A Bigger Table: Agenda-Free Community

A Sermon Preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams on 9 September 2018


Well, here we are again… We’ve already looked at three of John Pavlovitz’s four core values in his book ‘A Bigger Table’ (radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity), and today we look at the last one – ‘An Agenda-Free Community’.

Now, to understand why this is so important to Pavlovitz you have to understand his context. He was a pastor of an evangelical mega-church which he ended up leaving – or, rather, he was asked to leave. Much of what he challenges in this chapter is against the theology of that church and those like them. He argues that many churches and church communities act like showrooms where the ultimate priority is for Christians, like good salespersons, to ‘close the deal’ – to get a ‘yes’ from people – the language we use is ‘leading people to Christ’ or ‘getting people saved’.

Now, if we know Christ, it’s natural to want to share what we have experienced with others, but Pavlovitz has in his sights those whose underlying belief is that all humanity is going to hell unless they respond to Jesus in a particular way – a belief that brings into play a whole other dynamic. And this thinking is so ingrained in some Christians that it becomes the operating system running in the background of all their relationships with those considered non-Christians – and I know this, because it was my operating system for nearly 40 years.

I have come to believe that this underlying theology can be, literally, very dangerous because issues of justice and peace and social action and environmental concern come way down the order of priority compared to the overriding importance of saving people’s souls.

And there is, I think, a fundamental dissonance at the heart of the lives of such people because, if the whole world is going to hell unless they have responded to Christ in a particular way, then how do we justify anything that does not give ourselves totally and 100% to the cause of saving those people? How to we justify using our money or time on anything other than the bare-essentials to keep us alive so we can carry out the most important task? If the person walking past this church right now is on their way to hell unless they respond to Christ, then what are you doing in here? And yet, of course, these people do carry on their normal lives. And it was asking questions like this that caused me to come to the conclusion that, surely, this isn’t how salvation works.

Pavlovitz says: “As a result [of this way of thinking], people outside the church building often feel like (because in reality they are), religious “projects” taken on by Christians: doomed, lost souls needing to be rescued. They are looked at not as image-bearers of God, with stories to tell and wisdom to share, but as damned souls to be saved from hell. ‘Connecting people to Christ’ sounds like, and is, a rather noble endeavour but the truth is that this has devolved into an oversimplified transaction. It’s led to faith communities where people don’t matter as much as the souls they represent.” And that last sentence, for me, is the crux of the matter: that people don’t matter as much as the souls they represent.

If your primary purpose in life is to save people, then that instantly changes the relationship and power-dynamics between you and every person you consider ‘unsaved’. You become the saviour, you have the words of eternal life – quite literally – you have the truth that they need to hear, you know how people should live (or, certainly, how they shouldn’t live), and, most importantly, what they should believe.

Ultimately, this theology makes it impossible to make a bigger table in the ways we have been considering over these last four sessions – and that’s because the other person has nothing of real consequence to offer you (after all, what’s more important than heaven or hell for eternity?), and so the possibility of genuine fellowship is lost. Many churches are quite proud of this separation and do all they can to maintain it.

If an agenda you have stops you seeing another person – whoever they are – as a beloved, child of God, made in his image every bit as you are, then you have shrunk the table. Yes, we thought we were loving, but what we were doing was selling a product and when someone makes it clear that they were not interested in the product, like the salesperson in the shop, we move on to the next person – I mean, if this is a matter of eternal destiny, why waste time on someone who’s not interested, we can spend our efforts better elsewhere? Basically, our love is conditional. I’ve seen that happen in practice – I’ve heard that preached.

But I do have a problem with Pavlovitz. Not so much with the theology he has in his sights, but because I don’t believe any of us can be truly agenda-free. We are such complicated creatures with hearts and minds and wills all shaped by different experiences and knowledge that to be truly agenda-free is, surely, not possible. What we do need is the self-awareness of the agendas – hidden or otherwise, godly and sinful – that govern our dealings with others – and even with ourselves. That’s something God, through the HS is seeking to work through us every day. What we need is not an agenda-free community but one which has the right agenda. What is love, if it’s not, in some way, and agenda? Jesus himself said: ‘I have come that you might have life and have it to the full!’ That sounds like an agenda to me – and one worth having.

Now, I realise that some of you haven’t a clue about the kind of theology and practices I have been speaking about yet, for others, I’ve probably thrown out a few hand-grenades that may be exploding in people’s minds and posing lots of questions, but my intention, (and I think Pavlovitz’s), is to challenge any Christian theology or practice that that excludes and marginalises – that, even before an encounter with another we  have already made judgements which stop us seeing the person they really are – and this shrinks the table.

Yes, we are commanded by Jesus to preach the gospel and make disciples; Yes, we are a missionary community, yes, we want to draw people to the person who has made all the difference in our lives – but this is best done as we imitate the table-enlarging practises of Jesus of hospitality, authenticity and diversity. Jesus said in John 13: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That is our primary means of sharing the good news and drawing people into fellowship with him. and hospitality, authenticity and diversity is just another way of saying love.

For the rest of my time in this pulpit this morning– and I’m not here for four months so I’m going to make the most of it – I want to recap the journey we have taken these last few weeks.

