Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Timothy Egan in "Belly up to the bistro" ends his article with the French aphorism, "Tell me what you eat..., and I'll tell you who you are." Today as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I invite you to reflect with me a bit about the food we share today with Christians - literally billions - around the world.
I love the fact that Jesus loved food and drink. Much of his teaching takes place around the table and he seemed to find no problem in inviting himself over to dine with his friends and enemies alike. He was accused of being an epicurean, as the King James version puts it, "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber..." (Matt. 11:19). I don't take offense at this because I also like good food and wine. It's one of the great marvels of my vocational journey that I ended up in Paris, where the fare is so amazing. You probably read last year that UNESCO dubbed French cuisine a "World Intangible Treasure." The UNESCO experts singled out French gastronomy as a “social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups." France’s ambassador to UNESCO Catherine Colonna modestly hailed the inclusion, saying it "makes a contribution to cultural diversity."
But as wonderful as all of the varieties of food there are in the world, Jesus wasn't as interested in the kind of food that you have on the table, but the kind of people you have around the table. You see, Jews couldn't eat with anyone. There were elaborate purity laws. And there still are in most religions. It's true in Judaism and Islam. I was so thankful that we had halal and kosher food here for the fellowship after the 9/11 colloquium. One of my rabbi friends and imam friends were heading to the door saying they had to go. And I said, "But we have halal and kosher food for you..." Both of their heads snapped around and they exclaimed in unison, "Really??" They stayed for another hour eating and talking with people. But you know, we have our own purity laws in some Christian traditions. I've shared on occasion that my family has Mennonite roots. My grandparents had a ministry in Lancaster County to Amish and Mennonites who had been shunned from their families. Shunning is the term for being separated away from your family. The worst part about shunning, they all agreed, was not being allowed to eat at your father's table.
In the gospel lesson Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom of God will welcome a very different crowd than the religious elite assumed. Both Jesus and Paul talk about a new kind of righteousness in the kingdom. Jesus' parable about the brothers in the vineyard compares the response of the chief priests and the elders of the people in the temple to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The message of John was proclaimed to both... Do you remember the message? "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!" And the Pharisees and the Sadducees went out to John to be baptized... But they rejected Jesus...
The tax collectors and prostitutes did not go out to be baptized by John, but they believed in Jesus. So Jesus concludes the "tax collectors and the prostitutes are going in the kingdom of God ahead of you..." Why? Because they changed their minds and believed in Jesus... This is astonishing, really. These religious men did all that the law required and they went out to be baptized... But they will see the kingdom of God last because they reject Jesus.
What can we conclude? As we continue our study through Philippians, we see that religious righteousness is over-rated. In fact, Paul calls it rubbish.
The Apostle has the religious authority to say this... He was elite, being circumcised on the eighth day, meaning that he was from his birth a very religiously circumspect man. He says that he was a member of the people of Israel, meaning that he was from a Jewish mentality, part of an elite racial group. He says that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, which for any Jew would indicate that he was from the most prestigious class of Jew (The Benjaminites were the class from which the first King of Israel was chosen, King Saul, after whom Paul was first named). He says that he was a Pharisee, the strictest of the followers of the law. Even Jesus said about the Pharisees, do what they say, just don’t do what they do! And he was zealous, which again in the Jewish mentality meant that he was a super-achiever among his people, he was a purest… And finally, as to righteousness under the law, absolutely blameless…
The problem was, Paul came to realize that any kind of race, religious, traditional, legal, class, or super-achiever status doesn’t matter in God’s kingdom. All of the stuff that we think makes us important is considered by Paul to be complete garbage… And I’ve got to tell you, because it’s right there in the Bible, this word the NRSV translates as “rubbish” is not a pretty word in the Greek. In fact, the word, skúbala, literally means excrement… That’s right, Paul says our racial, class, religious, traditional, legalistic, and self-righteous elitism is all just a bunch of skúbala. (Pardon my French, but a good translation is merd).
