by Wade Hodges
January – April, 2006
It was a dangerous move for my home congregation to let me preach at the naive and self-righteous age of eighteen. I had grown up in that congregation. I had carefully watched those folks attempt and fail to live the Christian life. And I had taken detailed notes. As I climbed the steps to the pulpit on that Sunday night in mid-December, I intended to show them how they got it wrong and tell them how to do it right — in just under twenty-five minutes.
They took my best shot and never flinched. I got a bunch of hugs and pats on the back and a few bothersome comments about how I “was gonna make a good preacher some day.” (I thought I already was one.) Thankfully, I have the only surviving copy of the tape of that message locked in a safe at home.
It turns out I was treated much better by my home congregation after my first sermon there than Jesus was treated by his after his first. I got invited back to give it another try two weeks later. Jesus almost got himself killed.
In Luke 4, Jesus gets a chance to preach to the people who know him best. He already has a reputation and they want to hear what he has to say. He dazzles them with a riff from Isaiah 61. His was to be a ministry of gnaw-on-the-bone-finger-licking-good-news for the poor, release for the captive, and liberation for the oppressed. In his hometown synagogue Jesus blew the horn of Jubilee (Lev. 25) and those who heard it were impressed. If he had finished his sermon on that note, he surely would have been invited to someone’s house for dinner, but instead he keeps preaching.
He senses that something is not right with this crowd. He knows them too well. They want him to back up his preaching by doing some of the miracles they’ve heard he’s been doing elsewhere. Nice sermon kid, but we came to see a show.
Jesus can’t stand to leave them thinking that he’s blown the jubilee horn for their benefit alone. So he reminds them of a time in Israel’s history when the hearts of the people were so hard that when God acted through two of his greatest prophets — Elijah and Elisha — it was two Gentiles who benefited, rather than the hometown crowd.
In a village where people are waiting for God to show up and run the Gentiles out of town, reminding them of an instance when non-Jews were blessed instead of Israel was enough to get you killed, even if you are the hometown boy. Jesus almost dies before his ministry really gets started because he insists on pointing out that his message of liberation and release is not just for Israel, it’s for the whole world.
Jesus’ sermon was good news* for everyone sitting in that synagogue. But next to the phrase “good news” is an asterisk, the kind that tells the reader to drop down to the bottom of the document and read the fine print. Here’s what the fine print says:
*The gospel is good news for you and your friends. It’s also good news for your enemies. It’s good news for people who are not like you and its good news for people you don’t like. If you are unable or unwilling to accept this truth, then the gospel is probably not going to be good news for you after all.
When the folks in Nazareth took a look at the fine print, they decided it wasn’t such a good idea for Jesus to make a preacher after all.
But it was more than sermons that got Jesus in trouble. It was also the kind of dinner parties he hosted. Actually his dinner parties were sermons. When Jesus gathered others around his table he was saying, “This is what the Kingdom of God is like.” It was his way of announcing that he had come to start putting God’s broken world back together again by gathering enemies at the same table.
This was on my mind recently as I was jogging through my neighborhood and I saw this sign in a front yard several houses down from mine:
This yard is NOT your dog’s restroom.
Please stay off the grass.
In the backyard of the house next-door to the sign lives a Great Dane. There’s no doubt what led to the placement of such a public message. The sign was not there to communicate, it was there to bring shame. I hope it was the very last resort in a relationship where all other forms of neighborly communication had failed. I also hope the Great Dane can read. I’m betting a dog that big gets to make his own decisions about whose yard he fertilizes.
As I ran, I got to thinking about how Jesus might interject himself into such a situation. What would Jesus do if two of his neighbors were at odds with each other? Since my reading of the gospels leads me to believe that Jesus was just a little bit ornery here’s my conclusion: Jesus would invite both neighbors to a dinner party and not tell them that the other is coming.
They would walk into the house and see each other and find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: Is my desire to be with Jesus stronger than my hatred of my neighbor or would I rather miss out on Jesus than share him with someone I despise? These are the kind of questions Jesus’ table ministry generated.
Much like a junior high cafeteria, where each table defines the various groups and sub-cultures present in the school, the table in Jesus’ day was a great way to publicly draw a line to define who was acceptable and who was not. To eat with someone was to declare that person a part of the “in” crowd.
