In my own Christian heritage among the Churches of Christ, one pivotal moment in modern history loomed large over our identity. It was 1801 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, when Barton W. Stone and a group of preachers decided it was time for a revival. They started preaching the gospel and between 10,000-20,000 people showed up during the course of the revival. For context, that’s nearly 10% of the population of Kentucky in 1801!
However, the revival that started on a Friday night developed a typical Protestant problem on Sunday morning when it was time for communion. Barton Stone and the host church were Presbyterian, but there were also Methodists and Baptists there - none of whom would serve or partake in communion together. Methodists did not commune with Baptists. Baptists did not commune with Presbyterians. Presbyterians did not commune with Methodists.
Until they did.
On Sunday, August 8, 1801, about 1,100 believers sat together in the Kentucky woods and took communion together, and nobody asked which one was Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. They shared the table of the Lord as believers.
Long before that, Jesus promised that events like this would take place anywhere the gospel went. In Luke 13:29, he says, “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” That is the vision Jesus had for his church. His church welcomes all.
In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus is invited to a banquet and uses that opportunity to further his description of the vision he had for his people. The first part began as people came to the banquet and took their seats.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11)
The first thing Jesus taught was that any church that wanted to be his church would honor humility, not pride. Christ’s church shouldnever be a meeting of the local self-righteous club. It should never be people who turn to their host and say, “You are lucky I’m here!” Christ’s church should be people who know they are unworthy of the honor that is bestowed on them at Christ’s table.
Jesus continued his parable by turning to his host at the banquet.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12–14)
A banquet is ordinarily a place to show off. A feast is a place to be impressed and be impressive. But Christ’s people welcome without expectation. They do not welcome others because of what they can get from them. If we are his church and this is his table and his feast, then our most honored guests are those who can offer nothing. Our most uniting characteristic would be that none of us belong here but all of us were welcomed here.
Finally, to double down on his message and his vision, Christ proceeds to tell a memorable parable, once more about a feast.
When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’ ” (Luke 14:15–24)
There is a feast being set by our Lord Jesus Christ. A lot of people in this world have been invited and have had every opportunity to come. Instead, they have found reasons not to be at the table. Some have investments. “I have bought a field and must go out and see it.” Some have work. “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I got to examine them.” Some have family obligations. “I have married a wife.” Whatever the reason, Jesus calls them all excuses, and so they are excused.
But he has the feast anyway.
He has the feast anyway and only had to change the guest list. To the streets and lanes he sent his message. To the highways and hedges he took his invitation. He invited the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, and he compelled them to his table. He said none of the others would taste his banquet. But these unworthy, unfortunate, unwanted, uninvited guests would.
We are not the hosts of the feast. We do not determine the terms. We do not invite the guests. Nor are we the invited guests who found reasons not to come. If we were, we wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t let us in! We aren’t even the servant sent to the highways and byways in search of guests.
We are the uninvited guests at Christ’s table. We don’t belong here. We are unworthy of this table. We have no say in it. We have no right. We have nothing but the grace of God allowing us to be here at all.
When you are pondering what a church should be, remember the parable of the banquet. Be a church that knows and shows that we are the uninvited guests at Christ’s table. Be people who welcome every wanderer to this table without expectation because we know that is how we got here. Be a church that goes out of our way to be welcoming to exactly the person who doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere else.
We are the island of misfit toys! We are the uninvited guests at Christ’s table. And wanderers are welcome here.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.