The only thing of any ultimate value in life asserts Paul, is knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The only thing that is of any ultimate satisfaction in life is receiving his righteousness, that sense of peace and being-OK-with-God-ness through faith in Christ. If you want miss out on the Kingdom of God, you keep on pursuing your way, the traditions of this world, the cultural winds that blow to and fro, the pathetic and frantic pursuit of stuff that has absolutely no staying power in the end… As one friend put it, “I haven’t seen a Hearst pulling a U-Haul trailer yet!”
No, all of the stuff and status that we try and pride ourselves on in this world doesn't mean a thing in the end. I have a great privilege as a pastor to meet with people as they are preparing to die, and it is always humbling to hear what they want to talk about in reflecting on life... I've never heard anybody that wanted me to get a message back to the office... I've never had anybody want me to get in touch with their stock broker or banker...
What we’re called to do is spend all of our riches, all of our gifts on fulfilling our real mission in life as a “called out people.” As the Church, we’re called to risk it all for the sake of the gospel. Paul says it this way: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death... I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own... I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus..." Amazing!
If you are a seeker here today, if you have not yet decided to follow Jesus, I invite you to consider his call to you. If you've met him, you'll know that he loves you and calls you to drop whatever you think is so important so that you are free to follow him. He is calling you to live in freedom from any of the garbage that would keep you from knowing fully God's grace and peace; God’s comfort and strength; God’s purpose for your life.
And if you are a believer here today, I want you to seriously re-evaluate your mission in life, and our mission as a church. Are you willing, like Paul, to regard all the stuff and status of this world as merd? Are you passionate about gaining Christ and being found in him, not having a righteousness of your own that comes from the law, but one that comes simply through faith in Jesus, the righteousness of God based on faith?
This is where the power of the resurrection really comes. This is where new life comes, this relationship to God not based on works, but on faith alone.... Faith changes your status with God and it changes your status with everyone else in the world. As a beloved child of God, heir of the King, you are free to associate, you are free to respect, you are free to re-grace, you are free to love anyone...
Which brings us back to this table. Jesus picked this table to celebrate one of the most important moments in all of history, and to remind us of what he has done for us that we could not do for ourselves. Around this table, especially today, we remember the incredible diversity of the kingdom. Because everyone is welcome here. The cuisine is simple: The body and blood of the Lord; the grace and love of God broken and poured out for all.
The hated and despised ones of Jesus day were the tax collectors and prostitutes. Who are the hated and despised ones of our society today? Who are those people in your view? Let me tell you a true story a friend of mine shared recently with me. He's a brilliant evangelist here in Paris and has been serving the Lord in ministry for decades here in France. He began preaching in Paris and gained quite a following. His message of God's grace and forgiveness in Jesus touched the hearts of a people desperate to hear the good news. But you know what his church board said? "We are very concerned, because we hear that you have a lot of gays and artists coming to your services? Is that true?" Wow... He was disciplined because the wrong crowd - in the eyes of the religious authorities - felt welcomed and accepted and loved. Today, who are those people that might concern you being welcomed to the table? Politicians, bankers? People with a different accent, a different skin pigmentation than yours? The poor, those smelly vagrants on the street? Those gypsies? Those gays and prostitutes in the park?...
The heavenly call of Jesus means that you first need to change your mind and believe in the gospel of God's grace, in a righteousness that is not your own, but a righteousness that comes simply through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that is given to you simply through faith. And not just for you, but for everyone. Anyone. Anywhere. Remember: Jesus welcomes sinners! Remember: Jesus came not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous.
On this World Communion Sunday, I invite you to belly up to this bistro of blessing. The new etiquette is not about the law, but about faith. It's not so much about what we're having for supper, but who is welcome to join us. Tell with whom you’re eating, and Jesus will tell you whether or not it’s his table. Please rsvp by saying “Yes” here to Jesus, letting go of all your rubbish to rejoice with all of God’s people...
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.