’s populations mix. Residents from Shenango on the Green, an assisted living center near Westminster College, interacted with kids during the Kids Carnival. Students from Westminster College ate with downtown business owners during the Community Dinner.

“All of these events are quirky and Katanya and Wendy [Farmerie, owner of The Silk Road] planned that on purpose. Quirk is what gets people talking, which is what this was all about,” Hunter says. “It’s contagious. Their joy is contagious when everyone’s together, especially with kids around.”

Ultimately, the goal of Live New Wilmington is getting people together, not always easy given the increasingly diverse segments of the population.

The Gospel according to John is always prepared to disrupt our understanding. Three synoptic gospels’-worth of similarities leave us with the assumption that we know what tonight is about: that as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we do so in remembrance of Jesus. Surely, this was the tradition of the Apostle Paul, handed on to us in the word of institution that Pastor John and I will speak in just a few minutes. But the author of John’s gospel is distinctly and uniquely disinterested in all that. He fails to mention bread; the disciples share no common cup. Either because the other gospels had already sufficiently covered that ground or because it was, in John’s opinion, not the point of the meal, John recounts the circumstances rather differently.

John sets the scene by stating from the outset, “Now before the festival of the Passover….” As Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Randall C. Zachman, points out,

“By framing the coming of the hour in this way, John seems to invite the reader to think of the dramatically different ways the love of God is manifested in the exodus, compared to the way the love of God is said to be completely expressed in the death of Jesus. The love of God is revealed to Israel by the way God sees the misery of God’s people in Egypt, hears their cry in their afflictions, knows their sufferings, and comes down to deliver them, to bring them to the land of promise, where they are to dwell in peace (Exod. 3:7-10). In the process, God hands over to death the enemies of God’s own people who oppress and afflict them (Exod. 15:21). Because the Israelites know that the love of God acts in this way, they can call on God in their own afflictions, confident that God will see their affliction, hear their cry, know their suffering, and come down to deliver them from death by handing those who oppress them over to death (Ps. 57:3). The faithful know that God loves them when they are freed from death and look [down] in triumph on those who oppressed them (Ps. 59:10).”

Indeed, we see this very attitude expressed by Jesus’ own disciples throughout the gospels, as they assume that Jesus’ being the messiah means that he will rise in power to overthrow their Roman oppressors. Even as late as this evening’s reading, Peter refuses the self-giving service of Jesus at table, saying, “You will never wash my feet!” because it is scandalous to him that the one who soon will be King of all he surveys should condescend to such a servile task. But Jesus explains to Peter (though Peter continues not to understand properly) that unless Peter can accept the kind of service Jesus is offering, Peter will have no place in what is coming. As Dr. Zachman continues to explain:

“The works Jesus does leading up to the hour of his death seem to express the love of God according to the pattern of the Exodus, culminating in the raising of Lazarus from the power of death, the last sign Jesus performs before entering Jerusalem. The raising of Lazarus would be an understandable expression of God’s love as it was known to the Jews from the exodus. It therefore comes as a complete and horrifying surprise, both to the disciples and to us, that Jesus in fact has a radically different understanding of love, one that does not deliver its own from the power of death, but rather one that freely, voluntarily, and completely offers itself to death….[1]

In short, the Gospel of John, in typical fashion, tells the story of the last supper differently because for him the point of the supper is different. The Synoptic gospels emphasize the identification of Jesus as the Pascal lamb whose sacrifice will cause God’s wrath to pass over God’s people, as it had at the time of the exodus. Just as the Passover Seder is a ritualized meal that causes participants to remember the exodus, the Lord’s Supper is, in the view of the Synoptics, cause to remember Jesus’ own Pascal sacrifice. But according to John, the last supper served a different purpose. It was an occasion for Jesus to teach his disciples—through the clearest teaching and example he would ever offer—what he had been sent to do.

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done for you?’” That is the question that John asks us this evening: do we know what Jesus has done for us? And before you mentally answer that question, allow me to remind you that when Jesus asked this question, he was still as much as 18 hours away from his crucifixion. In other words, whatever it was that Jesus was referring to, it wasn’t his death.

