I came across an article last week during seminary orientation. It is a Palmer tradition to use this piece to orient incoming students. “Staying at the table” was a theme for us. I was glad to read the article and discuss the importance of not quitting and staying connected to community even when things are not going as planned. I presume in this journey and across many other journeys I will fall victim to temptation of dropping out or quitting! Actually, as I was parked on the Schuylkill this morning waiting for traffic to clear up, I might have had that thought.
The author writes about two examples of community in the Bible: the perfect, created one at Creation in the Garden of Eden, and the final restored one in the New Jerusalem. Both the created and restored gardens are not realized in the present, so that author ponders what we should do now, upon realizing that the idealism that any community forms will quickly wear away.
It is a common problem we experience in Circle of Hope. Getting connected, meeting new people, feeling loved, is a beautiful way to include. Back when Broad & Dauphin was 19th & Girard, we were growing at a miraculous rate in part because of how new and idealistic the whole thing was. That idealism fades and people can leave or lose passion. We are always working on rekindling that passion. What does a Christian do when the community wears out? What does someone in a marriage that has fading passion do?
Parkers asks that question and he turns to the Last Supper. In that meal he notes that Jesus may have been tempted to leave his very own table. After being treated to hospitality and a new way of life, Parker writes:
“And what do these people do? First, in response to Jesus’ claim that one of them will betray him, they deny that any such thing is possible: ‘Not us, Lord, not here, not in this nice church!’ Having taken care of that little matter they move right along to an argument about who is the greatest among them! Blind to their own capacity for betrayal, and obsessed with power struggles, the disciples at the table act out two of the issues that make community life so painfully difficult, so unlike the garden or the New Jerusalem. As someone has suggested, they probably went on to quibble over who would pay the bill.”
I actually think this is a slightly cynical reading of the Last Supper, but I understand the point. Jesus stayed at the table. The question posed to us was who are we at the table and how will we stay? The author argues that is it through disillusionment that we will learn to rely on God. And it is through literal disillusionment that we will lose our idealism and truly see the world, the community, God, and ourselves for who we are and who we are meant to be.
I argued in the class that the power of the story wasn’t just that Jesus stayed at the table. In fact, it was his table, so why should he leave? But that he kept others at the table. I suppose that is the burden of leadership. It is one thing to command that our followers, or students as it were, stay at the table. It is quite another thing to compel them to stay there.
More powerful than simply staying at the table, I think, was the fact that Jesus kept such a disparate group of people together, not just at this table, but throughout his ministry, and even after his death and resurrection to spread the Gospel all over the world. Amazingly, he kept Simon the Zealot and Matthew, a tax collector, together. Those two, in their contemporary context, would have been sworn enemies, truly.
Jesus kept them together, and kept the space between them. For Christian leaders, that’s our goal, to keep the group together and following God through our lead. It is tempting to be ideological and pick a side, or to be rebellious and independent. Jesus is asking us to be a community, together, and more importantly, he’s called leaders to maintain the unity, to keep people at the table and expand it. The job of our pastors and cell leaders is exactly that: to grow the church by keeping people at the table and finding the next person who will carry the vision.
Moreover, as followers, I believe our job is to make sure that whoever has been given the task of leading us, is doing it. Our job is to follow with humility, but also with prudence. It’s not easy to do this, insecure leaders can often shame the people that pay attention to them most. But we are accountable for everything we do, including the direction in which we follow. Certainly, there is a time to flip the table, just like Jesus did, and a time to leave the table. Staying might be best. Jesus did it. He compelled his disciples to do it. And I think that’s our work too.