Every Sunday night our small church gathers around tables for a fellowship meal. Our gatherings end with the sharing of the sacred break and cup that links us with the church that transcends space and time. This Spring we’re chowing down food and watching an episode of The Chosen together. Many of the episodes drive home the point that Jesus shared his table with all kinds of folks.
He even invites people like you and me.
Keri and I often tell the story about how when we started planting the church we had our list of the kinds of people we hoped would show up at the table. God’s reservation list had other names on it, and for about 12 years now we’ve been “doing life” with whoever Jesus drags into the MainStreet boat or to MainStreet table. Well, that’s just the thing: it’s not MainStreet’s table, or my table, or anyone’s table but the Lord Jesus himself. We are to welcome all who Jesus welcomes, and that’s a very broad list indeed!
Last night as we gathered, we read the Gospel reading from the Lectionary for the 5th Sunday of Lent from John 12:1-8. You guessed it — another dinner party story! I invited everyone to imagine themselves into the story and to join the very mixed and diverse cast of characters and personalities sitting around that table in Bethany. Here’s the text with:
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany,where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you,[c] but you will not always have me.”
Here you have Mary the over-the-top devotee who in another story is praised for sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word while Dutiful Martha played the practically minded servant and host, and got rebuked by Jesus. I’m guessing she and her sister didn’t speak for a week. Mary is about to double-down with another extravagant display of devotion, here pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping it with her hair! (Martha is working her tail off in the background again, perhaps groaning under her breath at Mary’s “showy” spirituality.
Meanwhile, Lazarus the Wonder Boy whom Jesus raised from the dead is retelling his story (again!). Does he love telling it, or is the fame beginning to wear on him and he’s wishing he could have remained dead? While Lazarus re-enacts walking out of the tomb, wrapped in toilet paper, Two Face Judas, the sneaky thief, is brooding over in the corner, wondering who’s footing the bill and trying to figure out how he ended up among Jesus’ twelve disciples in the first place.
And Mark’s account mentions that the party in Bethany was held at the home of some Simon the (former?) Leper (cf. Mark 14). Perhaps he’s been healed and welcomed back into society? Or is Simon the father of Lazarus and his sisters, who is still living outside the village in a leper colony, shunned from fellowship while his kids live in his home? We don’t know.
What we do know, with some imagination, is that Jesus loves gathering together very different kinds of people at his table. We too all have a seat at Jesus’ table, and we are to save a seat for any and all who may happen to show up. Last night we had a visitor checking out MainStreet. She probably came expecting a church service where she could sit anonymously in the back row, observe and feel out the vibe. She instead ended up having a meal with a bunch of MainStreet folks she’s never met, and yet who were her “family in Christ” before she ever stepped through the door.
Which of these characters do you relate to most? Any of them?
Martha: the practical, dutiful, servant hearted Christian who breaking down tables at the end of the night, but not likely to engage in very expressive forms of worship. She’s not into the “touchy feely” hand raising worship. She often feels less spiritual than the people “up front,” but deep down she is trying to honor God in the way that comes naturally to her.
Mary: the expressive, uber spiritual Bible-reading overachiever who is probably keeping her Lent fast while the rest of us caved into temptation after one week. She’s leading the Bible study, planning the mission trip, teaching Sunday school, attending the silent retreat with the monks, and reading Merton on the weekends. She “feels” God’s presence and may be found rocking and swaying with eyes closed and hands raised in worship. And sometimes she embarrasses you in public with her bold faith.
Lazarus: he’s the guy with the crazy faith testimony, tattoos from his early days, maybe a recovering addict, someone who was rescued just before he walked off the ledge. He’s been saved and he knows the exact day and moment, and his life is divided into BC and AD — before Christ and After the Decision when he walked down the aisle, heard God speak as in an audible voice. This guy wants everyone to have their own defining moment or saving encounter. He just can’t shut up about how Christ has changed his life!
Judas: he’s at church every Sunday, going through the motions, looking the part, quoting Scripture to win theological arguments, talking the talk but harboring secret doubts. He’s two-faced, double-minded, conflicted within. On good days, he wants to believe but finds some part of himself unable to come around. On bad days, he’s merely “using God” and the faith community for what he can get from God and the church. He’s carries the disciples’ money bag or serves on the deacon board, pretending he cares about the poor and the mission, but he cares only about his own hidden agenda. He’s a sneaky thief, steeling not just from God, but steeling away his own soul from the riches that await a full surrender. He’s on a dangerous and self-destructive trajectory if he doesn’t come into the light.
Which of these characters can you relate to? Any of them? Maybe we all have piece of each of them inside us?
At the end of our time together, I offered the following challenge to our community. This story is ultimately about Mary’s extravagant act of devotion in anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Her act scandalized some, angered others, and embarrassed the rest. “Tone it down a bit, Mary.” She threw caution to the wind, wrote dear prudence a goodbye letter, and humbled herself to wipe his feet with her hair. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, get a towel, Mary!” her sister probably thought to herself.
Challenge: As Holy Week nears and we prepare ourselves to stand in awe as we behold Christ’s over-the-top scandalous act of saving grace on the cross, is there an over-the-top, extravagant act of worship we might offer the God in the coming days? Something that feels out of your comfort zone. Something that makes other people smirk or shake their head. Something that feels a bit overboard. I did not make suggestions to our folks, urging them instead to listen for the Spirit’s whisper on what that might be for them.
Ideas to consider:
- Set aside an entire day or weekend for a silent / solo retreat.
- Sign up to serve at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen.
- Do an overnight Good Friday vigil, light candles and read the Bible longer than you’ve ever read before.
- Reach out to an estranged relation and pursue reconciliation.
- Write a gooey song or poem pouring out your love and gratitude.
- Wash your families feet, even wiping with your hair for bonus points. :)
- Put down your fiction and read a deeper spiritual book.
- Throw a dinner party in honor of Jesus, invite friends and focus it on Christ.
- Or whatever the Spirit may lead you to do.
Well, my prayer for each Christian out there is that they have a local table and fellowship to show up to each week. “Don’t neglect the gathering together as some are in the habit of doing,” for we become more like Christ by choosing to keep showing up around the Lord’s strange and quirky table of misfits and ragamuffins. Pass the wine! Dig in! Let’s feast on His scandalous grace!