Table Manners

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 18, 2021

Table Manners

I remember well “table manners” being drilled into my young self. We studied “etiquette” in elementary school. How quaint, how antiquated! The “E” in “STEM”[i] does not stand for “etiquette,” after all. Table manners have long been relegated to the realm of trivialities in the big scheme of things.

For Christians, participation in the Lord’s Table is an essential feature of an authentic church, something underscored by our Book of Order (F-1.0303). The “rightful” celebration of the Lord’s Table is one that corresponds to Jesus’ table manners. When he breaks bread and shares the cup with his disciples at the Last Supper, he instructs them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When they remember Jesus at the table, they remember all of his table manners, not just what he said and did on that dark evening.

I grew up in a tradition that “observed” communion once a month, very somberly. For some of us, it felt like a repeated ritual of feeling sorry for Jesus. I assumed we did it just once a month because it took so long and made us feel so bad.

In my adult life I learned a different tradition, which “celebrated” the Lord’s Supper. Only when I became part of an African American congregation did I see what true celebration of the Lord’s Table might look like, as each Sunday everyone processed rhythmically to the Table to receive the bread and wine, accompanied by joyful music. It took a long time, and we reveled in every minute of it. I learned that the Table could, and probably should, be the church’s happy place.

Jesus had a reputation for being a party sort, something that he did not contest. Much of his ministry took place over shared meals. It is telling that Jesus remained incognito to his disciples on the evening of his resurrection, until they sat down together for dinner. There he was most at home, there he was his fullest self, and there they finally recognized him.

The feeding of the five thousand is but one instance of Jesus’ love for table abundance. That story’s significance is underscored by the fact that it is the only event between Jesus’ baptism and his final week that is recorded by all four Gospels.

Jesus’ life at the table is large and lively. There are lots of people, there is abundant food, drink, and conversation. It is a festival of thanksgiving, upbuilding, and truth-telling.

This is reflected in the standard invitation to the Lord’s Table in our Book of Common Worship – “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” It’s party time! The fundamental mood at the Lord’s Table is thanksgiving, which is why the church came to call it Eucharist – a Greek word meaning literally “thanksgiving.”

Table fellowship has been one of the pandemic’s primary church casualties. Our celebration of the Lord’s Table in worship has changed greatly, and our gathering with each other over shared meals (also “the Lord’s table”) is only beginning to return, little by little, after grinding to a halt.

When I was installed as the leader of this presbytery, the Rev. Dr. John Burgess delivered my charge, admonishing me to break bread together often with our church’s leaders. It is over the shared meal, he said, that we grow together best and learn from each other most. I have found his charge profoundly wise.

The encouragement we receive from each other when we gather (Hebrews 10:25) is rooted in table fellowship. This is both an earthly and a heavenly reality. Families are strengthened at the table, something we enjoy when we gather at table over the holidays with our families.

Unless…

Unless the table becomes a place that accentuates and deepens divisions, as it did for the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 11:17-32) Better not to come to the table at all than to come there to fuel acrimony.

The Lord’s Table is a healing place and an encouraging place, but only so when we open our hearts to each other just as surely as we are opening our mouths to be fed. There are few places more miserable than a table where those who sit together lash out at each other or turn their backs on each other.

Whether in worship or at mealtime, we need to break bread together. The Lord’s Table is a healing place, and we all know how deeply we need to mend the rifts that have grown wider and deeper during the pandemic. I’m not asking us eat and drink recklessly, but to do everything possible to get back to the Lord’s Table safely.

Be like Jesus. Make a robust table gathering a priority once again. We need it more than we know.

Your table companion,

[i] STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, widely considered to be the four touchstones of essential learning for children preparing for a life in today’s marketplace. See more from the U.S. Department of Education.

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