We started by considering the concept of the table this universal and timeless image of human fellowship and connection. As a metaphor, for me, it ranks right up there alongside the cross. It is a table around which God calls us to gather and to share fellowship. It is this same table where he chooses to mediate his presence in the eating and drinking. Personally, I don’t believe Jesus is made present when a priest blesses the bread and the wine – but rather as we eat that bread and drink that wine. And this is not an action between ‘me and God’ alone but with me, God and all who are around the table with me. I really don’t want to upset anyone (which probably means I will!), but that’s one reason I personally struggle with the idea of going up to a communion rail, kneeling and closing our eyes as if, at that moment, no one else counts except me and God. There are times when it is good to be alone with God, but I don’t think the Communion service is one of them – the clue is in the name! The whole point of a table is that you sit around it – eyeballing others in real, earthy, honest relationship and it is into that space that God chooses to be present. And I do realise that our current set-up does make it difficult for any real human interaction.

So, first, Pavlovitz suggests total hospitality as a core value. As we’ve seen, the table is not just a metaphor. Many of our most meaningful and intimate connections occur over food and drink around a literal table. But it is, also, a metaphor – for how hospitable and generous and loving we are in every area of our lives – God is not just present in a formal church service where we have a wafer and a sip of wine – but he is made manifest at every human encounter where we are hospitable – where we give time and space for the other. He is made manifest in every loving act, every kind word, every act of generosity, every act of forgiveness, every time we turn the other cheek and choose to love instead of hate, every time we pray for another – we create space for God – we create the kingdom of God.

Hospitality comes easy with those we know and love but, remember, the ‘radical’ in ‘radical hospitality’ was the welcome and generosity we show to those with whom we naturally struggle – for religious reasons, for political reasons, moral and ethical reasons, racial reasons. Jesus sat down to eat with a leper, he washed his disciple’s feet, he allowed a woman to let down her hair and anoint his feet, he shared a table with Judas the betrayer, he made breakfast for Peter who denied him so badly (which was our gospel reading today). In these, and countless other examples, Jesus demonstrates what it looks like to build a bigger table.

And then, we considered total authenticity. Pavlovitz says “people should be able to ask anything and to say everything too, to be the most naked, real, vulnerable version of themselves and to know that they are safe as they do. This is the place the table needs to expand to”. When we can bring our true selves both before God and before each other without fear or shame, then we are truly free. This is the table that Jesus invites us to. This is the table his example demands we set for the world. Powerful and challenging stuff!

And last time we considered true diversity. Pavlovitz mentions three areas of conflict – colour, gender and race –and I asked us how welcoming is our table to those excluded by the world? I gave a long list of possible candidates of the excluded (you know I like these lists!) but I highlighted gay people and transgender people because the world and particularly the church can be unwelcoming to these people.

When I mention the words ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness’, I see some people roll their eyes. I suspect they think these words belong only in liberal theology or left-leaning politics. But I believe these words define the actions of Jesus. These are thoroughly Christian words because they express the loving heart of God and I would challenge any of us who struggle with these words to reflect on ‘why?’ and to consider to what extent Jesus embraced these practises – a question I hope I have already answered.

Jesus didn’t see people as prostitutes, or gay people, or rich people, or normal people – he saw ‘people’ – all in need of the love of God. Jesus engaged with everyone but, interestingly, the people who struggled most with Jesus were not the bad or immoral people but the godly Pharisees who believed it was their God-given duty to shrink the table.

I asked last time: Did Jesus by his words and actions seek to create a bigger table, practice radical hospitality, seek total authenticity and true diversity? If not, then you can ignore everything I’ve said. But if he did, then there are implications: yes, tough, messy, difficult implications – for us personally and as a church.

But the rewards far outweigh any effort we may put in. At a bigger table we can lay down our guilt and shame and be totally authentic and honest. At a bigger table everyone is welcome, accepted and loved. At a bigger table we meet with God because, as we spend time together we see the image of God in the other. If we are all made in the image of God then there must be something of God to be discovered in other people that can never be found anywhere else. Are we able to see that ‘other’ person as a once-in-a -lifetime expression of humanity who can, if we allow them, offer us something unique – as we also share our uniqueness with them?

One last thing before I end – We’ve looked at the importance of the table in scripture and particularly in the life of Jesus. But there’s one aspect I haven’t touched on and that is that this imagery of eating and drinking and table fellowship continues right through into heaven – or, rather, a renewed earth.

In the New Testament we, the church, are called ‘the bride’ and our destiny is to be united to our bridegroom: Jesus Christ. it’s a dramatic and exiting thought (and one which deserves a sermon of its own). And the Bible speaks of a wedding banquet! (it was in our reading this morning). Our destiny is to have a celebration the likes of which there has never been before – where the hospitality is radical, the authenticity, total and the diversity that will have to be seen to be believed. (I would love to see the size of that table!). This a space in which you will feel most fully alive, most completely ‘you’ and, in the words of Paul, ‘where you will knoweven as you are fully known’. All our attempts at creating a bigger table here are just a foretaste and preparation for the party of all parties!