by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
When I was a Team Vicar, 25 years ago or so, my church had a car park. Arriving at church on my day off one day I found a man parked in a reserved spot. I pointed this out to him, and his not-unexpected response was “and who the hell are you?” My profoundly inaccurate and unChristian reply? “Listen, you. I’m the Vicar here. I own this church.” As soon as I said it I winced. And I remembered some words of missioner and church planter Kerry Thorpe: “Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’. He made no promise about anybody else’s.”
“I own this church”? Oh, my goodness.
The proprietary attitude of Christian people towards the gifts that God has given us is off-putting, to say the least. Grumpy vicars in car parks are joined by regiments of Christians, ordained and lay, who erect barriers and walls and fences around the extraordinary gift of grace that is the friendship of Jesus, and who presume then to test and examine people who seek to enter, and indeed to examine those already there, to establish whether they are “worthy” to remain. Oh. My. Goodness.
Well, the penalty fits the crime. If you want a small, pure church badly enough, you will certainly get what you want. But be careful what you ask for. It can be lonely, being right about everything. In my Yorkshire youth I was told the story of the man who said to his friend, “The whole world’s crooked except for me and thee. And I’m none too sure about thee”.
By contrast Jesus seems to have welcomed, and sat beside, just about anyone. It’s true that he had a problem with hypocrites and professionally pious writers and legalistic types. But he went to eat, even with them, which is very reassuring for those of us in the House of Bishops. The great Rick Fabian, founding pastor of St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, shared this quotation from the Lutheran Gordon Lathrop with me; ever since he did so it has been a compass-needle for my understanding of mission:
“Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line. At least that is so if we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system.” (1)
Much is said today, and rightly so, about the need for God’s people to be radically hospitable, and to open the door in welcome to to those on the edge of things. I stand by this approach and I spend much of my time advocating for it.
But for the Church to talk of hospitality and welcome can be misleading.
As a bishop I do not own the house I live in. When I go to church, as I shall this evening, I will not own that building either. Nor will I own the imposing and uncomfortable chair which will be offered me to sit in. Most of all I do not own the table at which I will celebrate Communion. It is not my table. It is the Lord’s table. It is not my church, but Jesus’ church – he who said ‘I will build my church’, but who made no promise about anybody else’s.
So it is not for me to welcome people to Jesus’s table, except in the sense that an early guest at a party opens the door to later guests to make sure they can get in. I need to know my place.
And yet even this is not quite right.
Because Jesus didn’t own any tables either. He has built one since, by his Spirit, and we can all sit at it and be welcome, and eat the bread of heaven there. But in his years of ministry on the earth he had nowhere to lay his head. Whenever he sat to eat, it was as a guest at someone else’s table. Zacchaeus, Simon the Pharisee, Mary and Martha, that unnamed person who lent his upper room – they were the hosts.
And Jesus was always a guest, by his own choice.
A guest has no right to fence the table and to say who the other guests will be. A guest shares, and speaks, and listens, and eats, with courtesy and in gratitude. A guest is not in the middle and at the top, but on the edge and underneath. From that place a guest may hear the words of the host, “Friend, come and sit up here”.
And it is as a guest that Jesus – and his Church – does mission.
The late Bishop John V Taylor of Winchester used to speak of christening services in this way: “The family invites us, the Church, to its baptism service. They are the hosts and we attend as guests with our gifts. We are welcome there, and the family are glad when we unwrap our gifts – the gift of the promise of life eternal, the gift of inclusion in the church family, the gift of sharing in God’s word and God’s life. But we do not welcome them. They welcome us. Approach things in this way., and you will be welcome.”
So I try to approach things in this way.
Whose table is it? Not mine, certainly. Not even Jesus’, since he chose to sit as a guest.
It’s the table of the people I meet, the ones I serve and the ones God loves; and I sit there at their invitation, and from there I share what I have been given, when I’m asked.
Isn’t that the mission, and ministry, to which we’re called?
These ideas were tried out at the recent HeartEdge conference, “It’s All Church” – https://heartedge.org. Some of them are unfolded further in Paul’s book “The Table”, to be published in the new year.
1. Gordon Lathrop, “Holy Ground: a Liturgical Cosmology” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003)