Come to the Table

Come to the Table

Gracious God, thank you for calling us together once again this day.  May your Spirit be felt in this place and in this time together.  May you guide us, inspire us, challenge us, and encourage us.  And may you continue to draw us ever closer to you, to one another, and to all your beloved world.  Amen.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to gather at the table together.  The central ritual Jesus offered to his first disciples was a meal – this new interpretation of a meal that they had celebrated many times before at Passover.  This simple meal of bread and cup that we celebrate now is a gift, handed down to us from Jesus and from the generations of his followers who have gone before.  At the table, we not only remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, but we are also invited to remember all that he taught them, the love he gave them, the love they were called to share.  At the table, we gather with any and all who want to share in the feast of God’s abundant love.

The gospels stand in line with the scriptural tradition of ancient Israel in lifting up the table, the meal, the feast, the banquet, as a symbol of God’s abundant love and what life could be like for all if we lived into the good news of abundance instead of giving into the fear of scarcity.  Feeding the multitude with just a couple fish and a few loaves of bread.  Turning water into wine.  These are symbols of abundance.

At God’s table, there is plenty to go around.  Everyone is welcome.  Everyone has a place prepared for them.  And all who are hungry are fed.

In many ways, the table and the meal are the central symbols Jesus offered for the community of faith.  And he did this over and over throughout his life and ministry.  The last supper was only the last of many suppers he shared – with his disciples; with all sorts of people he met, taught, and ministered to; with folks that other people didn’t want to eat with (like tax collectors); with the poor and the wealthy.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus built bridges across cultural and interpersonal divides.  And one way he did this was by gathering with others around a common table.

Peter knew this first hand, of course.  He was there.  As a disciple, he received this lesson over and over again.  And he knew that it was his calling, as an apostle empowered by the Holy Spirit, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and gather with others to share the good news of God’s love.  And sometimes this would include getting together with those he wouldn’t ordinarily hang out with.  Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was one of those people.

As we heard in our scripture reading, God was stirring up something in both of these men to bring them together.  Cornelius receives an angelic message to reach out to Peter.  And Peter had this wild (and perhaps hunger-induced) dream-vision that challenges him to re-think some things.

Peter, like oh so many people, had been too comfortable in dividing the world into binaries, into dualisms – the sacred and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the Jews and the Gentiles, us and them.  This vision challenges his dualistic thinking.

At first Peter might not understand all of the implications of this vision.  But he will soon because right then, Cornelius’ men show up on his doorstep.

After some initial introductions, Peter invites them to stay the night.  And the next day they head out together to Caesarea.  By the time they get there, Cornelius is ready and waiting for them.  In fact, he has also invited over some of his family and friends to hear what Peter has to say.

When Peter and Cornelius meet, things are a little awkward at first.  The story is kind of funny, actually.  The first thing Cornelius does is fall down and worship Peter.  And Peter is like, “umm… please get up.  I’m not the Lord.  I’m just a guy.”  Then they go inside Cornelius’ house and Peter is a little surprised to see he has such a large audience.  And he goes on to say (presumably to all of them) something like, “You know, as a Jew, I really shouldn’t be here hanging out with you Gentiles.  But God has shown me that I shouldn’t call anyone unclean or profane.  So, here I am.”  It’s a little cringe-worthy to our modern sense of politeness.  Did you really need to say that out loud, Peter?

But maybe he did.  Maybe he did need to name the division so they could bridge it and name the prejudice so they could move beyond it.

Cornelius then tells Peter all about his angelic visit and invites him to speak to their gathered group.  And Peter begins by saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” and he tells them all about Jesus, all about the good news of God’s love for all.

And then the Holy Spirit falls upon all who heard him.  Some who accompanied Peter are surprised by this, but they see that Peter was right; God shows no partiality.  And then Cornelius and all his group are baptized.

This is where the book of Acts has been heading, of course.  The Holy Spirit has been on the move and going global.  Recall the story of Pentecost back in chapter two when the disciples received the Holy Spirit and were empowered to speak new languages.  And now we have come to another Pentecostal moment – this time for the Gentiles.  And this episode helps set the stage for all of the mission and ministry with the Gentile world that will follow in the book.

Now, not all of Peter’s colleagues back in Jerusalem were happy that Peter was fraternizing with Gentiles when they heard about this encounter with Cornelius.  But Peter told them everything that happened and his critics were silenced.

One thing I love about this story is that it reminds us that the Spirit of God can bring us together despite our differences.  Sometimes God calls us into relationship with people we might not ordinarily associate with.  And when all parties are open to the Spirit’s leading, good things can come from these encounters and these relationships.

What I love about both Cornelius and Peter is that they said yes to this invitation.  The way the story is told, it seems like they didn’t really have much choice, given that they both received pretty clear signs that this is what God was calling them to do.  But I think they did have a choice.  People always have a choice.  And they chose to get together and find out why God may have led them to this moment and what they might learn from it.

