Text: Galatians 6:7-10
Several months ago I found myself in a conversation with a local Presbyterian minister about what it’s like to pastor a church in these challenging times in which we are living: a time when all religious institutions are seeing a decline in membership. In the course of us exchanging stories about our respective churches—their theologies, practices and, more specifically, how to lead through differences and diversity—he asked me a question that I had, in 30 years of ministry, never been asked. He asked, “Do you fence the table?” To which I responded, “Do I what?” Again, he asked the question as if I had just not heard his question. “Do you fence the table?” I replied that I had no idea what he was talking about. He goes on to recount a conversation that he had had the week before with another Presbyterian minister who had asked him the same question. Being a Presbyterian he knew the phraseology but was still somewhat caught off guard by this young minister asking him that question. And he was even more surprised when his young colleague told him that his new church, here in Raleigh, practiced “fencing the table.”
So what is “fencing the table?” In Protestant theology, a fenced table is a communion table that is open only to accredited members of the Christian community. Fencing the table is the opposite of open communion, like we practice here at Pullen, where the invitation to the Table is extended to “all who love God”; and are welcomed at the table at their own discernment. Traditionally, the phrase goes back to early Scottish Calvinism, where the communion table literally had a fence around it, with a gate at each end. The members of the congregation were allowed to pass the gate on showing their communion token, a specially minted coin that served as an admission ticket and was given only to those who were in good standing with the local congregation and could pass a test of the catechism.
As I would learn, upon further research and study of this phrase, the idea of “fencing the Table” comes from the Hebrew scriptures concept of keeping the holy things of worship (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, Priesthood, sacrifices, etc.) holy. If someone touched the Ark of the Covenant in the First Testament, they would immediately be struck dead by God. Therefore, as such theology is carried forward, those who take communion seriously understand that the same God who demanded absolute holiness with regard to God’s cultic institutions in the Hebrew scripture is the same God who has ordained the holy Supper of the New Testament. The warnings about not partaking unworthily least you incur the judgment of God (1 Cor. 11:29-30) are one and the same with those about the holy things in the Hebrew scriptures.
Now this idea of blessing and judgment of being a “worthy receiver” of the communion meal comes from none other than Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:27 where he warned the church in Corinth, “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” In vv. 29-30, Paul goes on to explain: “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself/herself, not discerning the true meaning of the meal.” Paul believes, it seems, that the Lord’s Supper is both a “cup of blessing” and a “cup of judgment”–depending on whether or not it is received in faith.
As is always the case with the Biblical text, there was a historical context in which the warnings about partaking unworthily are made–which is that of certain members coming and eating and drinking before other members in the church (1 Cor. 11:17-22). Paul intimates that some were even coming and getting drunk at the Supper. (We don’t have to worry about this because we use Welches.) In this way, the members of the church were not discerning the true meaning of the meal. They were failing to acknowledge that they, together with the rest of the members of the church, were to drink from “one cup” and were thus knit together in “one body.” However, there is another dimension to the failure to discern the real/true meaning of the meal in Paul’s mind. The charge Paul made was for each one to individually “examine herself or himself” (v. 28) before coming to the Table. In other words, Paul argues, there is a corporate and an individual dimension to the Table.
This is the same Apostle Paul who wrote the words we have read this morning from his letter to the Galatians. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…” In laying Paul’s words in Corinthians concerning the Table alongside his words in Galatians, I am not suggesting a conflict in Paul’s theology. That would take a more serious and comprehensive study of his theology. Although, I will say that at times it does seem that Paul is conflicted about whether he holds more tightly to God’s blessing or God’s judgment. But what I am challenging this morning is this theology of “fencing the table,” much of which is derived from Paul’ writings, as inferior to his words in Galatians, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…”
This common three-letter word, all, is challenging our society, it seems, in every aspect. Whether it is used in political speech, religious language, or social norms we are a people conflicted about what it really means. Even when we speak it with the best intentions, like we do here at Pullen, there is subtlety in how we qualify or limit it. All are welcome…maybe. All are welcome…except. All are welcome…if. All are welcome…when. All are welcome…but. As I thought about this, I wondered. When we say all are welcome do we include in that those who hold a different view of scripture than we do? When we say all are welcome do we include in that all those who represent a more conservative political opinion? When we say all are welcome do we really mean as our next-door neighbor? When we say all are welcome do we work to include in our community those who have significant mental health issues? And the list goes on and on. As I understand Paul, the one theme he highlights over and over in his letter to the Galatians is that we can no longer use physical markers to separate us from one another; and I would add any marker physical or otherwise. Furthermore, his letter to the Galatians was written in a spirit of inspired agitation. For Paul, the issue was not whether a person was circumcised, a controversy in the community of Galatia between Jews and Gentiles, but whether a person had become “a new creation.” If we read beyond verse 10 to verse 17 Paul makes an even bolder statement, “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” Paul seems to build upon let us work for the good of all—all are welcome—to a deeper faith of standing in solidarity with those whom the world crucifies daily. The call Paul is making is to move beyond welcoming, which could imply a one-sided power, to solidarity. And solidarity does not in any form “fence the table” nor require a communion token to participate.
For just one moment, I want to back up to verse nine of chapter six. It reads, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right…” I don’t know about you but sometimes I grow weary and tired. This work for the good of all can be exhausting. Even more exhausting can be the practice of standing in solidarity with those whom the world crucifies every day. And it’s not just my feet, my body that grows weary. My soul grows weary. Sometimes, I just wish I could rest from doing the “right” thing. There are mornings when wake up and the thought of doing the work to dismantle one more fence that separates us from being one-humanity is more than I can bear. Weariness is real. And on those days, I try and remember Paul’s words in verse two of this sixth chapter. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is why I live my faith in community. In community, this community, I find great comfort and hope in knowing that on those days when I am too weary to carry my part of dismantling fences and working for the good of all, there are others who are bearing the burden and doing the work. And for whatever time I need, I can rest because I am not alone. Together, we bear one another’s burdens: in our weariness, in our agitation and in our strength.
As I thought about this sixth chapter of Galatians, there came to mind a song, yes there is a song for everything, a song that I think may be the best interpretation of what Paul is saying. The song is not one of the great hymns of faith. It wasn’t written by Isaac Watts. Think Simon and Garfunkel:
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
That is the true meaning of what this table means. Even when we are weary, we work for the good of all, we work at dismantling the fences that keep us from gathering around this Table as one people. We dry one another’s tears and carry each other’s burdens. In our weariness and in our vigor this is what Jesus asks us to remember when we gather around this table. He asks us to be the bridge over the troubled waters of our day. At God’s table there are no fences and no tokens are needed.
So, if you received a coin with your worship guide this morning, hand it to the person beside you who has no coin. And if you were just handed a coin by the person beside you, drop it to the floor. Here in this place, there are no fences and no token is needed to eat this meal. Here in this place, we have chosen to work for the good of all—to welcome all—to stand in solidarity with all. Yes, sometimes we grow weary. Sometimes, even with our best intentions, we are not as faithful as we want to be. But in it all, we try our best to work for the good of all, to stand in solidarity with those whom the world crucifies daily, and to bear one another’s burdens as a way to walk the path that Jesus taught us. It is how we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
It is at this table that we become the “new creation.” And it is at this table that all are welcome.