A Community of Hospitality
Why do we do what we do?
Welcome to The Bridge Church. If you’re new here, you’ll undoubtedly notice that we do things a little differently here than you might be used to at other evangelical churches. Perhaps it’s the geography of the service - the way we set things up and use our space; or perhaps it the style of the service - either more formal, or less formal than you might be used to from where you came; or perhaps it’s the form of the service - the way we structure and order the elements of worship over the course of 90 minutes. Whatever you’ve noticed, I want to tell you that much of it is intentional, and there are important reasons for why they are the way they are.
If you’re not new here, perhaps you’ve been here for a while and find our unique way of doing things familiar, or perhaps you’ve been here so long that you remember a time when things were different and perhaps long for a time gone by. I want to take the better part of the next semester on the blog to remind you of why we do what we do, and to help you remember the very intentional reasons we have for the choices we have made. Last time we looked at why we pass the Peace of Christ every single week, and continuing over the next three or so weeks we will be looking at the following aspects of our worship service to better help you understand/remember who we are, why we do what we do, and what are the goals of our choices.
The Geography of Worship - what we want you to notice and experience when you walk into our space for worship
A Peculiar People; a Thankful People - why we start with the offering
Perfectly Balanced as All Things Should Be - how we consider both who we are and who we long to be when choosing a vocabulary of worship (song style and selection)
The Proclaimed Word - rediscovering the public reading of scripture
The Applied Word - why the sermon is dialogical (discussion questions matter)
The Great Unburdening - the liberating power of corporate confession
Recognizing the Body - why we take time every Sunday for the passing of the peace
A Community of Hospitality - how and why we centre the service around the open table
The Power of Presence - why the prayer and ministry time at the end of the service is not just an addendum
Sending - what we bring back into the world
For a couple weeks now we've been building to the occasion of communion, and today we finally arrive at the meal of the Church and take a look together at why the meal is all about hospitality; and what that means for the way we celebrate it.
One of the biggest questions and controversies that I have had to face as a pastor has surrounded the proper ‘fencing’ of the table of the Lord’s Supper. Several years ago, on Christmas Eve, I decided that the appropriate way for us to celebrate Christmas as a congregation was to celebrate the traditional Christ Mass with a communion service. As soon as the service was advertised a storm of controversy erupted within my church. Some people were concerned that by serving communion on a night when people from so many other churches would be gracing our pews that those people might feel awkward about whether they were invited to participate or not; others were concerned that we would be placing the nominal or unchurched in an awkward position where they would have to choose between abstaining (and drawing attention to their abstinence) or “sinning” by participating in an unworthy manner. Several years later, here at The Bridge Church, I faced a similar challenge when we decided to open up the table to our children.
At the heart of the matter in each of these objections was the question of how we deal with non-disciples, immature disciples, or even doctrinally-different disciples at the table of the Lord. In essence, we faced a question about the limits of hospitality.
The difficult thing in dealing with this criticism however is that nowhere in the Scripture is this fencing of the table advocated by the apostles. The best proof-text that a pastor will often hear against the open table is in 1 Cor. 11:27-29 where Paul critiques those who celebrate in an “unworthy manner.” But as we pointed out in our last post - that exhortation isn't about personal worthiness at all. Rather, the instructions about recognizing the body are about acknowledging the communal nature of the meal in the context of the individualistic abuses of the Corinthian fellowship. Do a little bit of further reading of church history and you will find that the practice of fencing the table goes back not to Jesus or the apostles, but instead back to the end of first century in an extra-biblical church instruction manual called the didache.
In the didache, in contrast to the canonical instructions we have on the Lord’s Supper, we have an emphatic exhortation to the church to fence the table: “But let no one eat or drink from your thanksgiving meal unless they have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For also the Lord has said "Do not give what is holy to the dogs." Scholars have hypothesized that this allusion to Matthew 7:6 could be in response to the troubles that are mentioned in Jude 12 with the false teachers who seem to be infiltrating and corrupting the fellowship. But the didache is NOT scripture, and as such, its prohibition against a truly open table is a post-canonical development; and if it is post-canonical in nature why are we so careful still today to make sure that only the qualified participate in the meal of Christ?
