Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
The paraments are a lively green color. We're in the Season of Pentecost, the second half of the Church Year where we focus on growing in the Christ we learned about in the first half. This text makes it easy to see how we're to grow. Christ says, "Go and learn what this means: too the shock is over who's at the dinner table.
The concept of "table fellowship" in an important Biblical one. Who you eat and drink with shows who you are in fellowship with. Abraham hurried out to welcome strangers to his table. Genesis tells us it was loathsome for Egyptians to eat with Hebrews. Eating and drinking the Passover was all about table fellowship. If you were a member of God's people, you had to eat the Passover. Likewise, if you were cut off from God's people, that was shown by not allowing you to eat and drink the Passover. Table fellowship isn't a strange concept even today. If you've ever been sent to bed without your supper, you know it's not the lack of food that bothers you but being temporarily cut off from the family's fellowship.
Jesus in His ministry often described heaven as a banquet. In Mt. 8:11 He says, "Many shall come from east and west and recline at the table...in the kingdom of heaven." In Mt. 22 He compares the kingdom of heaven "to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son." And In Mt. 25 Jesus compares heaven to 10 maidens waiting for the groom to go into the wedding feast. Heaven is a big banquet where people eat and drink with God. This concept is as old as Moses and the leaders of Israel going up to Mt. Sina, "And they beheld God, and they ate and drank."
Table fellowship was a consistent theme in the ministry of Jesus. He ate and drank with different types of people. tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and disciples. Meals with Jesus on earth were foretastes of the banquet with God in heaven. That is an important statement. It bears repeating, "Meals with Jesus on earth are foretastes of heaven's banquet." This fact is at the crux of this text, but it will take some explaining.
First there is the amazing fact that Jesus came to our table. Why does the One whom the Introit says has no need of a bull or goats from us to eat because every animal of the forest is His come to our table? Why does the One who owns the cattle on a 1000 hills need to eat at our table? He doesn't. He left heaven's banquet to come to the relative famine of our earthly table for our sakes. God the Son, took on flesh and blood through the womb of the Virgin Mary to eat the bread of our sorrows and drink the salt of our tears. Although He had a right to the cattle on a 1000 hills and all the animals in the forest, He endured having only gall to drink and suffering to eat all because He took our sins upon Himself.
It was like this. Because of our sins, we deserve to be excluded from the banquet of salvation here in time and hereafter in eternity. We deserve to be sent to the eternal bed of damnation without our supper, but God the Father sent His Son in our place. The Father had a choice: He could exclude us very guilty sons and daughters from His table or He could exclude His holy beloved Son. Wonder of wonders, He excluded Jesus rather than us. Jesus was left to choke down the bread of affliction and drain the cup of God's bitter wrath, just so we could be given His place at the Father's table.
But this is by no means the end of the story. Jesus still comes to dine with us today. This is the mystery called Holy Communion. It's also called the Lord's Table, the Lord's Supper, and Breaking Bread. It's the Meal where Jesus is both the Host and the Food. He's the One who invites us to the Table, and He's the One who gives us His Body to eat and His Blood to drink giving us His holy Body for Bread and His holy Blood for wine. We confess this sacred, mysterious reality in how we approach this Table. We bow and kneel when able thereby showing that not just Bread and Wine our here but our Lord's Body and Blood are too. We are no less dinning with Jesus at this Table then the people in our text were dinning with Him.
Do you think it might be a leap to say that our Communion service is no less dinning with Jesus than the meal in our text? Do you think that I might be misapplying this text by finding the Sacrament of the Altar here when it is not mentioned? Two of our Lutheran Confessions, the Large Catechism and the Formula of Concord, cite this text in reference to Communion; how they do so has profound implications for sinners such as ourselves.
So who's coming to dinner? It's done other than Jesus Christ. The One who came to our table to bear our sins, eat our sorrows and drink our grief now comes to His Table of Bread and Wine with His Body and Blood to give us forgiveness, life and salvation. Jesus still comes to dine with us sinners even as He came down to Mount Sinai to eat and drink with the sinful leaders of Israel. Jesus comes to dinner and you and I should dine not just with Him but on Him.
