The Table in a Crisis
Written by Greg Mamula, DMin in New Testament Context Student
A series on pastoring during the pandemic crisis | originally posted on Jesus Creed, a blog by Scot McKnight
As images of the quarantined passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess filled our living room television in February 2020, I experienced a feeling of nebulous foreboding. I distinctly remember saying aloud to my family, “This is either going to be the most important story of the year or a minor piece of forgettable trivia.” Over the next several weeks we learned just how life altering COVID-19 really is. New vocabulary like Social distancing, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and live streaming infused themselves into our daily lives. The most vulnerable among us suffered exponentially more pain and chaos.
Times of crisis reveal what dwells deep within our souls. The ongoing crisis of COVID-19 has shined an uncomfortable light upon our private and communal lives, putting our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual competencies on trial. When communal calamities occur, our weaknesses are exposed, and long ignored wounds surface. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Stop AAPI Hate, gun control, immigration, voting access, creation care, and other failings are symptoms of much deeper issues. Our collective response becomes a gauge for our social and moral health. As with all such crucibles we discover a mix-bag of fellowship and division, hope and horror, and anxieties and affirmations.
To help parse out the holy from the malevolent we need help of our communities. We need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ because we are naturally tempted to retreat to our silos to fuel our anger, minimize our complicity, or wallow in self-loathing. This type of retreat only entrenches us further and prevents the sacred work of reconciliation, restoration, healing, and hope from taking root.
What we need is a place where we can come together to share our lives honestly and openly. We need a place where enemies can become neighbors; neighbors can become friends; and friends can become family. A place where we can share our story with all its rich complexities and know we have been truly heard and deeply known. We need a comfy seat where we breathe deeply the life stories of others and allow their experiences and stories to begin to weave their way into our own, until our stories sync into a cohesive fellowship. We are all in search of a collective guiding story that embodies the fullness of life and guides us toward unity.
The only thing big enough to hold all of life in this way is the table. Every aspect of our life intersects at the table. The table is where we celebrate our greatest achievements and mourn our deepest tragedies. It holds our dreams and our tears. It is where we ponder deeply the realities of life and our place within it. But mostly the table is where we eat. Eating with others is holy work because meals are the gateway into the deeper mysteries of faith and life.
Of all the symbols Jesus could have given his followers to remember him by, he chose a meal. Jesus spent so much of his time at tables with others sharing the kingdom of God, he was accused of being a drunkard, a glutton, and a friend of sinners. Perhaps Jesus spent so much time at the table is because he knew the table is where the ordinary and the holy collide, a uniquely thin place where heaven and earth connect. Body and blood become bread and cup.
The earliest followers of Jesus referred to each other in familial terms. The primary metaphor used by New Testament authors to describe the gathered community of Jesus followers was adelphoi meaning brothers and sisters, an image utilized over 200 times. This is important because it helps us as Jesus followers to understand how we are to view one another. We are to see each other as siblings; a people of common heritage, a community with similar stories, a family united by the same Father.
There is no room for naivety in utilizing such a metaphor and it has always been fraught with crisis. For example, Paul calls on the Jesus followers in Galatia and Colossae to see beyond traditional gender, social, and ethnic divides and recognize they are all one in Christ by first referring to them as brothers and sisters (see Galatians 3 and Colossians 3). The hope filled example of everyone uniting to share everything in common over meals and the common story of the resurrection in Acts 2 is quickly tempered by the inability to easily welcome Gentiles into that story. Paul’s letters to local churches are filled with examples of Jesus followers abusing their fellow disciples and causing harm to the community of faith. Were it not for their struggles, we would not have much of the New Testament.
Community is hard work. Uniting men and women from different cultures, ethnicities, geographies, sexualities, political perspectives, financial wellness, and personalities in mutual submission to Christ and love for one another is not for the faint of heart. It requires lots of courage and intentional effort. If we follow the way of the early church, we will discover most of the work is done one meal at a time. Eating meals with others creates the holy space necessary for meaningful relationships to develop.
The table is a catalyst for the work of the spirit to bring unity to where there is division and crisis. When we gather at the table where Jesus is host, love of God and others become possible. Utilizing the table to engage in intentional spiritual disciplines like dwelling in the word, storytelling, listening, prayer, and communion help draw us closer to Christ, the church, and one another.
The table is the epicenter of community connection and discernment. As we share our story and listen to the stories of others and seek to submit to the story of scripture together, we learn as a community to love God and love others. We begin to see God’s active participation in the lives of our tablemates. We start recognizing all the way’s God is working in our lives. Through the table we start to see the beauty of the God-breathed image bearer in each of us. This is cause for celebration and wonderment.
If we are honest with our stories and listen well to the stories of others and to scripture, we will realize not all is well, there are moments of crisis. Difficult conversations must also be had at the table. Interpersonal grievances and failures can be addressed: whom have I lied to, whose trust have I broken, what commitments have I failed to uphold? Beyond the interpersonal, systemic conversations can begin in the context of table fellowship: Racial reconciliation, economic oppression, gender equality, political ideologies, sexual identities and theological abuse must be faced.
A community unwilling to gather at the table together to listen to Christ and to one another is a community destined for fraction. This how the table begins to move us away from crisis and into community. Challenging conversations are best held at the table, because Christ alone hosts and possesses the capability to take us as we are, blessing us as image bearers, breaking us of the rough spots that do not conform to his kingdom vision, and returning us to world changed into kingdom citizens.
Living a life shaped by the table will not immediately change all the division and chaos. But it is the way out of crisis. The table creates space for us to see the world through the lens of Christ’s active workings in our lives and communities. The table creates space for us to be seen and loved and valued. The table creates space to meditate on scripture in the context of community. The table is where everything touches: the church and the neighborhood, faith and life, confession and forgiveness, listening and storytelling, communion and community.
May 25, 2021
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is the Associate Executive Minister for the American Baptist Churches of Nebraska, and a contributing writer for Word&Way. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press in print and e-reader versions from online distributers including Amazon. To learn more information visit www.table-life.org.