At Peace at the Table
AT PEACE AT THE TABLE?
Harry A. Ironside, a famous preacher from the 19th century tells the following story:
When Pliny was governor of Bithynia [northern Turkey today], he wrote a most interesting letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, asking why Christians were been exterminated, and added, “I have been trying to get all the information I could regarding them. I have even hired spies to profess to be Christians and become baptized in order that they might get into the Christian services without suspicion.”
“Contrary to what I had supposed, I find that the Christians meet at dead of night or at early morn, that they sing a hymn to Christ as God, that they read from their own sacred writings and partake of a very simple meal consisting of bread and wine and water (the water being added to dilute it in order that there might be enough for all.)”
“This is all that I can find out, except that they exhort each other to be subject to the government and to pray for all men.”
At a time of incredible hostility to the followers of Jesus Christ, this non-believing governor was struck by the witness and the conduct of the Christians. The man didn’t get into their teachings but clearly observed what their beliefs led them to do. They were united at a time when ethnic and political lines were clearly laid out.
What Pliny couldn’t understand we can, and the answer is simple. Christ has broken down the walls of division between people. In his death he has brought about reconciliation. At the table of the Lord we are reminded of the cross where were celebrate peace with God. The table also reminds us of our oneness in Jesus Christ. All who claim Christ as Savior claim also brothers and sisters.
Used to be
Oneness was not always the way it used to be. In the Old Testament period God made much of his covenant relationship with the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Jews were God’s people; their males were circumcised. Anyone not circumcised was outside or excluded from those God had chosen.
Amazingly the so-called “alien” or stranger was considered to be under the protection of the law. In Deuteronomy 16 we read, Be joyful at your Feast [of Tabernacles], you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your town. All these categories of people were often considered to be outside of favor.
In the areas surrounding the holy places of the temple there were several distinct courts. Men could approach the altar, the inner circle. Then there was the court of the women and finally the court of the gentiles. That clear ranking created divisions.
In Acts 21 the apostle Paul was arrested allegedly for bringing gentiles into an area of the temple reserved only for Jews. Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians while in jail for supposedly violating that clear rule of division. So what he is saying in Ephesians is a very urgent matter on his mind. While he didn’t violate any rules, he sees a much better way.
Verses 11-13 Paul makes very clear the way it used to be and in fact was still being practiced. Look at verse 12. …Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. Who would want that description?
The rest of the passage blows that out of the water. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. The terribly sad memory of the things as they used to be is laid aside. The wall had been “dynamited.”
Made to be
The key words are: but now in Christ… Everything described in verses 14-18 describes the miraculous changes made possible only in Christ. In him believers come together and receive this new life.
Paul in these verses has on his mind and heart the words of Isaiah 57. Especially 57:19 reads, peace, peace, to those far and near, says the Lord.
In the Isaiah passage those “far off” were the Israelites who had been taken into captivity and transported to far away Babylon. However in Isaiah 56 the prophet had said, Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “the Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” Isaiah continues to speak the word of the Lord and concludes in verses 7 and 8, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The sovereign Lord declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Paul saw in that prophecy a clear teaching of the unity of Jew and non-Jew in Christ. Peter said the same at Pentecost. Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord will call.
In Christ there is peace. Actually there are two kinds of peace Paul says. The first, seen in verses 14 and 15, is a peace between the Jew and the non-Jew. But even more critical is the peace described in verses 16 to 18, a peace and reconciliation between humans and the sovereign Father. For through him we both have access to the Father by the one Spirit.
The original Greek paints a very graphic picture. The NIV says, “…put to death” the hostility. The sense is one of Christ actively killing the hostility.
Practically speaking, then, the Christian fellowship has no division or is not supposed to have. Paul says in Galatians 3, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. In Christ we have forgiveness of our sins. That’s what the sacrament repeats several times, with the bread and with the cup.
We give the invitation to any and all who have Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We also speak of a public testimony to that relationship with Christ. The testimony to that relationship with Christ is the deliberate step each takes. This isn’t a matter to take of the sacrament only because I might feel like it today. For those who haven’t promised before Christ and his church we invite to observe and to carefully consider taking such a step. It’s about being reconciled with God through Christ and that’s a very important step.
If there’s a peace between people because of Christ, we don’t have to take a big step to say that those who take of the sacrament must have no divisions. We can speak of division along ethnic lines. That’s wrong. We can speak of divisions between the more mature and the less mature in the faith. That too is wrong. It’s about the work of Jesus Christ and faith in him, nothing else.
Of much greater importance is the repair of anything that may divide you and me. Jesus said in Matthew 5 that if there is an offence taken, we are to leave our sacrifice at the altar and to be reconciled first. At the table of the sacrament that is equally true. Is there something that keeps us from being at peace with anyone else taking of the sacrament?
I end with a little story that speaks profound truth from the lips of an innocent child.
Dr. Walter Wilson has the following story.
He was visiting in a home and the members of the family were asked to quote Bible verses.
One little girl quoted John 3:16 as follows: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish but have INTERNAL LIFE.”
Needless to say, he did not correct her, for it is internal life, as well as everlasting life.
Unity in the church is to be demonstrated at the table of the Lord. This sacrament is so rich a gift of God’s grace to us because it teaches us so many profound truths about who we are in Christ. However, the very core of the message is the new life we have in Jesus Christ, a life that expands to include others. No wall remains between us and Almighty God. No wall must remain between us. Do we need the dynamite of the Holy Spirit? With any remaining wall destroyed there will be unity.