Walk into the Capernaum Jr. High cafeteria and you would immediately be able to pick out all the different groups present by simply observing who was eating with whom. Tax collectors and sinners would be sitting around the table nearest to the principal’s office and the Pharisees would be at the table closest to the washroom. Huddled around the table next to the garbage cans would be a group of lepers. The Herodians would be sitting as close to the teacher’s table as possible.
Imagine Jesus walking into the cafeteria. Where would he sit? First he’d go to the sinners’ table and eat a bite with them and then he’d make his way over to where the lepers were and sit down and tell them a couple of jokes while drinking a Coke. Then he’d move on to the Herodians’ table and give them a hard time about being teacher’s pets while helping them with their homework. Since there are never any open seats at the Pharisees’ table, he’d wait for one of them to get up to go wash his hands, then he’d grab the empty spot at their table and start eating French fries off their plates.
Of course, Jesus wouldn’t be content to move from table to table in the cafeteria. Eventually he’d move over to an empty table in the center of the room and start inviting people from all the different tables to join him.
Jesus would eat with anybody. He broke bread with the up and coming and the down and out. He ate with friends, family, and foes (including his betrayer).
While many used the table as a way of excluding others – Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles and the Pharisees didn’t eat with most Jews – Jesus’ table had no walls around it. He demolished the barriers of exclusion and instead set placemats for one and all.
Everyone is invited to sit at Jesus’ table. But he expects those who eat with him to also eat with each other. So he invites Pharisees and tax-collectors, Teachers of the Law and prostitutes, Republicans and Democrats, Marines and pacifists, gun-totin’-tobacco-smokin-rednecks and man-purse-carrying-lotion-wearin’-metrosexuals, as well as a few Klingons and Romulans to sit with him at the same table.
Anyone willing to welcome anyone to the table is welcome at Jesus’ table. The only ones excluded from the table are those who exclude themselves because they cannot accept the fine print. Like the older brother in the story of The Lost Son in Luke 15, those who balk at eating with those whom Jesus has embraced will find themselves standing outside the house of God’s redemptive activity and missing out on the party.
Jesus will plead with those standing outside to come in and sit down. The more diversity he has at the table the better. When enemies sit together at the same table with Jesus, the power of the gospel becomes undeniable.
Years later, Paul is swimming in the stew of inclusion Jesus started with his pot-stirring sermons and dinner party parables. As the Apostle to the Gentiles, the defining issue of his ministry was the inclusion of non-Jews into the people of God. In his letters, we see him working hard to get Jews and Gentiles together at the same table and working even harder to keep them there.
In Ephesians 2:14-19, he describes how Jesus tore down the wall separating Jew and Gentile and made them one. The gospel made peace between mortal enemies and brought them together at the same table in the same house. This is one of the greatest miracles God has ever performed. In the Hebrew Bible, God’s best miracle is one of separation, but the parting of the Red Sea was nothing compared to bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the first century.
Paul was willing to put up with the hassles and frustrations and immaturity on both sides of the table because he understood that the image of Jews and Gentiles sitting together at the same table was a sign that God was up to something big (Ephesians 3:10). If God can get Jews and Gentiles together in the first century, then he can put the rest of His world back together as well (Ephesians 1:9-10).
When Jesus welcomed saints and sinners alike to his table and when Paul started breaking bread with both Jews and Gentiles, it made headlines. Such things always do. People start paying attention when enemies get together for a meal. God takes great delight in arranging such gatherings and so should would we. The table is great place from which to preach a powerful (and sometimes offensive) sermon about the Kingdom of God … which reminds me, do you want to come to my house for dinner on Friday night?
You’ll never guess who else I’ve invited.
Wade is a graduate of Abilene Christian University where he received degrees in communication and Christian Ministry. He has been married to Heather since October of 1996. They have two young sons, Caleb and Elijah.
While Wade will preach on just about anything, he especially loves to speak on the topics of faith development, male spirituality, and missional theology. He also likes to tell a story or two when he gets the chance.
His favorite part of sermon preparation is going to the movies.
He served as the Preaching Minister for the Sterling Drive Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington for six years. He has been the Teaching Minister at the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma since March of 2003. Wade is Director of the International Soul-Winning Workshop (ISWW) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This year the theme is “For the good of the world, to the glory of God.” [See http://www.tulsaworkshop.org.] A key emphasis of the ISWW this year is unity between Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and keynote speakers, including Bob Russell and Max Lucado, from the two groups will share the stage during the evening sessions.
You can read his blog at www.wadehodges.com.