Both Peter and Cornelius had prejudice to overcome.  Their respective peoples had a rocky history.  They had cultural and national differences to navigate.  And yet, they both demonstrated openness to each other.  Instead of getting stuck in intolerance and ignorance, they demonstrated a willingness to find mutual understanding and appreciation.  They both willingly came to that metaphorical table that God invited them to and met each other as equals.  And they found common ground.

And often, when we come to the table with open hearts, when we find common ground, mutual respect, and community with others, the Holy Spirit does show up.  I’ve experienced that.  I bet you have too.

There are some important lessons we can take from this encounter between Peter and Cornelius.

One is to listen for God’s call, God’s leading to us.  Where might God be calling us?  To whom might God be calling us?  These are personal questions for us as individuals and communal questions for us as a church.  And it may take some intentional discernment to figure out the answers.

Second, be hospitable.  Both Peter and Cornelius demonstrated a spirit of hospitality and generosity with one another.  Most relationships take time to nurture.  And fostering deeper community relies on a willingness to practice generosity on several levels: with our time and resources, as well as a generosity of spirit which includes patience, grace, forgiveness, and willingness to give one another the benefit of the doubt.

Third, be open to change.  I think both Peter and Cornelius were on spiritual journeys that led them to re-think some things.  Cornelius embraced new growth and learning that led him to a new understanding of faith.  And Peter learned that his dualistic thinking wasn’t helpful and that he needed to embrace a more unifying, inclusive, and universal perspective.

Peter had plenty of reasons to flat out hate Cornelius or, at minimum, to refuse to meet him, simply because he was a Roman centurion.  Cornelius represented the violent oppressor and the imperial occupier.  But Peter met with him anyway.  Peter embraced the man, Cornelius, as he was.

This willingness to come to the metaphorical table and engage more deeply with one another isn’t always easy and doesn’t always seem possible – on a personal scale, let alone nationally or globally.  There are deep divisions among people.  There are enduring and intractable conflicts in our world.  Especially when there are wars raging and humanitarian crises ensuing (like in Gaza), it can be hard to imagine a way forward to a just peace.

But bridge-building and peacemaking are central to our call as people of faith.  This is how we live toward and lean into Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.  If we are to have a more just and peaceful future where kinship prevails, we have to come to the table as willing partners and engage in this work together.  Violence and war, thirst for power and control… those won’t get us there.

Instead, we have to be willing to come to the table together.  And though we certainly can’t force anyone to join us there, we can issue an open invitation.  And, no matter who chooses to meet us there, we can commit to living out the values and ethics of bridge-building, peacemaking, justice-seeking, and embodying the true sense of community that we hope will flourish in our world.

In other words, we can lead by example.  We can offer an alternative to the status quo.  We can be willing partners in this work.  And, in order to do this, I think we must love and value all people as God’s beloved children and view each other as siblings.

This involves refusing to engage in hateful rhetoric, name-calling, labeling, and othering.

This involves a commitment to non-violence in our actions, behavior, and speech.

This involves doing what is within our power to create truly safe spaces where people can be honest, vulnerable, and open with one another (even when that involves sharing difficult truths and painful experiences).

This involves listening deeply and openly to others, even when what they have to say is hard for us to hear.

This involves taking responsibility for the harm we have done to others (intentionally or inadvertently).  This may involve apologizing.  And corrective action may be necessary for reconciliation.

This involves giving up on our desire to win a one-sided victory.  Compromise is necessary at times.

You know, as tensions have been rising on college campuses this week amidst protests about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’ve been thinking about how different university responses to protestors have reflected different approaches to conflict resolution.  I imagine it is hard for administrators to negotiate this challenge.  But very few seem to have chosen to respond in a way that provides an opportunity for deeper conversation.

Columbia University called in the police right away to disperse a protest encampment.  There seemed to be little willingness to allow the students to have their voices be heard.  UCLA was less proactive, but that led to a dangerous situation when counter-protesters attacked the encampment on Tuesday night.  And there have been several reports of overly aggressive responses by police at a number of schools across the country.

I don’t know that there is a clear solution.  But I was impressed that the administration at Brown University was at least willing to engage in negotiation with student protestors.  In exchange for an end to the encampment, they offered students an opportunity to meet with university officials and trustees to talk further about how university assets are invested, whether they are supporting war and enabling human rights violations, and whether some changes could be made.  Who knows where that conversation will lead.  But there, at least, is an example of two parties who have shown that they are willing to come to the table together to talk further and hear one another out.

We may not know how to solve all of the big conflicts and challenges that we face as a global human community.  But I do know that if we want peace, then we have to start with ourselves and commit to being peacemakers.  If we want a more just future for the next generation, then we must work for justice now in every way we can.  And if we want others to join us at the table where all are welcome, all are loved, and all are fed, then we ought to go there, willingly and openly, and save a seat for others to join us.

It seems to me that this is what Jesus modeled.  And if Peter and Cornelius could do it, then maybe we can too.  Amen.