Jesus’ ministry is concerned with re-ordering and re-structuring society. He comes preaching and teaching and gathers a community around Him, a community of outcasts, disenfranchised, prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners of all sorts. This community gathers around Jesus, and He feeds them and fellowships with them at tables. Jesus says that He came to release the prisoners, to bind up the wounded, to declare the forgiveness of debts, to heal the sick, and to comfort the brokenhearted. He came for the sick because the well do not need a physician.
We ought to see the rest of the New Testament filling this mission out. We ought to see in Acts and the letters of Paul (and the rest) indications that this plan of Jesus really was being carried out.
And we do, except perhaps it isn’t quite what we might have expected.
In the 60s a number of theologians picked up on these themes and their teachings came to be known as the “social gospel.” Perhaps reductionistically that movement is symbolized with soup kitchens, political action groups, and in other ministries that only performed works of charity, left wing attempts to pull people out of poverty in order for them to get right with God, rather than the other way around.
And conservatives have made various attempts at fulfilling Christ’s mandate to the weak and needy and various responses to the social gospel movement. We have tended to emphasize the need of the gospel and evangelism first or at least simultaneously with mercy ministry. We’ll help you find a job and walk you through the gospel of John. But if you don’t come to the Bible study, you obviously don’t really want to be helped.
On the more negative side, we have sometimes so spiritualized what “poor” means and what “forgiveness” means that the poor are merely people who are interested in learning about what we have to teach. They are hungry for the doctrines that we happen to be interested in teaching. They are “poor” arminians, “poor” baptists, “poor” dispensationalists. And we are rich in reformed theology. This is a caricature, but we frequently act like “poor” is merely a deficiency in theology. If you only knew what justification was you could get a job, you lazy bum.
On the other hand conservatives are frequently the most generous in terms of overall giving. Perhaps this is hypocritical, perhaps it is a form of abdication, but there it is all the same.
But when we look at Acts and the rest of the New Testament, something curious emerges. Acts in particular is striking. We know that these early, exuberant Christians held all things in common and committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the prayers, and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42-47). Many commentators see this last phrase, “the breaking of bread”, and where it is used elsewhere to not merely be referring to sharing a generic meal but referring specifically to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It’s a synecdoche, referring by one specific action to the whole. But the first significant challenge that arises in the early church is the distribution of bread to the Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1-2).
The early church is characterized by daily worship, breaking bread from house to house, and eating together with joy and thanksgiving. And of course as the numbers of people grow, challenges arise with it. And it is the widows of the Greeks that are first to be neglected in the “daily portions.” And the apostles recognize they need help serving all these tables. There are too many tables to keep track of.
The point is that the relationship between mercy ministry and the Lord’s Supper seems very blurred. I’m not sure where “worship” leaves off and “caring for widows” takes up. And my suspicion is that that’s part of the point. The Lord’s Table is the center of this new community. Table fellowship with Jesus is the center of the new Israel, the new Kingdom, and this table fellowship specifically includes the outcasts, slaves, widows, orphans, prostitutes, and sinners of all sorts.
Liberals and conservatives alike seem to excel in making distinctions where the Bible makes none. Conservatives want the poor bum to show some willingness to listen to the gospel in order to be a recipient of mercy, and liberals tend to go to the other extreme and insist upon giving the bum a meal regardless of what happens later. The mercy is the means to the gospel.
But Jesus doesn’t go with either of these programs. His program is table fellowship. In other words, in the first instance and most important sense, freedom, equality, deliverance, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and sustenance are all found in the fellowship of believers at the Lord’s table. The worshiping community gathered around the Eucharist is the deliverance of the oppressed, acceptance to the outcasts, rejection of oppressors, forgiveness of debts, and healing for the broken.
Conservatives tend to spiritualize mercy by emphasizing the need for an inner change or openness first. The “spiritual” is more important than the material. The liberals tend to over-materialize mercy by emphasizing the physical circumstances, political situation, and economic status as the first step. But Jesus invites everyone to his table, and His table is both material and spiritual. His table is real deliverance; you can go there (or not). It is fellowship with real people where you are either accepted, forgiven, and delivered or not.
This does seem to be the thrust of much of the New Testament. Whether it’s all the squabbles with Judiazers over the Jew-Gentile questions or whether its actual instructions regarding the poor in the worship service (Js. 3), the point is that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ. At the center of this new society, this new polis, the new world that God is creating in Jesus is a table where all are welcome regardless of these distinctions. This is why Paul is so concerned with how the table is administered in 1 Cor. 11. The very thing the Lord’s Supper is meant to actualize was being missed by the Corinthian church. The table of the Lord is where the entire body of Christ is discerned in reality, regardless of what the world says, regardless what pagan society says, regardless of socio-economic status, regardless of race, and so on.
One last point: If the Church is the new polis, the center of the Kingdom, and our worship is our central political act. Then it does seem that central to the Church’s mission is the task of gathering the outcasts to the table. Our task is to invite the poor, the sick, the sinners, the slaves, the prisoners, the broken to our worship. Of course this means that we teach and declare the gospel to them, and as they continue with us they ought to be discipled as Jesus commanded. But if our mission is to carry out the kingdom of heaven, to establish the peace and justice of Jesus here in this world, it seems that the example of Jesus and of the early church is centrally this invitation to the table of Jesus.
And the table is not a spiritualizing maneuver. It is the table of the King of this world. There, slaves and masters sit as equals. There, the poor are given seats of honor. There, we have no debts except the debt of love. And if we are brothers there, if we are equal there, the gravity of this gospel goes with us.
The table of the Lord is our program. It is both mercy and gospel. It is both spiritual and material. It is social, political, economic, and theological. A society that orients itself around the table of Jesus ought to find that caring for widows really is their religion.