Saturday, January 14, 2012

Laodicea & The Church's Meal Table (part 4 of 5)

As it relates to those who are informed about their wretchedness, poverty, blindness, and lack of clothes, is this not the example of that early Christian hymn employed by Paul in the letter to the Philippians?  It is quite probable that the hymn would have been well known to the church at Laodicea, and it’s presentation of an exalted Jesus (in the form of God---the Jewish context providing the background for this, as the expected Messiah, and therefore Jesus, was thought to be the physical manifestation of Israel’s God) willfully emptying Himself to take on the form of a slave and going to the lowest of the world’s low places (the cross) before receiving His exaltation (His Resurrection and His rule).  If we rightly understand the use of “first as last” and “last as first” terminology within the world of Jesus and the early church, take into consideration how a banqueting table provided information about the community that participated at the banquet, and rightly apply the Jewish worldview that Jesus presented and by which the church developed, then we can see that mimicking this pattern is Jesus’ expectation. 

If Jesus, as the first, becomes last, ultimately becoming first again in relation to the kingdom of God, then so too should all that claim Him as Lord and thereby signal a participation in that kingdom, willfully become last, thereby becoming first (in a sense) because they represent the kingdom of the Creator God.  Though this will continue to have the appearance of being last to a watching world, they also become first because of the kingdom that is now at work and because of the resurrection to come.  Here, in order to make a bit more sense of these thoughts, we can bring in a statement from the first chapter of Revelation, as the recipients of the writing are reminded that Jesus “has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving His God and Father” (1:6a).     

It is this issue of becoming last---a servant of all and a slave of all---that makes it so difficult for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God, and it is this component of the Jesus tradition (probably being circulated in a standardized, written format at the time of the writing of the Revelation), that is providing context for Jesus’ chastisement of this church that is located in an extraordinarily wealthy city.  Based on what we know about Laodicea, its important position, and its wealth, along with the words herein employed within a wider context of the church’s mission and the Jesus tradition, this is not a stretch in the least little bit.  Significantly, we’ve allowed ourselves to stay firmly rooted in the social context, hearing the words of the letter as would the recipients of other New Testament era letters---applying the words to the immediate situation within the church so as to grasp the immediate issues while extracting the wider truths and ethic therein revealed, doing so within the shared and developing Jesus tradition and church doctrine that were fundamentally shaped by Jewish expectations concerning the messianic banquet, the resurrection of the righteous dead, and the kingdom of God on earth.

Taking up the issue of imitating the practice of those that came before them, as did Israel when they entered in upon what was, for all practical purposes, their kingdom of God, and doing so within the context provided by the letter to Laodicea, leads us directly to the meal table.  The history of Israel presents a full engagement in the practices and customs of the previous occupants of their land.  Exile (vomiting out) was the result.  As we consider this, keeping the vomiting in mind along with its Levitical pretense, the context for the letter to Laodicea, together with the context of the honor and shame culture, and the context of the early church’s highly significant development of the Jesus-derived egalitarian meal table as fundamental for faith and practice, leads us by the hand to interpreting the crucial text in the blinding light of the messianic-banquet-infused ideals of the church’s meal table.   

Due to the centrality of the meal table as the tangible demonstration of the presence of the kingdom of God because of the importance of messianic banquet considerations along with the example of Jesus’ table fellowship, important communications in relation to the faith and to their witness for that kingdom would have been heard at a table gathering.  Based on the record of the Gospels and the table-oriented language employed in the New Testament’s letters, this is not far-fetched in the least.  Therefore, this is the setting in which we presume the Laodiceans to have heard the letter addressed to them, and indeed, the setting from which they and the other churches would have heard the whole of the Revelation.  So we can only imagine the perking of the ears when Jesus chastises them in a way that has not really been heard in the previous six letters (though there are chastisements to be sure), and then goes on to say to a kingdom community that, like other churches, properly oriented themselves around the meal table as a primary confession of their adherence to the Gospel, “Listen!  I am standing at the door and knocking!  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with Me” (3:20).  These words would be dreadful to hear, as the listeners would hear Jesus telling them that He is not presently a component of their table fellowship that is supposed to represent the messianic banquet.       

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