Believe it or not, when the Capital Campaign Committee chose the ending date for the “Pull Up a Chair to the Welcome Table” Campaign, we did not look at the lectionary readings for this Sunday. But there it is in the gospel reading, in our hearing and our sight, a dispute over who is welcome at the table
Luke the Gospel writer, our Luke, has been hammering away at this theme for a good long while now, and he will continue to do so. We have witnessed over the past two weeks the inclusion in the faithful followers of Jesus a Roman Centurion, and a widow at the end of her rope. And now we have a woman with a reputation.
And the question before us is very simple and stark. Which kind of religion do you want? The kind that says,
If this man were a real prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him.
Or this kind,
So I tell you, her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven.
Which kind? “Look out for sin and avoid it at all costs, even if it is but a rumor.” Or, “Deeds of love are the seeds of forgiveness.”
This table, this altar, for us is a powerful symbol, perhaps the most powerful symbol in the room. It is sometimes, wisely, said that a church building is simply a convenient way of sheltering an altar and the people who gather around it. A “symbol” is composed of meanings that are “thrown together” (from the Latin sum and ballo), and when these meanings are thrown together, new meanings are made.
Here we have a human table, the place of relationship and nourishment. Here we also have a divine altar, the place of sacrifice and pleading. But these meanings are freighted by more meanings from the Gospel message. The human table becomes the divine table in the practice of Jeus, who never seems to have met anyone with whom he could not sit down and eat. The divine altar becomes the human altar where the only sacrifice required is thanksgiving and where pleading can be replaced by praise.
When all these realities are put together, add a fresh batch of human beings willing to have anybody pull up a chair and a God that just won’t get up from the table at all, and you have the living heart of all that is truly Christian. The complete and total union of God with God’s people. The gifts of God for the People of God. Holy things for holy people. A place, at least one place in this frequently troubled world where each one of us is “worthy to stand before [God]” and be reconciled just for having stood there.
St. Paul puts it this way, in a verse and a half I was made to memorize in my brief time as an evangelical.
I have been crucified with Christ, 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, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Somehow the woman in the Gospel story knew that this was true. She knew it so clearly she did not need to hear it from his lips or anyone else’s. She knew whatever she was and whatever she had done did not matter in the eyes of this man, and the miracle was that the eyes of this man were the eyes of God. The only thing she could do was be grateful. Somehow she got herself in that house and next to Jesus. If she had been an assassin he would have been dead. But she was not an assassin; she was a grateful woman made worthy only by love, a love she had neither earned nor deserved.
In the midst of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was often heard to say that the biggest mistake the white rulers made was to let the populace keep their Bibles, because if they read them, they knew they were free, already free, and they knew the end of the story already, that tyranny, in their case the ultimate tyranny of exclusion, cannot survive.
So it was with me in my evangelical group making me memorize that verse of Paul’s from Galatians. I took it to heart. This was a promise that I could hold onto and that eventually would save my life. Galatians has always been my favorite letter because of it. And I learned the next verse also.
I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
Can anyone deny the spirit of graceful inclusion that permeates these readings? Can anyone deny that this inclusion is at the heart of the Gospel? Can anyone deny how much unlike the world around us this is when we actually practice it?
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, now retired, wrote these words:
The Church is a community that exists because something has happened that makes the entire process of self-justification irrelevant. God’s truth and mercy have appeared in concrete form in Jesus and, in his death and resurrection, have worked the transformation that only God can perform, told us what only God can tell us: that [God] has already dealt with the dreaded consequences of our failure, so that we need not labor anxiously to save ourselves and put ourselves right with God. The church’s rationale is to be a community that demonstrates this decisive transformation as really experienceable.
Our reason for being is to be a community that practices life as people who do not need to justify themselves, save themselves, or make themselves worthy. To experience this gift from God is to experience life transformed, a life of value, dignity and love that no one can take away from us.
And that transformation takes place and is renewed every time we say to another in word or deed, “Pull Up a Chair to the Welcome Table.”