Who does Jesus say should come to His table now to eat and drink with Him and on Him? The sick not the healthy, the sinners not the righteous, those who see that God desires to be merciful to sinners rather than to get sacrifices from sinners. You hear nothing in this text about believing or being worthy. You hear nothing in this text about not being sinful. Listen to how we apply this text to Holy Communion in our Large Catechism and the Formula of Concord:
In the Large Catechism we confess, "Meanwhile, on your part, you ought to be induced by your own need which hangs around your neck and which is the very reason for this command, invitation and promise. For Christ Himself says [Mt. 9:12], e well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick,' that is, those who labor and are burdened with sin, fear of death, and the attacks of the flesh and the devil. If you are burdened and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and let yourself be refreshed, comforted, and strengthened. For if you wait until you are rid of your burden in order to come to the Sacrament purely and worthily, you will have to stay away forever...Therefore, the only ones who are unworthy are those who do not feel their burdens nor admit to being sinners."
In the Formula of Concord, we Lutherans confess, "The true and worthy guests, for whom this precious Sacrament above all was instituted and established, are the Christians who are weak in faith, fragile and troubled, who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins, and think that they are not worthy of this precious treasure and the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, who feel the weakness of their faith and deplore it, and who desire with all their heart to serve God with a stronger, more resolute faith and purer obedience. As Christ says,...'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.'"
Can you hear the pure, sweet Gospel for sinners in these words? Do you see that this Gospel is what makes the Pharisees so upset? The Pharisees couldn't see how Jesus could break bread with tax collectors and sinners who didn't do all that they did: They really did do their very best to keep God's Laws; they really did tithe everything they received; they really did say their prayers regularly. They really did sacrifice their time, talent, and treasure to God. Tax collectors and sinners couldn't claim to be doing any of that. The Pharisees thought God desired the sacrifices they daily made when the truth was that even in the Old Testament God didn't want sacrifices from sinners; He wanted to be merciful to them. The Pharisees didn't see that they needed the mercy of God.
Do you? Are you terrified by your sins? Are you fearful of death? Do you have no righteousness of your own to offer God? Do you have nothing to give Him but the merits of Jesus Christ? Then this meal is for you. As we confess in the Formula of Concord: True and worthy guests aren't the Christians who are strong in faith but the weak, fragile, troubled people; not the sturdy and comfortable ones, but people who are terrified in their hearts by the immensity and number of their sins; not those who think their sins are not that great or many, but those who know their sins are great and many; it's not for those who think they're worthy, but for those who know they're not. This my friends is the Gospel.
How wonderful! How beautiful! This altar is for weak, sinful, terrified sinners. Then how in the world can I declare that we cannot invite everyone present to this Table? How can I say that we practice closed Communion which means we only commune those belonging to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? Aren't I denying the very Gospel that I said was here?
To begin, with we in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have never said that the Jesus who welcomes, sick, sinful people longing for God's mercy could only meet with sinners at our altar. Those of you who are not members of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ought to go and receive Christ at the altar you are a member of. But this is what you have to find out. Does the altar where you are commune preach that Jesus is really present on their altar in the same Body and Blood He gave on the cross or do they say His Body and Blood are not there? Do they say Jesus is only physically and actually present in heaven far away from you? And if they tell you He is really present, then you must ask is He present there to show mercy to sinners or is He there as a sacrifice for you to offer to God?
Friends, this is why churches have been practicing closed Communion since the time of the apostles. It is to preserve the precious, sweet Gospel that God the Son really and actually comes down to earth as Host and Food for sinners to eat and drink for forgiveness to show them mercy not to be a sacrifice they offer. If this is what you believe, then you should leave those altars that don't teach this and come and join this altar that does.
What if you won't? Does that mean you're not a Christian and you can't go to heaven? No, we don't believe that. You are still joined to the Body of Christ by your Baptism; the Blood of Jesus Christ still cleanses you by the forgiving Word. We no more believe that you are outside of the kingdom of heaven because we won't commune you than we believe our own kids are outside of it whom we also won't commune without instruction. But just as we know that our Lord Jesus wants our kids to eat and drink His Body and Blood so that all the mercies of God might flood their lives, so we believe that He wants all Christians to. In some sense, His Table won't be complete until that happens. Of course, it will happen at heaven's banquet, but Jesus wants it to happen here too. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost III (6-9-02), Matthew 9:9-13