Around the Table – John 12:1-11

There were five children in the McDonald family.  With two parents that was quite a crowd at the dinner table.  My father sat at one end of the table, my mother on the long edge to his right.  My older brother sat down the other end.  My younger brother sat beside Mum, so she could keep him in order.  The three of us girls sat down the other long side.  Me to Dad’s left, then the middle sister, then the youngest sister. 

7 people, 6 chairs.  My youngest sister spent her childhood meals perched on the kitchen stool.  That was her place.  No one would have dreamed of offering her their chair.  She was the last to arrive, so she got the stool at the back corner of the table.

I want to give you a minute or two to think about the meal table of your childhood or perhaps the meal table where you brought up your own children.  Maybe the meal table of your childhood is the meal table you sit at now.  Think about that meal table.  What does it look like? How are people seated around it? Where was your place?  What happened/ happens around the meal table – arguments, laughter, catching up, eating, teaching manners? What happened when someone was naughty?

I invite you to turn to someone close by, (not your brother or your sister or your mum or your dad) and share a story of a particular meal, or of how things were at your place around meals.

…..

Were those meals always pleasant, happy, harmonious and kind?

Hold those stories of your real meal tables.

It is well known that when people first employ a home help or cleaner to clean their house, they usually attempt to clean up the house a bit before the cleaner comes.  I imagine that wears off over time, but it says something about us not wanting strangers or visitors to think we live in a mess – even if we do.

Maybe you have memories of feverishly cleaning the house before your mother or mother in law arrives.  Wanting everything to be spick and span for them.  Wanting them to know that you are managing just fine (in this case managing – having time to be meticulous in the housework).

People can sometimes be a bit like that when it comes to communion.  They feel if things aren’t perfect, or they are not in a great space with God, or themselves or others, that they really shouldn’t be taking communion – it is too important and sacred a meal for them to be participating in their current state of mind and spirit.

Perhaps that attitude was reinforced by the rigmarole associated with traditional Presbyterian communion services – only four times a year plus on high and holy days.  White cloths backing the seats where communion was served.  If you didn’t want communion you sat in the back seats without the cloths.  Communion tokens or communion cards so that the elders knew that you had been there.  Pre-communion services on the Wednesday or Thursday before Communion Sunday so that you would be properly prepared.  In some cases, a barrier around the communion table.  Most of which said ‘Holy’ rather than ‘Welcome’.

Perhaps that attitude was reinforced by the holiness traditions of Methodism and the Church of Christ and by their theology that underlined free will and responsibility.

Paul’s instructions about the need to eat the bread and drink the wine ‘in a way that is worthy of the Lord’ were given to members of the Corinthian church to remind then to be aware of the circumstances and needs of others in their church community, and not just of themselves.

Perhaps in another age when church and state were more closely aligned, those words, ‘in a way that is worthy of the Lord’ were understood in an individualised, internal, pious sort of way, rather than the community- oriented way of their original context.

When I think of the stories of Jesus and meals in the gospels, I can’t think of any of that could be described as harmonious, pleasant, happy, and kind.  Perhaps the meal at Simon Peter’s place, rustled up by Simon Peter’s mother in law after Jesus had brought down her fever, might be the closest.

The stories of meals with Jesus, whether in houses, on hillsides or lakesides, seem to be full of surprises and challenges.  Many have undercurrents of menace and conflict.  If you wanted a pleasant, undemanding evening out, he was perhaps not the best dinner companion.

And the story of this meal at Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ place is a case in point.  It’s a meal with friends on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The chief priests have a plan and are waiting for their moment.  The next day Jesus will come into Jerusalem on a donkey.  In five days, he will be dead.

Anticipation, tension, anxiety, menace, warmth, appreciation, love, food, company … and one there ambitious for Jesus and ambitious through Jesus for himself.  (Dangerous waters.)

Martha has been cooking.  Lazarus, the brother they lost and had restored to them is sharing the meal with Jesus and the rest of the men.  In the middle of this Mary, the intuitive, whether in response to the tension or simply out of gratitude, picks up the most expensive thing she owns (a bottle of perfume worth thousands of dollars) breaks it open and pours it over Jesus’ feet.  Lazarus when he died did not get that perfume, but Jesus, who brought him back to her, did.

And the room explodes with the scent and the surprise, and the angry disparaging outburst from Judas about the stupid woman who did this.  Wasting an important asset in this way when it could have been put to far better use.  And Jesus comes to her defence.  He knows what she has done, better than she herself knows, and he is deeply touched and grateful.

And the meal that lies behind the communion meal is even more fraught than this one.  It is full of anxiety and fear, bravado, misunderstanding, betrayal, sadness and concern.

So, you see, there was nothing perfect about those meals, and those who were there were not necessarily in a great space with God or themselves or others.  But they ate and drank with Jesus.  And in communion, we are invited to eat and drink with Jesus as well. 

All of us.

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