Discerning Christ’s Presence In the World: How We Learn This Around the Table
By: David Fitch
Missional church leaders generally ascribe to the idea that the church does not have a mission, God has a mission to which the church is invited to participate. God is already at work in the world, we Christians must simply participate in what He is already doing. These ideas pretty much define what many of us call “missional”.
My contention however is that little is offered in terms of how we might discern this work of God in the world. As a result, the default modus operandi is for Christians to consider all justice at face value as God’s work and then organize the church to get involved in it. I contend that this distorts the church’s work (and I think McKnight’s latest book takes aim at this). Many things we believe to be justice in fact turn out not to be. Worse, many of our efforts turn into projects done with our own energy and resources. As a result, our churches are exhausted and burnt out questioning whether what they’re doing is amounting to anything redemptive in the world (a worthy question not to be dismissed).
The church then (and by this I mean the local church) must cultivate the means to discern God’s work in the world in order to participate in it in a way that does not take over for God. We need a posture to discern His presence and then participate in His work. I am convinced this kind of training happens as we practice the Lord’s Table together. Here, around the Lord’s Table, we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ at the Table. We learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, tend to what Christ is doing, and cooperate. Then, what happens here around the Lord’s Table at worship on Sunday, carries over into all our other meals in our homes, neighborhoods, third places, etc. In fact, I contend that one of the places God most works in the world is around tables eating, or sharing a beverage. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s 5 postures we cultivate as we gather around the Lord’s Table and partake of the bread and the cup, His body and blood that we take into the world into all our social realities.
Around the Table we learn to:
1.) Surrender. One cannot come to the Lord’s Table apart from submitting to Jesus, His presence and what is happening around this Table. It’s a posture of surrender to Christ and tending to His presence. It leads to submission to others. Jesus illustrated it in Luke 22 amidst the disciples striving for position (vs. 24) authority. Jesus says it shall not be so among you (vs 26). He then inaugurates the Table with the words “As my Father has conferred on me, so I confer on you a Kingdom.” He announces that the authority that shall be manifest here around this Table shall be in servanthood one to another (vs25, 29,30). In the Johannine account, Jesus models this submission by washing the disciples feet. This posture of submission to Christ and one to another is foundational for the discerning of Christ’s presence among us and the opening of space for His work to be visible among us in the world.
2.) A posture of receiving. At the beginning of the Lord’s Table, we give thanks. The Eucharistic words of the New Testament (Gregory Dom Dix) are “take, bless, break, give.” Thanksgiving (or “bless”) comes always after we receive the gifts from God of bread and wine. We gratefully acknowledge Him as the source of everything. This posture of giving thanks opens us up to God into a posture of receiving what God would do, which opens up the gates of the blessings of the Kingdom. In many of the ancient liturgies, you must cup your hand, have the wafer placed in your open hand. You must receive the cup, not take it. I believe we must cultivate this posture of receiving what God would do among us (instead of controlling it) as we sit and listen and be present with our neighbors, in the conflicts and struggles, the hurts and the pains. Here God shall reveal his gifts from which we can bear witness to and join in with.
3.) The posture of ceasing the striving. Part of tending to Christ’s presence is the quieting our ego’s, releasing the urge to control and solve problems and become present to Christ in this space among us. So there is a general ceasing of striving in the process of becoming present to Christ. I take this to be the dynamic exposed in Luke ch. 10 38-42 where vs. 39 says “Martha was distracted by her many tasks” .. trying to get things in order and under control. So she gets angry and asks Jesus to get her sister Mary in line and start helping. Jesus replies “Martha Martha … you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” Cease the striving and become present to me. Quiet the ego. Around the Table there is a presence here that puts my own concerns on the back-burner as I tend to the other person before me.
When sitting around a table in the neigborhood eating, especially when I am the host, I don’t initiate conversation about myself, I ask questions of others, and respond when I am asked a question. There is a trust that builds from all this. A space is opened for God to work here. This is essential to discerning Christ’s presence among us.
4.) All this creates a socialness among us that enables us to be for each other. In tending to the presence of Christ among us we discover there is more going on here than a simple encounter between me and this other person across the Table. Jesus has actually become present among us and if we will tend to this reality of Christ among us, our lives and our relationships will be changed. I contend that this is what was NOT happening in 1 Cor 11 where Paul says there are divisions, factions among you. The wealthy were disregarding the poorer ones among them not even noticing they had nothing to eat while they were gorging themselves. Paul then says quite boldly (vs 20), ‘It is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper.
5.) The relational dynamic of forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and renewal of all things. Most of all the Lord’s Table, in rehearsing the death (anamnesis) and resurrection of Christ, and in making these realities present to us in his body and blood, the relational dynamic (pattern) is constituted among us that shapes all relations in the Kingdom. This relational pattern is forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, and renewal of all things. Each time we take the bread, the broken body of Christ broken for us, we receive forgiveness. It is this forgiveness which governs our life together. Each time we receive the elements, we are rehearsing our reconciliation with God and one another in Christ. Reconciliation governs our relationships. There is also renewal, the new covenant in His blood, the new relationship with God the Father through the Son by the Spirit. All made possible via the Holy Spirit. This space opens the work for signs and wonders. Things can happen now beyond our imagination in the Spirit. There is space here for proclamation of the gospel, prayer, and healing. And when we leave this table, this grammar goes with us in the world.
I admit most of us do not learn these postures through the rote ways we take Eucharist (although we might be surprised). But I contend, done well, these are the postures we learn there and these are the same postures we take into the world as we sit and have meals in the neighborhood, share a coffee at Starbucks, sit in an alderman’s meeting on the South side. These skills are often best practiced in eating a potluck meal in our home in the neighborhood. It can take months to cultivate these Eucharistic spaces among our friends, but this is foundational, in my opinion, to cultivating the in-breaking of the Kingdom among us. For once this space and trust is opened up, the flourishing of the Kingdom begins to flow. Whether it be the house group we have in the neighborhood, the bar table, the coffee shop table, the local McDonald’s, the space in the hospital room, the table of visitation in the prison, the barber shop, the local park bench, the local school council meeting, the homeless shelter, the board meeting. Here we sit, being present to what God is doing sufficient to be ready to cooperate, hear the need, proclaim the gospel, speak truth in love, respond with help, by the Spirit as one among.