As I heard Dr. Andrew Purves, Jean and Nancy Davis Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, state in a lecture in 2015, “Atonement is not the amelioration of broken laws [which Purves calls the great Western heresy]; it is the restoration of a broken relationship.” The Eastern Church — that is, the various Eastern Orthodox communions — understand this in a way that we Westerners have rather completely defaced in our rationalist pursuit of God. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and internationally celebrated author of many books of theological reflection, most recently authored The Divine Dance. Rohr outlines how Western philosophy and theology are founded on Aristotle’s notion of substance being the highest quality of being. The Western Church objectified God and sought to understand God substantially. Meanwhile, the Eastern Church understands God relationally. This relational understanding of God is not a Christian invention—it is inherited from our Jewish spiritual forbears, who do not rely upon “systematic theologies” to rationalize their faith, but relate to God, rather than seek to understand or explain God.

Richard Rohr’s plea is that the Western Church move past its obsession with defining God’s objective substance (an obsession over which wars have been fought, to say nothing of the abhorrently schismatic attitudes of Western Christians for at least the last 500 years), and recover a theology of relationship.

We speak regularly about humanity being created in the image of God; and precisely what is meant by this is a favorite topic of conversation around seminary lunch tables. But it has only been in the last five years or so that it has dawned on me that I have always conceptualized this all wrong. When we talk about God, we don’t actually think about it. God means “the Man Upstairs,” “the distant and vaguely threatening Deity up there somewhere.”

What a pitiful theology! How far removed that is from the God revealed to us in, through, and as Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit! We are not created in the image of the man upstairs! We are created in the image of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a God whose very essence (dare I say “substance”?) is relational. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in eternal relationship, One God. We, then, are created in this image; we are created as relational beings and for the express purpose of being in eternal and transcendent communion with the Trinity and with one another!

And that—that—is what Jesus refers to, when he asks his disciples, “Do you know what I have done for you?” The saving work of Christ, what Jesus has done and continues to do for us, is not about the cross; it is about the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Relationship,” Rohr writes in his book. While humanity has broken its relationship with God and, consequently, broken our ability to be in right relationship to one another, God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ served to restore God’s relationship to humanity—to offer us, anew, a seat at the table. And so Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another; as I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The foot washing of which they have all been recipients is an object lesson, a model of the kind of self-giving love God wants amongst God’s children, even as God has modeled that very self-giving love in sending his only begotten Son to be for us the Resurrection (of relationship) and the Life (in relationship).

My favorite Eastern icon is also one of the best-known in the world: Andrei Rublev’s icon called The Hospitality of Abraham, also known simply as The Trinity (see above). Seeming on the surface to depict the three strangers to whom Abraham offered hospitality in the book of Genesis, but which the author identifies as “the Lord,” Rublev seizes on the notion that God manifested as three figures, painting the three Persons of the Trinity sitting at a table. The Father, clothed in gold, and the Son, clothed in blue, gaze at one another while the Holy Spirit, clothed in green, looks to—and even gestures toward—the open space at the table: the space that the observer occupies as he or she stands in prayer before the icon. The message is clear: God invites the viewer to the table—to relationship with the God whose very essence is relationship!

But there’s even more. See the little rectangular “hole” that is painted in the front of the table? Richard Rohr reports that according to art historians,

“the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table! … This might have been Rublev’s final design flourish. Or maybe it was added later—we’re not sure. But can you imagine what its meaning might be? It’s stunning when you think about it—there was room at this table for a fourth. The observer.

“You.”[2]

The Eastern church has a word for the relational nature of God: perichoresis. Choreo means “to dance,” and it’s where we get the word “choreography.” The prefix “peri” means “around.” When asked to describe the nature of God, a Western Christian says, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen… We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father… We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son….” In other words, the Western Christian tries to be rational—he tries to explain the math of how one plus one plus one equals one.

But if you ask an Eastern Christian to describe the nature of God, they use the word perichoresis. The Trinity dances around! They dance around each other like a swirling electron cloud, eternally joyful in their singular presence.

And yet.

And yet this Triunity doesn’t like to eat alone. We are invited to share in the bounty of God’s Table, and to join in the perichoresis—the divine “dancing around!” This is the nature of what our ancient forbears called “salvation.”

So come. Let us respond to God’s invitation knowing that he does not invite us to a memorial service, but to a community dinner. He has stretched the banquet table down the centerline of the very golden street that leads all in the Kingdom into God’s holy presence.

Come and eat! Come and drink! Come and dance!

 

 

[1] Randall C. Zachman, “John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Holy Thursday, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 273-4.

[2] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 2016), 30-1.

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