This is the question that has hounded me for years as a pastor overseeing this meal.
In the first century, we learn from history that, “these meals were not closely policed. There were no bouncers with guest lists. In this regard, they were nothing like some of the closed and by-invitation-only meals of associations, secret societies, or the mystery religions.” And that, “Christianity was an evangelistic religion, and so this meant risk for the Christian community because they were open to having guests and strangers attend their meetings.”* If this is the way the early church practiced the agape feast of which the Eucharist seems to have been a part, why should we not still do it that way today?
This is where our core value of Indiscriminate Hospitality intersects with our theology of communion. You see John Wesley was famous (or infamous) for believing that the table of the Lord could be a place where even the most unregenerate sinner could meet Christ and become a recipient of his grace. He believed that the Spirit would do the fencing so that the celebrant didn’t have to. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington says, “The minister is not called upon to fence the table, but rather to call the family of faith to dinner.” This is an issue not of eligibility, but of hospitality! If we presume that we can decide who is worthy and who is unworthy of this meal we wrongly assume the role of the host – it is Christ who invites, Christ who hosts and Christ who feeds us this meal, not I. Not you. Not the church. If we want to make this meal today about what it was about in the days of Jesus and the apostles then we must make a priority of hospitality rather than exclusivity in our celebration.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 didn’t understand or perceive Jesus until he broke the bread; is it not at least possible that someone else might meet Jesus there, at the table, in our worship service? I know that this sounds radical, but is it not the more ‘biblical’ understanding of the meal? If pressured on the matter I would have to say that the only biblical requirements are a repentant heart and a desire to respond to the invitation of Christ. That does put a responsibility on the officiant to rightly explain what the table is about so that those who come, come with an understanding of what they are doing – but I do not believe that we have the right to exclude someone from something that Jesus himself has invited them to.
This also goes for our children.
I understand that for those who, like me, have been raised in conservative evangelical circles that you have likely grown up with the (frequently unquestioned) assumption that children don’t understand the gravity of communion enough to partake. We have been taught that we are somehow saving our kids from God’s wrath by keeping them away from the bread and the cup. But let me ask you – does that actually make sense of what you know and believe about God? Do you actually believe that he would be angry with a child who earnestly wants to participate in the ritual with their family, and have the blessing of meeting Jesus at the table?
If the points I've made here and in many other places about our misunderstanding of the "eating in an unworthy manner" clause, and our need to practice radical hospitality at the table are correct, then does this not also hold true for our children? Is it possible that it is not the kids who risk eating in an unworthy manner, but we who would be inclined to eat without considering them?
It is for these reasons and others that would require a much longer treatise than the format of blogging allows for, that we have chosen as a congregation to make our celebration of the table the centre point of our worship. It is the point where we all come together as the family of God - the adults, the children, the volunteers, the regular attendees, the guests, the insiders, and the outsiders and gather at one table by the invitation of Jesus Christ himself. It is where we encounter the mystery of the cross and the resurrection, where the gospel is preached anew every Sunday, and where we are nourished in our inmost being by the spiritual food that is Christ. It is why we don't actively exclude any from the meal, and why every service is an explicit opportunity to come to the table and meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread the way his own disciples did following his resurrection. Indiscriminate hospitality is the way that Jesus welcomes us every day into his presence, every Sunday to this feast, and the way we, in turn, long to welcome every person into our fellowship.
This is what it means for us to be a community of hospitality. You are welcome here. Because Jesus has invited you, just as he has invited each one of us.
Next week we move into the final couple elements of the service and take a look at the importance of our prayer ministry and how you can take part.
*Ben Witherington III, Making a Meal of It